Statement from the Helen Bamber Foundation in response to the Home Secretary’s proposals to overhaul the asylum process and implement a ‘two-tier’ asylum system 5th October 2020

The United Kingdom has a proud heritage of welcoming refugees and protecting survivors of human trafficking. We now stand at a cross-roads in determining how the UK will treat the most vulnerable adults and children in our society.

The government has announced that it intends to punish refugees who arrive in the United Kingdom without a valid visa. This is ethically and morally wrong. People fleeing war, torture and exploitation should be treated with humanity, compassion and dignity rather than being subjected to further ill-treatment. It is not the ‘people smugglers and traffickers’ who would be targeted by the Home Secretary’s proposals, but vulnerable people, arriving exhausted, traumatised and in need of protection.

About half of the survivors of human trafficking recognised in the United Kingdom come from outside of Europe. Many of these people have been mistreated within Europe or have been brought illegally into the United Kingdom. The Home Secretary’s proposals will further harm those who have experienced high levels of control and abuse from traffickers, including those operating through Northern France.

Additionally, there is no way to make a claim for asylum in the United Kingdom from overseas. For many people who face threats to themselves and their families, the only way to seek safety is by crossing a national border illegally. The Refugee Convention was set up to recognise people fleeing persecution and the Refugee Convention protects people who have to cross a border illegally to do so (Article 31(1)).

To date, a small number of people have been transferred to the United Kingdom from refugee centres overseas for resettlement, for example as UNHCR Gateway refugees or through designated schemes such as the Dubs scheme and the vulnerable refugee resettlement scheme. These schemes have not run consistently, so resettlement numbers can be very low in some years. Last year 4,968 people were resettled through these schemes, mostly as the final intake in the vulnerable refugee resettlement scheme; three quarters of whom were Syrian nationals. Whereas, 14,345 people who claimed asylum within the United Kingdom were granted refugee or humanitarian protection in the same period. We welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement that a new resettlement scheme will be set up to follow on from those that have finished, but in no way at all are those who arrive by boat ‘elbowing’ aside other refugees.

It is factually and legally wrong to suggest that those arriving by boat, by lorry or by using false documents are any less ‘genuine’ refugees than other cases. The merits of any asylum claim must in any case be decided on the basis of an overall assessment rather than simply by the means of arrival.  The Refugee Convention acknowledges this, and the United Kingdom recognises that the majority of new arrivals are entitled to refugee protection. In the year ending March 2020 around 65% of in-country asylum claims were successful either initially or after appeal.[1] However, the recognition rate for those who have arrived by boat is even higher than general claims and two thirds of the substantive asylum decisions for boat arrivals have been positive straight away (and it can be anticipated that number will rise by 10-20% on appeal).[2]

There are many reasons why people who have been displaced are unable to stay in the first country they come to. We work with clients who were starved and homeless, abused and beaten and subject to human trafficking in other EU countries on their way to the UK. Some people come to the United Kingdom to reunite with surviving family members or because of our reputation for protecting human rights. Some people, particularly the separated children who end up here, have no idea they are coming to the United Kingdom before they arrive.

In our professional experience of delivering trauma-based clinical interventions and counter-trafficking support to survivors, it is often the people with the longest journeys to the United Kingdom who have experienced the most extreme violence and exploitation – both in their country of origin and during their long and almost unbelievably harsh journeys. To punish such people when they arrive here is cruel and unjust.

What needs to happen?

Close the camps: the government has recently set up ‘camps’ to segregate and isolate people seeking protection. These are unsanitary and re-traumatise the most vulnerable. The number of refugees has dropped significantly under COVID-19 and the UK in any event receives a small number of refugees compared with other European countries (the United Kingdom is only number 19th in Europe in terms of refugee claims per capita; Spain, France, Germany and Greece account for 74% of EU asylum claims and worldwide 84% of refugees live in developing regions[3]). There is no justification for setting up camps.

No punishment of refugees: there should be no punishment or two-tier system. There should instead be ‘front-loading’ of support so people get the advice and assistance they need as soon as they arrive in order that there cases are decided fairly and efficiently. That is how you reduce the need for multiple claims, not by depriving people of access to justice – this latter path will only increase the length and number of claims in the system.

Combating racism: language around ‘crisis’ and ‘invasion’, ‘elbowing others’ and treating those who are our most vulnerable as ‘liars’ is dangerous because it quickly feeds into a racist discourse where people fleeing conflict – doing what anyone us might do to protect ourselves and our families – are treated as if they have done wrong and as if their lives are of limited value’ . These discriminatory and racist attitudes towards people fleeing conflict should be tackled, rather than inflamed, by the government and Members of Parliament. MPs who use this kind of language should be held to account by Parliamentary Committees.

Take pride in ethical and humane refugee protection: The United Kingdom should build on our reputation for strong international protection of human rights and take pride in carrying this torch of hope forward to build a system that is fair and just.

[1] 54% of initial claims were successful with the equivalent number of people to another 11% succeeding on appeal; some of those refused at this stage will also go on to make successful fresh claims supported by fresh evidence, which is not factored into this number. Numbers taken from Home Office national statistics: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/immigration-statistics-year-ending-march-2020/how-many-people-do-we-grant-asylum-or-protection-to.

[2] ‘Channel boat people are refugees, Home Office officials confirm’, 4 September 2020, Free Movement: https://www.freemovement.org.uk/channel-boat-people-are-refugees-home-office-officials-confirm/

[3] Taken from Home Office national statistics, as above, and the UNHCR: https://www.unhcr.org/uk/asylum-in-the-uk.html