The UK’s asylum system is in crisis, but the government – not refugees – is to blame

Kent Police are investigating an attack on a Home Office migrant processing centre in Dover, after incendiary devices were reportedly thrown at the building on Sunday October 30 2022. Reports have said that witnesses at the scene described these devices as petrol bombs, with one found in the car of the person, now deceased, who is reportedly suspected of having carried out the attack.

Just days before the attack, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Neal, told the home affairs select committee that he was left “speechless” by his visit to the Home Office’s short-term holding facility in Manston. He described an “alarming” and “really dangerous situation” of overcrowded and insanitary conditions.

The home secretary, Suella Braverman, has claimed the UK’s asylum system is “broken”, stating that she aims to stop the “invasion of our southern coast”. For the home secretary to blame asylum seekers for a failing system is concerning.

The Manston short-term holding facility for people arriving on small boats awaiting immigration decisions.
PA Images | Alamy

The Manston facility is a “processing site” at an airfield in Kent. Opened in February 2022, on paper it is intended to hold 1,000 people, each for up to five days while they undergo security and identity checks. Neal, however, said he found the camp past “the point of being unsafe”, with 4,000 people now housed there in tented accommodation and for long periods of time. People –- including children –- are sleeping on the floor for weeks.

The facility is fast becoming a public health risk. There have been outbreaks of norovirus, scabies and diphtheria, the latter a highly contagious and normally extremely rare disease in the UK.

In his report on Manston, published on November 1 2022, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor highlights that healthcare processes are lacking, children are being detained for far too long and staff are poorly trained. With a further 700 people moved from Dover to Manston after the Dover attack, we can expect the situation there to get even worse.

This is the latest inappropriate and dangerous quasi-detention centre used to hold asylum seekers in recent years. In 2020, the former military Napier barracks in Folkstone were used for similar purposes.

A House of Lords committee warned of overcrowding, fire risks, “filthy” facilities and buildings so “decrepit” they were deemed unfit for habitation. In June 2021, the high court declared Napier inadequate for housing asylum seekers and found the Home Office guilty of employing unlawful practices.

By law, save for the tiny number of people selected for official resettlement from Ukraine or Afghanistan, to claim refugee status, a person must already be in the UK. Without legal channels available, people seeking protection are forced to make dangerous journeys and enter the country illegally. Contrary to the language employed by the Home Secretary, the 1951 refugee convention stipulates that no one should be penalised for entering a country illegally to seek refuge.

UK policy prescribes that general immigration detention be used for minimal periods, in the last resort and only for (non-vulnerable) adults. Detention in short-term holding facilities is treated slightly differently, but the routine detention of thousands of asylum seekers, including children, for lengthy periods is an aberration of an already problematic practice.

Disproportionate political attention

Detaining asylum seekers as a matter of routine is a new practice in the UK. It has come about as a reaction to the increase in small boats crossing the channel and the lack of asylum accommodation caused by a huge backlog of cases at the Home Office.

The small boats receive disproportionate and inaccurate political and media attention. This includes misrepresenting their occupants as “illegal immigrants”.

In fact, however, these people largely go on to claim –- and are usually granted -– refugee protection. The majority of migrants arriving in small boats, including those from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Eritrea, are found to have genuine protection needs warranting refugee status. This includes women and children. It is important to remember, as I have pointed out that men are also legitimate refugees, despite the feminised imagery of the “genuine refugee”.

A man in a facemask carries a child wearing pink wellies and a hooded coat.
Marcin Nowak | Alamy

It is true that the numbers of people crossing the channel by small boat are unprecedented. Five years ago, 300 people arrived this way. In 2022, there have already been over 30,000.

However, the UK receives just 0.5% of the world’s asylum claims and far fewer than many other European countries. Germany, for example, received nearly 150,000 asylum claims in 2021. These numbers, in turn, are dwarfed by those from countries further afield. Turkey currently hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria alone.

The small boat arrivals are also dwarfed by other groups seeking protection in the UK. The UK has taken in over 133,000 people from Hong Kong and 195,000 from Ukraine.

Irregular arrivals by small boat or lorry account for just a quarter of the total refugee arrivals to the UK. Although the number of asylum applications has risen significantly since 2021, the figure is still close to half that of a decade ago.

A system in crisis

The UK’s asylum system is indeed in crisis, but not because of those making dangerous journeys to seek protection. To suggest that the terrible conditions people face once they arrive in the UK is their own fault is deeply disingenuous. As Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council has put it, it is a crisis “of the government’s own making”.

The number of people forced to wait over six months for an asylum decision has trebled since 2019. The backlog of people awaiting a decision is now a whopping 100,000.

People are waiting years for a resolution, during which they are kept in a dependent limbo of near destitution. They are forbidden from working, forcing them to rely on the Home Office for housing and subsistence. These amounts are tiny: asylum seekers live off £5.80 a day. The overall cost of the asylum system, however, is £1.5 billion a year.

These people have a legal right to claim protection from persecution and they are being failed by the UK government. The implications are dire for both them and the public purse.

And the imperatives are clear. When the home secretary blames asylum seekers for the failings of the system, she not only distracts attention from the real causes, she risks fuelling community tensions, normalising xenophobia and ultimately encouraging far-right extremism.

Rather than ineffective and cruel spectacles, such as threatening to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, the UK needs a functioning asylum system.

Allowing people to live and work in the community while they await asylum decisions would benefit everyone. It would save the huge human and financial costs incurred by overcrowded encampment and forced government dependency.

The government knows that providing safe and legal channels to reach the UK is the ultimate answer. It has shown as much in its response to the war in Ukraine.

The world is turbulent and will only become more so with climate crises. Draconian immigration policies cannot stop people crossing borders. They can only determine how dangerous such journeys are.

You Might Like