Why the new asylum bill is one of the worst pieces of legislation enacted by the government

'The Conservatives have clearly decided that a harsh asylum policy will play for them at the next election.'


Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser 

Rishi Sunak’s new asylum bill puts him most at odds with the UK’s international commitments and Western democracies.

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines who a refugee is and what protection they should receive without discrimination. This includes protection from being rejected at state borders and for being punished for entering a country without permission. The convention enables people to seek protection without having to ask for permission first.

Sunak’s bill removes these rights and protections.

Under existing legislation from 2021, itself draconian compared to previous versions, the Home Secretary has a power, but not a duty, to deem an asylum claim inadmissible if the applicant has a connection to a safe third country.

Guidance gives Home Office case workers six months to get an agreement, with some extensions. If they don’t, then the claim is processed in the UK. This adds a costly and unnecessary delay but eventually the case is heard. This is what happens in the vast cases because the UK does not have removal agreements in place.

Sunak’s bill goes much further. It removes any requirement to have an agreed removal in place; instead the Home Secretary must declare the application inadmissible. Anyone who is covered by the bill will never have their asylum claim heard in the UK, no matter how strong that claim might be.

The scope is broad. It creates a duty on the Home Secretary to arrange the removal of anyone who meets four criteria: arrival in breach of immigration rules; arrival on or after 7 March 2023; indirect travel; no leave to remain.

This will capture most asylum seekers, not only those who arrive by small boat. Most refugees cannot get a visa to travel to the UK and are already displaced from their own country before they come. They will travel irregularly and come under this bill.

Even were it feasible for the UK to reject refugees and return them to a third country or their country of origin this would remove the UK from its obligations to people seeking asylum.

But this bill is not remotely feasible. It creates an obligation on the Home Secretary to remove tens of thousands of people from the UK every year but creates no means to do so.

Given the Home Office will not have reviewed people’s asylum claims it will not be able to determine whether it is safe to return someone to their own country.

In 2022, 83% of people who crossed the channel came from just seven countries. Of those seven the UK has a return agreement with just one             – Albania. Even that is not without issue; in 2022 85% of Albanian women and 87% of children applying for asylum were successful. Under this bill those claims would not have been processed; they would be at risk of being returned.

The bill makes provision for nationals of other countries to be removed to one of 57 countries, unless that country is their own country of origin. But the UK only has a removal agreement for third country nationals (i.e. not that country’s own nationals) with one country of that 57 – Rwanda – which still faces legal hurdles which even if it passes will only take around 200 people.        

The result will be tens of thousands of people present indefinitely in the UK with no right to claim asylum. The Home Office will not be able to remove people; there is nowhere to remove them to. They won’t – until legislation is changed – have their claims heard.

There is no benefit to asylum seekers here – people who come to seek a new life will be denied the right to even make their claim, never mind gain status, get a job, build a life and contribute to British life, economy and society.

There is no benefit to the state – people who would have failed in their claim and could potentially have been returned to their home country will not even have their claims heard. The Home Office could be stuck housing people it could refuse and send home if they actually processed claims.

If the Home Office refuses to accommodate those same people will be left destitute, dependent perhaps on emergency council support and charity.

The question then is why Sunak and his Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, are doing this.

Braverman may be genuine in her belief that the news of her harsh policy will spread to France and beyond, preventing people making the journey. Yet the Home Office’s own research showed that people have very little understanding of asylum policies in various countries. Instead the reasons for trying to get to the UK are often to do with family and other considerations.

This bill is perhaps one of the worst pieces of legislation enacted by this government or any other. In addition to denying vulnerable people the right to seek asylum it severely undermines the Modern Slavery Act by exempting survivors from its protections, undoes case and common law protections against prolonged detention and disapplies vital elements of the Human Rights Act.

It ought to shame the politicians who put it before parliament and the MPs who voted it through. It will not work. It removes the UK’s responsibility to obey international agreements to which we are signatories. It will harm tens of thousands of lives and cost the state millions.

We urgently need a renewed debate on asylum and refugee policy in the UK, one that recognises our responsibility to people in need and to other nations in Europe in which people seek refuge. The UK ought to be part of a Europe-wide system that shares responsibility equally, and which enables safe travel for those who wish to claim asylum in the UK for family or other reasons.

To its credit, Labour proposes a more comprehensive and compassionate response to small boat crossings.

In power Labour would fast track claims from “safe countries” to ensure quicker returns and invest in the asylum system to process claims more quickly; scrap the Government’s scheme for deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda and use the money to launch a new National Crime Agency (NCA) cell specifically to tackle people smugglers; and reform resettlement schemes for families looking to be united, negotiate new agreements for family reunions and returns, and prioritise addressing international humanitarian crises that lead to people fleeing their homes.

Even before Sunak’s bill becomes law the system is broken. It takes an average two years for asylum claims to be processed. In Germany it takes a month. The result is a backlog of 160,000 people, often housed in hotels and other short term accommodation, a poor outcome for asylum seekers and local communities.

The Conservatives have clearly decided that a harsh asylum policy will play for them at the next election. In doing so they have chosen to damage tens of thousands of lives while failing to create a credible, functional system.

Both asylum seekers and the British public deserve better.

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