There is still no way of deporting refugees from the UK to other countries, the Home Office confirmed, despite this being a major component of its asylum overhaul announced recently.
Priti Patel announced new measures that will see refugees who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes denied an automatic right to asylum and instead regularly reassessed for removal to safe countries which they passed through.
People who cannot immediately be removed will be stripped of benefits, placing them in the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) category, and have their family reunion rights limited, under the new plans.
The Home Office’s policy statement on its “New Plan for Immigration” states that ministers will “seek to rapidly return inadmissible asylum seekers to the safe country of most recent embarkation contingent on securing returns agreements”.
There are, however, currently no returns arrangements with other countries to enable the deportation process to take place, and it is unclear how the home secretary plans to strike agreements with EU nations to take in asylum seekers from Britain.
Ms Patel, in a statement in the Commons, described the plans as “fair but firm” adding: “We have a generous asylum system that offers protection to the most vulnerable via defined legal routes. But this system is collapsing under the pressures of what are in effect parallel illegal routes to asylum, facilitated by criminals smuggling people into the UK”.
Around six in ten asylum seekers in the UK currently enter via unauthorised means, and around half of claimants are subsequently granted refugee status. Prior to Brexit, the UK was part of the Dublin Regulation, which provided a framework through which asylum seekers who travelled through safe EU nations before reaching Britain could be returned to those countries. Britain returned 891 individuals under this law between 2017 and 2020. It is understood, however, that no UK asylum seekers have been returned to the EU since the Brexit transition period ended on 31st December 2020.
The shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds criticised the absence of returns agreements saying: “Not only are government plans lacking in compassion, they don’t even have confidence to explain how they would work. A central part of the measures rely on new international agreements and yet the home secretary couldn’t mention one of those agreements that have been concluded”.
Following this recent announcement, a spokesperson for the UNHCR pointed out that the Refugee Convention “doesn’t oblige asylum-seekers to apply in the first safe country they encounter” and that some claimants have “very legitimate reasons to seek protection in specific countries including family or other links”.
As part of the new plan, the home secretary announced that the UK would “broaden the scope” of the UK’s resettlement schemes and “strengthen support” for those arriving through safe and legal routes.
The Home Office has however provided no detail on what the “broader” resettlement would look like and has provided no numerical commitments, despite previously pledging to welcome 5,000 refugees under a new “global resettlement scheme.
“Our fear is that the government will use the resettlement scheme 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”.
Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson condemned the lack of details on how many refugees would be offered sanctuary under future resettlement schemes, adding: “It is not good enough for the home secretary to kick the issue into the long grass by talking about consultations and legislation”.
Regarding the plans to return refugees to safe countries, Sonia Lenegan of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, said: “The home secretary has spoken of EU countries having a ‘moral duty’ to accept the return of refugees, yet the UK is poised to abdicate its own responsibilities towards people in need of international protection under these new proposals”.
“The basic point remains that a person’s refugee status is not connected to their method of arrival in the UK, and it is wrong to create such a distinction”.
The policy statement also contains plans to change sections of the law to make it possible to move asylum seekers from the UK while their claims are processed, in order to “keep the option open” to develop the capacity for offshore asylum processing if required in the future.
Colin Yeo, immigration barrister, said: “Two out of three asylum seekers reaching the UK are ultimately recognised as genuine refugees. Sending them off to another country is an evasion of our moral and legal obligations to refugees and would be a sad end to our tradition of offering sanctuary to those who need it”.