Written by Sarah Howden
Last week, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced reforms to the UK asylum system, which she called “the most significant overhaul in decades”. Under the new reforms, asylum claims will be judged not only on the danger an asylum seeker faces in their home country, but on how they arrived in Britain. The reforms, Patel argues, will distinguish between those who enter the UK “lawfully” and those who arrive “illegally”, including “from a safe country like France where you should and could have claimed asylum”. And even after a claim for asylum has been approved, the status of asylum seekers who arrived via “illegal” routes can be reassessed – and withdrawn – at any time.
Conservative MP for West Bromwich and London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey said of the reforms: “Just like my constituents, I’m angry at the images that we’re seeing of small boats coming into the Channel and the sky-rocketing costs of our asylum system.” We at Migrateful are angry, too, but for different reasons.
Painting a misleading picture of asylum seeking
The images of small boats coming into the channel are not a symbol of a “clogged up” asylum system, as Patel describes it. Instead, this dehumanising language is carefully designed to obscure the fact that for many asylum seekers fleeing torture or death in their home countries, there is no “safe and legal” option for reaching the UK. Migration expert Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, argues that it is “misleading to say people have a choice between the legal and illegal route”. “For many people”, she adds, “the clandestine means will be their only way to get to the UK”. And that being the case, would any of us – finding ourselves and our families in life-threatening situations – reject whatever chance we had to escape?
As Refugee Council chief executive Enver Solomon writes, these reforms falsely distinguish between “deserving” and “undeserving” refugees – just as Victorian poor laws used categories of “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor” to limit the number of people the state was required to feed. Under the proposed asylum reforms, those deemed to have fled persecution via ‘improper means’ will never be allowed to regain their sense of stability – even if granted temporary protection status. Instead, they will be reassessed every thirty months for the rest of their lives to determine whether they should be sent back to their country of origin. In essence, this spells a lifelong limbo for people who have already suffered unimaginably.
Distorting international law
These reforms are not just lacking in compassion and humanity. They also have no basis in law. There is nothing in international law to say that refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach. In fact, these reforms could be breaking Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that governments should not “impose penalties” on refugees and asylum seekers who enter a country illegally, provided that they have good cause to be here and present themselves quickly to the authorities on arrival.
Patel insists that the UK’s asylum seeking is “collapsing under the pressure” of “illegal routes to asylum”. And we agree that the current asylum system is not working. At the end of December 2020, 64,895 people were waiting for an outcome on their initial claim for asylum. Of these, 72% have been waiting for more than six months – almost double the figure from the previous year. But the answer isn’t turning away asylum seekers in need of help. In fact, according to the government’s own data, the number of people claiming asylum more than halved between 2002 and 2019, calling into question Shaun Bailey’s rhetoric of “sky-rocketing costs”. And this figure fell again by almost a fifth in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. If a system is “collapsing”, the solution is not to reduce access to it, but to make it fit for purpose. And yet these reforms seek to cut costs by preventing children and adults who have faced horrific suffering from ever truly feeling safe.
We need your help to stop the reforms!
So what can you do to stop the reforms being implemented? Firstly, anyone can sign up to respond to the government’s consultation on the proposed changes. It takes around seven minutes. Secondly, write to your MP asking them to oppose the new reforms. If you have time, craft your own letter rather than using a blanket template. You can find other tips for writing effective letters to your MP here.
Use your platforms to talk to people about the asylum system – through social media, professional networks, conversations with friends and family. You never know who might be listening and how they could help. If you can, support organisations like Refugee Council that campaign for compassionate asylum laws, whether through donating your money, your energy or time.
And finally, stay connected with us all at Migrateful. Read our blog, follow us on social media, come to our cookery classes and hear the incredible stories of our asylum seeker, refugee and migrant chefs rebuilding their lives through recipes. These stories, and thousands of others, reinforce what is already so clear: that there is no such thing as a human “undeserving” of safety.