The Covid-19 pandemic appears to be fundamentally altering how migrants and asylum seekers arrive in the UK … and how the UK responds to these arrivals. So far this year, some 7,000 people have arrived irregularly on small boats that have made the perilous crossing of the Channel–more than three times the number during all of 2019–which appears to be driven at least in part by the decreasing volume of lorry traffic in and out of the country (see the 27 August 2020 update). Last month, UK authorities announced plans to repurpose Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre to boost its capacity to accommodate people intercepted while attempting this crossing (see 27 August United Kingdom update on this platform).
While these developments have drawn widespread attention, the Home Office has also been seeking to redesign the functioning of the country’s asylum system. On 1 October 2020, the Guardian reported on leaked documents revealing that trials have taken place to test a blockade in the Channel, similar to Australia’s controversial “turn back the boats” tactic. The document states that “trails are currently underway to test a ‘blockade’ tactic in the Channel on the median line between French and UK waters, akin to the Australian ‘turn back’ tactic, whereby migrant boats would be physically prevented (most likely by one or more UK RHIBs, rigid hull inflatable boats, from entering UK waters.” The UK government said it would not comment on the leaked measures but said that they would soon bring forward ‘a package of measures’ to address illegal migration once the UK has left the EU.”
On 30 September, the Guardian reported that the UK government was considering the option of sending asylum seekers to Moldova, Morocco, or Papua New Guinea. Documents seen by the Guardian detailed proposals to hold refugees in offshore detention centres. However, the documents suggest that officials in the Foreign Office have been resisting the government’s proposals to process asylum applications in detention facilities overseas. The documents also reportedly contained suggestions on the construction of detention centres on the islands of Ascension and St. Helena. The documents, marked “official” and “sensitive” summarise advice from Foreign Office officials, which had been asked to “offer advice on possible options for negotiating an offshore asylum processing facility similar to the Australian model in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.” The Australian system has attracted criticism from human rights groups, the United Nations, and even the UK government. According to the documents seen by the Guardian, British ministers have privately raised concerns with Australia over the abuse of detainees in its offshore detention facilities.”
On 30 September, Home Secretary Priti Patel asked officials to consider processing asylum seekers at Ascension and St. Helena. Home Office sources were quick to distance themselves from the proposals and the UK government has also played down both islands as destinations for asylum processing centres. However, the documents seen by the Guardian seem to suggest that the government had been working on “detailed plans” that include cost estimates of building camps, as well as other proposals to build facilities in Moldova, Morocco, and Papua New Guinea.
The UK’s proposal seems to go further than Australia’s system, which is based on migrants being intercepted while outside national waters. The UK documents state that its proposal would involve relocating asylum seekers who “have arrived in the UK and are firmly within the jurisdiction of the UK for the purposes of the ECHR and Human Rights Act 1998.” In addition, the documents suggest that the idea of third country destinations for UK asylum processing centres came directly from Downing Street and the request for advice reportedly came from “the PM.” The Times also reported that the government was giving serious consideration to the idea of creating floating asylum centres in disused ferries moored off the UK coast.
Nonetheless, the Foreign Office advice contained in the documents appears to be highly dismissive of the ideas emanating from Downing Street, citing legal, practical, and diplomatic obstacles to processing asylum seekers overseas. The documents highlight that:
Plans to process asylum seekers in Ascension or St Helena would be “extremely expensive and logistically complicated.” The estimated cost is £220m per 1,000 beds and running costs of £200m. One document adds that: “in relation to St Helena, we will need to consider if we are willing to impose the plan if the local government object.”
Legal, diplomatic, and practical obstacles to the plan include the existence of “sensitive military installations” on the island of Ascension. Military issues mean that the “US government would need to be persuaded at the highest levels, and even then success cannot be guaranteed.”
It is “highly unlikely” that any north African state would agree to hosting asylum seekers relocated to the UK.
Seeming to dismiss the idea of sending asylum seekers to Moldova, Foreign Office officials pointed out that there is a conflict over Transnistria as well as endemic corruption. In consequence, “if an asylum centre depended on reliable, transparent, credible cooperation from the host country justice system, we would not be able to rely on this.”
Foreign Office officials also warned of “significant political and logistical obstacles” to sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea including that the country is more than 8,500 miles away, has a fragile public health system and is “one of the bottom few countries in the world in terms of medical personnel per head of population.”
A Whitehall source familiar with the government plans stated that the plans were part of a push by the government to “radically beef-up the hostile environment” in 2021 following the end of the Brexit transition. The source said that the government is seeking to adopt policies that would “discourage” and “deter” migrants from entering the UK irregularly, similarly to Theresa May’s “hostile environment”, which is no longer being used in government.
The documents seen by the Guardian contain legal advice from the Home Office to Downing Street. The advice states that the policy would require legislative changes, including “disapplying sections 77 and 78 of the Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 so that asylum seekers can be removed from the UK while their claim or appeal is pending.”
On 30 September, when asked about the UK’s plans to ship asylum seekers to the south Atlantic for processing, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson confirmed that the UK was considering Australian-style offshore processing centres. He stated that the UK had a “long and proud history” of accepting asylum seekers but needed to act, particularly due to many migrants making unofficial crossings from France in small boats.
The UK government plans have been strongly criticised by experts familiar with Australia’s immigration policies stating that the plan risks creating a fresh “human rights disaster.” Elaine Pearson, Australia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that the Australian experience of offshore processing has been “a human rights disaster” that was still causing suffering.
Despite the criticism, the top civil servant at the Home Office said that “all options are on the table” for the migration system, responding to reports that officials were asked to consider proposals to hold refugees in offshore detention centres. Matthew Rycroft, the department’s permanent secretary, said that the Cabinet Office would lead an inquiry into the leak of documents. Rycroft stated that the aim of the exercise was to improve “our system of asylum so we can continue to provide the protection to those who need it in accordance with our international obligations and to make sure the system is not being abused.”
- P. Lewis, D. Pegg, P. Walker, and H. Stewart, “Revealed: No 10 Explores Sending Asylum Seekers to Moldova, Morocco, and Papua New Guinea,” The Guardian, 30 September 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/sep/30/revealed-no-10-explores-sending-asylum-seekers-to-moldova-morocco-and-papua-new-guinea
- P. Walker and J. Murray, “Priti Patel Looked at Idea of Sending Asylum Seekers to South Atlantic,” The Guardian, 30 September 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/sep/30/priti-patel-looked-at-idea-of-sending-asylum-seekers-to-south-atlantic
- H. Davidson, “UK Offshore Detention Proposal Could Create ‘Human Rights Disaster’, Australian Experts Warn,” The Guardian, 1 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/oct/01/uk-offshore-detention-proposal-could-create-human-rights-disaster-australian-experts-warn
- J. Grierson, “UK Asylum Detention: Top Civil Servant Says ‘All Options on the Table’,” The Guardian, 1 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/oct/01/uk-asylum-detention-top-civil-servant-says-all-options-on-the-table
- J. Grierson and J. Elgot, “UK Tested Channel ‘Blockade’ to Deter Migrants, Leak Reveals,” 1 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/oct/01/uk-tested-channel-blockade-to-deter-migrants-leak-reveals
- Border Force Officials Recover Dinghy After Migrants Landed on Deal Beach, (Luke Dray, Getty Images, “UK Tested Channel ‘Blockade’ to Deter Migrants, Leak Reveals,” The Guardian, 1 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/oct/01/uk-tested-channel-blockade-to-deter-migrants-leak-reveals)