The Government’s recently published New Plan for Immigration gives details about a long-promised overhaul of the asylum system. The proposals are described as aiming to increase the fairness of the asylum system and deter illegal entry into the UK. However, many of the measures risk creating more injustices in the system which will increase the trauma and pain experienced by asylum seekers attempting to reach safety in the UK. Below, we’ve outlined some of our concerns, and ways in which you can respond.
Who are asylum seekers?
An asylum seeker is someone awaiting an outcome on their asylum claim in the UK. To be eligible to claim asylum in the UK, you must have left your country and be unable to return due to a serious and well-founded fear of persecution. This could be due to race, religion, nationality, or anything else which puts you at risk because of the social, cultural, religious or political situation in your country. Most asylum seekers are fleeing violence, war or oppressive regimes in their home country. They have often experienced trauma at home, and have also experienced traumatic circumstances on their journey.
A person becomes a refugee when their claim for asylum has been accepted. Refugees are protected under international law.
A two-tiered system
One major proposed change is that the route via which someone arrives in the UK will determine the way a claim for asylum is processed.
If an asylum seeker arrives in the UK via a route recognised by the government, they will be granted immediate indefinite leave to remain. However, for asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via ‘irregular’ routes (e.g. channel crossings), their application for asylum will be automatically considered inadmissible. If they have travelled through a safe country, or have a connection to a safe country where they could have claimed asylum, the government will expect them to do so. It is important to remember that there is no international rule requiring refugees to claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in. Neither the 1951 Refugee Convention nor EU law requires a refugee to claim asylum in one country rather than another (You can read more about this here).
The government proposes to seek rapid removal of these people who have arrived via irregular routes to another safe country. In the meantime, they will be housed in new reception centres. However, if removal from the UK is not possible, their asylum claim will be processed via the normal route. Should their claim be granted, they will be subject to a ‘temporary protection status’. This means that, for a period of no longer than 30 months, refugees who have arrived by irregular routes will not have the automatic right to settle in the UK, and they will not have access to public funds (also known as NRPF), which means they will not be able to apply for mainstream welfare benefits or housing. After 30 months, the government will reassess their right to be in the UK, and seek their removal.
The government is also seeking to amend legislation to remove asylum seekers from the UK whilst their claim is being processed or an appeal is pending, to keep the option for offshore processing open.
These are incredibly worrying proposals. They establish a ‘two-tier’ system for asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via different routes. Some migrants will be offered support, and others denied it.
For those who arrived via an irregular route and have their claim accepted, the conditions for living in the UK will be temporary and unsupported. Life will likely continue to be unstable and unpredictable. With the risk of deportation every 30 months hanging over them, employment may be harder to come by. State support will only be provided when individuals or families are at risk of destitution.
Refugee resettlement is an important part of our response to global crises and conflicts. The government has done a good job of upholding this commitment in recent years. But the government have been vague on commitments to future resettlement, failing to name minimum targets or details of new schemes. Without this assurance, proposals to effectively punish asylum seekers who arrive via irregular routes are even more worrying. Many of those who travel to the UK via so-called ‘irregular’ routes have a genuine claim for asylum, which isn’t reduced by the opportunities they have had to seek asylum in a safe place. Whilst those who transport people to the UK with no consideration for their wellbeing need to be brought to justice, these conditions will not necessarily deter smugglers. Instead, they shift the punishment to asylum seekers.
The Bible calls us to welcome the stranger and recognise the inherent value in every life created by God. The policies set out here would assign value based on how people arrive in the UK, rather than assessing the extent of their need.
By these policies, we are at risk of creating a distinction between the kind of ‘strangers’ we want to welcome, and those we can choose to reject.
Human dignity in the asylum process
The proposals set out new rules to ensure that all relevant information to an asylum claim is disclosed at the very start of the process. The majority of asylum claims are made within a very short time period after arrival.
The ‘one-stop processing’ of proposals means that asylum seekers who cannot provide all relevant supporting information and documents at the start of their claim could have this held against them as their claim is processed. If they are found not to have acted in ‘good faith’ to provide all relevant information, this could impact the credibility of their claim. This could be information relevant to modern slavery, human rights claims and other security claims in their context.
These proposals fail to recognise the complex and often traumatic journeys many asylum seekers have gone through to arrive in the UK, notwithstanding the risk and turmoil of the situations they have fled. They do not take account of the implications of fear, abuse, or trauma. Especially with a drastically underfunded legal aid system, asylum seekers may not have the support and care they need to immediately identify and declare all of the important information which should form part of their claim. They may not have all of the documents needed for their claim, considering the often abrupt and complicated circumstances for leaving their homeland.
These proposals are at risk of creating a process which does not sympathetically handle the complexities of each person’s case. We must have an asylum system which treats people with dignity and compassion, especially when they are vulnerable. These proposals risk creating conditions which do the opposite.
Promoting long term flourishing of refugees in the UK
Currently, more than half of asylum applications are accepted in the UK on initial application or appeal. The treatment of asylum seekers throughout their application process plays a big part in their opportunities to flourish, during their claim and if and when they are granted refugee status further down the line. Currently, asylum seekers who are waiting for their claim to be processed do not have the right to work. Many wait months, and even years, living on very low subsistence pay and barely making ends meet.
Individuals and families are likely to become part of our communities at some stage. Policies which hinder their wellbeing could prove detrimental to their future flourishing, and potential for healthy integration into our communities.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. – Matthew 25: 35-36
The plan contains a number of other proposals which raise genuine concern. While a fair asylum system is essential, a number of the proposals appear to stand in direct contradiction of our biblical imperative to ‘welcome the stranger’. As Christians, we are called to treat everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve because of their inherent worth as God-created beings. We are invited to do so in our everyday actions and attitudes, and through the systems which structure our society. These proposals risk creating conditions which contradict this calling. As a Church which seeks to offer sanctuary, witness to God’s love and stand for justice, we must speak up for human dignity and flourishing.
The UK Government has opened a 6 week consultation on these proposals, which will end on 6th May 2021. They are inviting individual contributions, and collective responses from organisations. Taking the opportunity to share the importance of creating a system which promotes human dignity and fosters flourishing is an important witness of our belief in the inherent worth of all people, as created by God.
Welcome Churches are also hosting a survey to outline the support churches offer to asylum seekers and refugees across the country. You can fill this out as an individual or organisation here, before April 25th. Find the audit here.