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Our asylum system should be designed to protect, not to punish: PHF responds to the Government’s New Plan for Immigration

As organisations sign-up for the #TogetherforRefugees campaign for a kinder, fairer and more effective approach to supporting refugees in the UK and in advance of tomorrow’s Queen’s speech, Alex Sutton, Head of Programme – Migration and Integration and Kamna Muralidharan, Policy and Projects Officer at Paul Hamlyn Foundation, share their concerns about the Government’s New Plan for Immigration

The New Plan for Immigration that was published at the end of March sets out the Government’s proposals to change the way people seeking asylum in the UK are treated. For anyone that works in the area of migration or asylum, new government plans are nothing new – we’ve seen 14 new Acts in the past 28 years, averaging a new Bill every two years. Given the length of time it takes for a Bill to pass through parliament, organisations barely have time to deal with the consequence of a new piece of legislation for the people they support, before being confronted with new plans generally aimed at making the immigration system ‘firmer’ or ‘fairer’ (read more complex and punitive with less support and recourse).

This plan continues in that vein and while there is little here that is new, rehashing previously tried and failed hostile policies, the overall impact of the suite of proposals still manages to shock in their cumulative intent. The plan has rightly come under heavy criticism from migration and refugee organisations, including many of the organisations we support through the Shared Ground Fund, both for its content as well as for selective and misleading use of data (the plan only references one piece of academic research), and the failure to engage with people with lived experience of seeking asylum.

A public consultation was opened on 24 March 2021, carried out by Britain Thinks on behalf of the Home Office.  Despite Government guidelines that consultations should run for a 12 week period, the consultation for this 52 page document was only open for six weeks, during a particularly crowded period with holidays and local elections. This comes after a similarly short period was set for a recent consultation on significant reforms to judicial review, also criticised for being based on questionable evidence.  In addition, the questions in the immigration plan consultation focused on whether the proposals are effective in achieving the aims of the Government rather than on the merit of the proposals themselves, and often only offered multiple choice responses without space for meaningful feedback.

It is widely expected that the Government will bring forward its proposed legislation in tomorrow’s Queen’s speech, a mere four days after the close of the consultation, though significant aspects of the plan will not require new laws. Those concerned about the right to asylum and access to justice face a challenging period trying to raise concerns in parliament and clarify the proposals, many of which are contradictory and lacking detail.

What are the proposals and what are our concerns?

The new plan rests on a simple, but flawed, premise; that the establishment of formal resettlement routes combined with differentiated (and much harsher) treatment of asylum seekers that arrive outside of these routes, will deter and reduce spontaneous arrivals.

Essentially this means the creation of a two-tier system where people seeking refuge are granted different rights and status based on how they arrived in the UK. Caseworkers will pay more attention to how someone has arrived in the UK rather than the merits of their case. Those that arrive through irregular means and are recognised as refugees will receive ‘temporary protection status’ for 30 months, will have No Recourse to Public Funds, and have limited family reunion rights. There is an inherent contradiction in this policy: it claims it will reduce unmeritorious claims from people arriving through ‘irregular’ means, yet implicitly recognises people arriving through these will have genuine claims through the award of a punitive temporary status.

The Foreword to the plan sets out how “Global Britain” takes “pride in fulfilling our moral responsibility to support refugees fleeing peril around the world”, however, the proposals do nothing to address the root causes of why people are forced to take dangerous journeys to safety. While resettlement is an important part of our protection system it is not available to all those escaping persecution; it is more suited for conflicts but more difficult to access for those escaping persecution due to their membership of a particular social group (e.g. members of the LGBTQI+ community) or political opinion. Our response made clear that all those recognised as refugees should be offered safety and security through indefinite status.

The government’s plan puts forward proposals to introduce a more rigorous standard for testing whether someone has a well-founded fear of persecution, and the use of reception centres to accommodate people while their asylum claims are being processed. It opens up the possibility of asylum seekers being processed in offshore centres (a proposal based on Australia’s practice of detaining people seeking asylum on the islands of Manus and Nauru which has been widely condemned for systemic abuses and human rights violations).

In our response to the consultation, we made clear that far from creating a fairer or more humane asylum process, we believe these proposals will increase the complexity of the asylum process, hinder integration, increase delays and harm to individuals, while increasing asylum backlogs at the Home Office. In addition to being inhumane and costly, we noted they are also unworkable; the intention of returning asylum claimants to ‘safe’ third countries with no return agreements in place simply adds delay to an already lengthy process all the while inflicting further anguish and harm on individuals. We suggested the Government would be better served engaging with the proposals of organisations like the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) on Safe and Legal Routes, Safe Passage on family reunion, or Refugee Action’s vision for a fair and effective asylum system.

Other proposals included in the plan seek to create additional barriers to justice for people seeking asylum and are likely to increase destitution, including amongst families with children, and restrict access to asylum support which will increase homelessness and poverty amongst people seeking refugee protection, including children. Numerous reports have not only highlighted the inhumanity of this approach, but equally the fact that ‘hostile environment’ measures are not effective even on the Government’s own terms. Enforced homelessness and poverty should never be a built-in feature of the UK’s asylum system; our asylum system should be designed to protect, not to punish.

The organisations we fund have for a long time dealt with the very high human cost of this approach to immigration policy. Paul Hamlyn Foundation remains steadfast in our commitment to supporting the vital work they do to provide essential services, hold Government to account and campaign for a system that reflects our better selves; values of justice, kindness, and humanity. The  impact of the proposed changes will be disproportionately felt by women, Black and minoritised communities and those at the intersections of marginalised identities and will rob people of the opportunity to live with dignity. We know we can do much better than this.

We would like to thank the many organisations we fund who provided research, evidence and briefings to support independent responses to this consultation, including Asylum Matters, Detention Action, Freedom from Torture, the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI),  Migrants Organise and Women for Refugee Women.