Whichever side of the debate you are on, we can all agree that the asylum system in Britain is broken, and has been for far too long.
Billions of pounds worth of taxpayers’ money is spent every year, and yet the backlog of cases waiting to be processed — currently standing at more than 170,000 — only gets bigger.
Refugees seeking asylum should not be left living in hotels for months and years on end. Those with genuine claims should be swiftly settled and provided with the means to start a new life in Britain. And if people are found not to be genuine refugees, they should be promptly removed.
Above all, the governing principle of our asylum system must be to treat those in desperate need — men, women and children fleeing bloodshed and terror in places such as Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Eritrea or Ukraine — with fairness, compassion and humanity.
Polling by YouGov shows that most people in Britain are proud of our country’s record of helping people fleeing persecution and conflict. The British people want an asylum system that is controlled, compassionate, competent and fair.
Polling by YouGov shows that most people in Britain are proud of our country’s record of helping people fleeing persecution and conflict
Refugees seeking asylum should not be left living in hotels for months and years on end. Those with genuine claims should be swiftly settled
Sadly, despite the magnitude of the problem, there is an absence of practical solutions on offer from our elected representatives.
Ministers claim the ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ (IMB) is a panacea. The bill, which is set for Royal assent this week, provides new powers to deport anyone who arrives here on small boats by denying them the right to claim asylum, regardless of their circumstance.
But my organisation, the Refugee Council, believes this legislation is a stain on Britain’s proud reputation of supporting those in need. Once the IMB passes into law, anyone who arrives in Britain by irregular means — such as on a small boat — will no longer have a right to claim asylum.
The Government insists that these refugees will be immediately returned to either their country of origin or a third country such as Rwanda. However, with the Rwanda plan having a limited capacity and the impossibility of returning refugees to war-torn nations or places where their lives will be in danger, a significant number of people will have to be detained here in the UK. We estimate that the cost of this mass incarceration will be up to £9.6 billion over the first three years alone.
And this is all before we consider that removing an individual’s right to claim asylum is in contravention of UK human rights law, as MPs and peers have vociferously pointed out.
We are not against enforcement. Stopping people from making the dangerous journey across the Channel in ill-equipped vessels is a good thing. But the IMB is not only immoral, it won’t work. Whatever spin is put on it, the Government’s plan will not stop irregular migration because they aren’t offering any safe and legal alternatives, such as a refugee visa, our proposals for which I will come to.
The Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world. No one makes the journey from French beaches in flimsy dinghies without good reason. These are desperate people, determined to reach a country where they might live and work in peace, and where many have historical or familial ties. If a treacherous crossing remains the only option, people will continue to roll that dice.
If people are found not to be genuine refugees, they should be promptly removed instead of living in hotels
A small boat packed with people is rescued in English waters by BF Defender
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman visits Bwiza Riverside Houses in Kigali, Rwanda on March 18
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak onboard Border Agency cutter HMC Seeker during a visit to Dover, ahead of a press conference at Western Jet Foil
Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, has insisted the Government is not planning any further compromises over its plan to tackle small boat crossings
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, after being rescued by a Border Force vessel
Another problem with the Government’s approach is how it discriminates against people from different parts of the world. We stepped in to help those fleeing the war in Ukraine, and quite right too. And although the scheme was and remains flawed, there were also special measures to bring Afghans in danger from the Taliban to Britain.
And yet the Government has made no similar effort to help those trying to escape the brutal civil war in Sudan, an English-speaking nation that was once part of the British empire. A Sudanese family desperately trying to reach the UK can only realistically do so by making a perilous journey. That fails the fairness test in a quite significant way.
What makes the Sudanese conflict different to that in Ukraine? Bombed homes are bombed homes no matter where they are. Families torn apart are families torn apart, no matter the nationality.
But I want to focus on solutions. The refugee crisis globally is only going to get more severe over the coming years, so let Britain be a world-leader by rising to the challenge with courage and humanity.
There are practical and pragmatic steps that can be taken to deliver long-lasting and effective change, change that will offer hope to those in need and relieve pressure on resources.
We want to work constructively with the Government to reshape our asylum system and make it fit for purpose.
This is why we are proposing a new National Refugee Strategy. An approach that would balance the need to control our borders with a commitment to treating people with compassion and respect.
To reduce the number of people making dangerous journeys to get here, we would create refugee visas which will enable asylum seekers to travel safely — via typical commercial routes — to Britain, where they can have their cases heard.
Migrants who arrived since March 7 face bans on re-entering the UK and will be excluded from gaining settlement or citizenship in this country
To obtain a visa, refugees would visit a British embassy or a Visa Application Centre set up deliberately near the conflict from which they are escaping. As shown in Ukraine, where 200,000 applied for a special visa, such a system can work. The Embassy would do a background check before issuing a visa for travel. On arrival in the UK, the visa holder would formally apply to be granted asylum. The numbers of these visas issued each year could be capped at 10,000 in a pilot scheme, with some leeway for unexpected humanitarian crises.
Of course, such a programme would come with a cost. The current backlog in asylum cases is costing £7 million each day. So by addressing that, it would free up a significant portion of the Home Office budget.
But how do we address the backlog of cases?
Rishi Sunak — who has pledged to tackle the issue this year — needs to establish a new system to ensure those cases gridlocked for years are dealt with. The way to do this is by prioritising the least complicated cases and progress is being made. Cases should be fast tracked to those whose applications will almost certainly be approved. Applications from Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan, for instance, have an 80 per cent approval rate and there are currently 54,000 outstanding cases from those countries.
The process should also be expedited for the estimated 3,500 children hoping to claim asylum. By tackling the most straightforward cases first, the Home Office can free up vital resources to further boost a dedicated unit to then tackle the more complicated cases, especially those waiting more than three years: 10,000 people on the latest statistics.
Ministers have made some welcome progress in this area, having recently quietly announced some changes which will help many of those stuck in the backlog to get their cases assessed quicker than expected. We need more of that, please.
The refugee crisis is a global humanitarian disaster. Millions of people are displaced. And yet again, Britain is asking itself a simple but important question: just what is our role as a country in supporting refugees?
Our role is what we dare to make of it. Through moral and practical leadership, by introducing a system that is cheaper, fairer and faster, Britain can lead the way in tackling one of the biggest global challenges of the century.