In depth: The real story behind Priti Patel’s refugee plans

The UK's asylum system leaves those seeking protection with no choice but to use people smugglers - and it's about to get worse.

Charlie Jay is a freelance journalist with an interest in civil liberties.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Refugee Convention, an international human rights legal document, which defines the term ‘refugee’ and outlines their rights, as well as the legal obligations of States to protect them.

However, instead of celebrating this milestone, the Home Office has recently launched a public consultation on its ‘New Plan for Immigration’, which has been widely criticised by humanitarian groups.

They claim it will create a two- tier system, as it discriminates between refugees depending on how they arrive in the UK. Those coming here through formal resettlement routes will be given the right to remain permanently – whereas those arriving to claim asylum using other irregular routes, if successful, will be given ‘temporary protection status’, meaning their life is in limbo as they are always at risk of removal, and have limited access to benefits and family reunion rights.

Cuts to legal aid and local authority services, as a result of austerity from the financial crisis of 2008, have decimated refugee advice services over the past 13 years.

Head in the sand

As a result, Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU), set up over 30 years ago, is the only not for profit organisation left in the North- West providing free legal services to people subjected to immigration control. The organisation supports many refugees and people seeking asylum, including over 200 children, arriving almost entirely through routes other than resettlement.

Amanda Shah, Senior Policy Officer at GMIAU, told LFF: “It’s almost as if Priti Patel has made an announcement she’s running a global travel firm, rather than dealing with refugee protection. We would expect her to be talking about routes to safety, and honouring our international obligations, but she has turned this into a discussion about modes of transport…that’s got absolutely nothing to do with international protection.”

Shah added that the 1951 Refugee Convention makes clear that there are no ‘illegal routes’: “Everyone in need of protection can claim asylum, so the legality of these proposals is questionable. The proposals don’t speak to the reality of how people live.

“In Priti’s world, if you’re trying to seek protection from the Taliban, you would go to the police station and say ‘I don’t like how you’re treating me. Please can you give me a passport and let me get on a plane so I can leave’- this is a ridiculous concept.”

Legal routes demolished

The tragedy is that the safe and so called ‘legal’ ways available to come into the country have diminished, Shah says: “If people are desperate because they are seeking safety from the government or a war zone, and you are creating categories of deserving and undeserving people, you are pushing people into the hands of people smugglers, because they have no other choice.”

“The people we work with have had to travel by foot over the mountains, through Europe on the back of lorries, and then had to smuggle themselves over from France, on ferries. They are extremely vulnerable, but are exactly the kind of people that this government’s policies are looking to demonise. We are really worried.”

Lack of available options mean refugees travelling to the UK often have no reasonable alternatives but to risk their lives.

Currently the only safe and ‘legal’ routes into the UK for those recognised as refugees are through the Resettlement Scheme, or applying for refugee family reunion. But if the new proposals go ahead, the Resettlement Scheme may be the only one.

The other routes, particularly covering entry into the country by children, were hinged on European law. They have fallen apart due to Brexit.

Barely a trickle

It is worth remembering that people cannot choose to be part of the Resettlement Scheme. Instead, agencies such as the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) select and allocate people, such as those in refugee camps, to travel to the UK to claim asylum.

In 2020, just under 23,000 were resettled globally, by UNHCR, but there are currently nearly 1.5 million still in need of resettlement.

Migrant Voice, a migrant-led organisation working to amplify migrant voices in the community, is calling for more legal and safe routes and for an improvement on existing resettlement routes.

According to its Director, Nazek Ramadan, the main issue with resettlement is that so few are helped. Just 1% of those who need it and who are recognised by the United Nations get resettled. The other 99% are left abandoned for years in harsh conditions.

“From years of working with asylum seekers and refugees, we know that currently it is near impossible to find ‘legal’ routes. Planned resettlement has been mentioned as an option and can and does work, but is also fraught with problems, and only a small fraction of those who need sanctuary can use it. It’s not yet a viable route, as it takes years and leaves people living in very precarious and sometimes life-threatening situations in the camps,” Migrant Voice’s director said.

Cuts to come

The organisation fears the government will use its so-called New Plan for Immigration to severely reduce the number of people accessing protection in the UK, and create offshore asylum processing centres that leave vulnerable people stuck in precarious, uncertain situations for years.

The measures claim to aim at reducing unsafe crossings using smugglers. Yet Migrant Voice knows from its members that when you are trying to join family in the UK you will make whatever journey, under any circumstances.

“The proposed rules would not have stopped the father wanting to join his wife and three children in Scotland even though he passed through Italy on his way and was told he had to return there. Or the teenager in France refused permission to join her parents in Britain. Or the Iranian, one of many smuggled to the UK, who wasn’t told of their final destination.

 “People who are oppressed, desperate and fleeing for their life, will not know the details of British regulations,” Nazek Ramadan said.

Direct experience

One such person is Gulwali Passarlay, internationally renowned author of The Lightless Sky and an Afghan political refugee. In 2007, at the age of 12 he left his home and family and travelled 12,000 miles, through 10 different countries to reach the safety of the UK, but once here, he was faced with a great deal of hostility. He has not seen his mother for 14 years.

“My age was disputed, so was my nationality. I was in a state of uncertainty for such a long time-the Home Office kept delaying matters, and I was granted temporary status for about five years, before I got refugee status.

“These things happen all the time, but now they will occur at an official policy level, which is really concerning,” he said.

“The Home Office has been trying to make preventative policies for the past 30 years, but it hasn’t worked. We have to find an alternative solution to what’s happening…Why can’t we allow [people] to claim a humanitarian visa, instead of having to set foot on UK soil before being able to claim asylum?”

People only cross the Channel in small boats and take desperate measures because of UK government policies, Passarlay says: “These people don’t leave their homes, countries and loved ones for no reason, but because of conflict, persecution, injustice and oppression, and in many cases, Britain has something to do with it.

 “The very least the government can do is treat them with dignity and respect, and not as criminals.”

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