In a Parliamentary Ministerial Statement today, 13th December, the Prime Minister dramatically announced government plans for further hostilities in the asylum system including: militarising the Channel, employing heavy-handed immigration enforcement in British communities; resuming data-sharing immigration enforcement agreements that were paused in the wake of the ‘Windrush’ scandal; expanding the use of institutional asylum accommodation; making it harder for victims of modern slavery to gain recognition; and imposing blanket refusals on Albanians seeking asylum. He concluded his announcement by reaffirming plans for new legislation that would deny asylum to anyone not coming through “safe and legal” routes.
The announcement is the latest in a string of developments, including the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, aimed at punishing refugees for how they travel to seek protection, creating barriers to asylum, and deepening the hostile environment, and follows a number of ministerial statements specifically attacking Albanian asylum seekers. Some opposition parliamentarians opined that the statements contained no genuine solutions to the backlog of asylum cases.
Megan Knowles, JRS UK’s Interim Deputy Director, said: “Today, the government once again demonstrated its commitment to performative cruelty towards, and scapegoating of, refugees. This latest announcement follows decades of an asylum system that has let down refugees, and recent policy and legislation designed to punish them for the realities of being displaced. Our asylum system continually lets down people in need of protection. Finding more ways to criminalise, punish, and exclude refugees is a distraction from real issues – and it is a dangerous distraction for which human beings, our sisters and brothers, will pay the price.”
The government’s announcement contrasts sharply with statements made by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a House of Lords debate on UK refugee and asylum policy on Friday. The Archbishop lamented successive government’s inhumane approach to refugees: “When we fail to challenge the harmful rhetoric that refugees are the cause of this country’s ills—that they should be treated as problems and not people, invaders to be tackled and deterred—we deny the essential value and dignity of fellow human beings. The right to seek asylum and the duty of the global community together to protect refugees has been politically degraded in this country, when it should be a positive source of pride.” He went on to excoriate the government’s policy to send refugees to Rwanda.
Megan continued: “Refugees travel however they can, and there are vanishing formal ways to do so. The few formally recognised safe routes there are require someone to visit an embassy outside of the UK first. When hit, people fleeing for their lives aren’t able to stop off at embassies – we saw this as people fled Afghanistan, and continue to flee Ukraine.”
The top nationalities of people making small boat crossings include Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria and Iran, according to Home Office statistics published in August 2022. In the year ending September 2022, according to government statistics, only 1,391 people were granted protection through resettlement schemes, which are only accessible to people from a handful of selected countries. The Home Secretary recently admitted to the Home Affairs Select Committee that in many cases would have to come to the UK informally and claim asylum in order to get sanctuary here.
Megan continued: “To deny asylum to people arriving informally – utilising incredible human strength and resilience – is to abandon our duty to refugees, and abandon our recognition of human dignity. To do so when there are no formal routes is not only doubly wrong – it is cravenly dishonest. Higher walls and policing and imprisoning people in search of safety will not stop them making dangerous journeys when they have no other choice.”
Data-sharing between public and private bodies and immigration enforcement, and criminalisation of informal working, are part of the government’s longstanding policy to create a ‘hostile environment’ for those refused asylum and those without immigration documents. Data-sharing with banks was specifically paused in the wake of the ‘Windrush’ scandal after it was revealed it had been instrumental in destroying the lives of many British citizens.
On Friday, the Archbishop of Canterbury explicitly attacked the hostile environment, saying: “Recognition of human dignity is the first principle that must underpin our asylum policy. A hostile environment is an immoral environment.”
As government policy and the national conversation around refugees becomes increasingly hostile and divisive, all of us at JRS need your support more than ever to enable us to increase our response, to fight for the rights of all refugees, and to give people the strength and confidence to build a new life in the UK.