Asylum has long been a thorny issue for the British ruling class. As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention the UK is obliged to grant asylum when, in the opinion of the Home Office, an asylum seeker has demonstrated that they have a well founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. Yet asylum seekers are continuously vilified in the popular press as criminals and scroungers overwhelming the benefits system, the vitriol often being fuelled by the cynical statements of government ministers.
This reached its height with the announcement of the ‘hostile environment’ by Theresa May as Home Secretary under the Cameron regime. Although the ‘hostile environment’ policy was played down after the scandal of the Windrush affair — which prompted Patel to promise a ‘compassionate culture’ — blatantly xenophobic measures such as encouraging people to report overstayers were considered to be too extreme, in practice it has never gone away and is perpetuated by less obvious Home Office procedures and policies. It is asylum seekers who have largely borne the brunt.
Whilst every small boat picked up in the English Channel containing a handful of asylum seekers is portrayed as an ‘invasion’ the actual numbers who arrive by this route are small, the estimated number for 2020 being around 5,000.(1) The overall number of asylum seekers arriving in the UK in the year to September 2020 was around 32,000. The figures have been rising steadily since the last peak in 2016 but are still low compared to a number of other European countries. In the same period, according to the UNHCR, Germany had 155,295 first-time applicants followed by France with 129,480, Spain with 128,520 and Greece with 81,465.(2) The narrative that the UK is bearing the brunt of a refugee crisis is clearly false and designed to fuel xenophobic anxieties. Now that Brexit has largely curtailed East European migration, it’s handy to have another scapegoat.
So how to deal with a far from unprecedented and relatively modest number of asylum seekers? Perhaps consider their claims carefully but efficiently, ensure they have adequate means of support whilst their claims are being considered, or maybe just put them in a concentration camp. That’s what they have been doing in Australia for years. Refugees are stuck in brutal conditions on Nauru and Manus Islands where suicide rates are consequently high.(3) Patel’s UK Home Office would like to do the same and has been consulting with an Australian ex-Prime Minister about it. However the UK does not have any Pacific Islands and neither Gibraltar nor the Isle of Man will cooperate so asylum seekers have been held at facilities like Napier Barracks.
These are ex-army barracks in Kent that have been unoccupied for over 5 years. Since September 2020 they have been subcontracted by the Home Office to Clearsprings Ready Homes, a company that specialises making a fortune from providing filthy sub-standard accommodation for asylum seekers.(4) True to form, conditions at Napier are appalling, the accommodation being damp, dilapidated, insanitary and overcrowded. At the height of the pandemic around half of the occupants contracted Covid but there was no facility to quarantine those who were ill. Instead the residents were locked in the barracks!(5) Also there is no proper access to medical treatment on site and difficulties in accessing legal advice for asylum claims. Although occupants are technically not in detention, in practice they have no means to go anywhere else and in some cases have been prevented from leaving by security staff. As a consequence of these conditions there are reports of occupants suffering mental health issues such as self-harming. The first attempt at suicide was reported last November.(6) There is a widespread feeling that conditions are deliberately bad in order to serve as a deterrent to others coming over from France. Ministerial statements show that concern is not unfounded. Conditions are so bad that they have been criticised both by the Inspectorate of Prisons and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.(7) Following this report which also included a similar facility at Penally Camp in Pembrokeshire, the Penally site was closed in March, but despite this closure it is likely that more of this type of accommodation will be used in the future.
While waiting on a decision on their claim, which can take months or even years (and these waiting times have increased enormously during the pandemic), asylum seekers are issued an "Aspen card", a prepaid debit card which they can use to access the pittance to which they're entitled (currently set at £39.63 per person per week). If their claim is still being processed, they can use it to withdraw cash; if their claim has been refused they can only use it as a debit card. This means that the Home Office can monitor their every purchase and track their location. It is not unknown for it to threaten to withdraw support or accommodation based on their purchases. The devastating effects this often has on the mental health of people who have fled previous persecution by their own governments should come as no surprise. But this is of no concern to Home Office bureaucrats, much less the UK government, which has recently issued a policy statement ‘New Plan for Immigration’.
This document focuses on proposals for changes to the asylum system which will make it more difficult for applicants to prove their claim in law, and would render a significant number of currently valid claims as ‘inadmissible’. One of the stated drivers for the changes is the current backlog of over 100,000 outstanding claims, but rather than seeking to improve the Home Office decision process the government is placing the blame on the people who are making the claims.
The current legal position is that asylum seekers have to show that they face a risk of persecution if they return to their country of origin. Under the new proposals they would have to prove ‘on the balance of probabilities’ that they would be at risk. In effect this means that they must show a greater than 50% chance of persecution, so if the risk was say 45% the claim would fail and you could be sent back to face death, torture or imprisonment.
Another key proposal for limiting asylum is to make claims from applicants who have entered the UK illegally inadmissible. This would include all applicants who arrive clandestinely via Channel sea routes whether in small boats or in the back of lorry containers. In these cases applicants will be deemed to have passed through a ‘first safe third country’ where they could have claimed asylum before reaching the UK, and the default position will be that all EU member states will be seen as safe third countries. The safe third country rule was a provision of the Dublin Convention that allows EU states to return asylum seekers to the first EU state they travelled through. However since Brexit the UK is no longer a party to the Dublin Convention, so to enforce the proposal the government will have to make bilateral agreements will all the individual EU states. Even under Dublin it was often difficult to ascertain which was the first safe country and, to get that country to accept the return of an asylum seeker, but now the task will be even harder. Ironically the Brexit mantra of ‘taking back control of our borders’ will in this case be more difficult for the UK to implement as a result of leaving the EU!
The other significant point is that if an applicant cannot be returned to a safe third country, but they can prove they are at risk of persecution, they will not be granted asylum status. Instead they will be given a temporary status to remain in the UK but will have restricted rights for family reunion and will not be able to claim any welfare benefits. Some may wonder how this squares with one of the stated aims of the ‘New Plan for Immigration’ to improve refugee integration. It also begs the question of how asylum seekers can arrive legally. Fairly small numbers with designated UNHCR refugee status are allocated to the UK. For the rest it is virtually impossible to obtain a visa to enter UK and then apply for asylum on arrival so clandestine routes are the only option, and because of that they will be penalised. Furthermore whilst those applicants whose claims are deemed to be inadmissible are waiting to be removed to a ‘safe third country’ it is intended they will be held at asylum reception centres offering ‘basic accommodation’. This opens up the prospect of more camps such as Napier and Penally where, as we have already seen, conditions are intolerable.
The government will claim that they are extending legal routes to asylum by enabling more claims to be submitted abroad in asylum seekers’ home countries or perhaps in refugee camps. However it is highly doubtful that these measures will be adequately resourced or effective and it is more likely that they are intended as mere window dressing to detract from the punitive measures that form the backbone of the ‘New Plan’.
The Home Secretary maintains that the proposals will facilitate claims for ‘genuine’ asylum seekers whilst reducing possibilities for claims by economic migrants. However the reality is that it will make it more difficult for those who have a claim under the 1951 Refugee Convention. But this approach reflects the limitations of the Convention as well as the populist xenophobia of the British State. The Convention was drafted in the aftermath of the Second World War and was intended to highlight the superiority of Western democracy over totalitarian regimes such as the Stalinist Russian bloc. The Soviet Union never ratified the treaty. The concept of persecution was based on the values of liberal democracy and designed mainly to offer sanctuary to those who had fallen foul of the West’s Cold War adversaries. It was not intended to address the situation of mass population displacements that have taken place in countries such as Syria or other myriad horrors and economic misery that have been inflicted primarily on the inhabitants of the world’s poorest countries as a consequence of imperialist conflicts between rival states and their local proxies. The Refugee Convention with its requirement to prove persecution does not assist those whose survival is at risk purely as a consequence of absolute poverty. The risk of death from poverty is not regarded as persecution by the Convention. According to the UN the number of international migrants globally reached an estimated 272 million in 2019, an increase of 51 million since 2010.(8) Last year alone almost 80 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes due to war and famine created by a global capitalist system in deep crisis.(9)
In short, as well as spawning ‘legitimate political refugees’ whom the UK government prefers not to recognise, global capitalism is increasingly unable to provide a means for people to subsist. The UK’s present government policy of preventing asylum claims by economic migrants is not just an act of spitefulness, but is also consistent with the values of the Convention that does not recognise exclusion from the means of subsistence as grounds for asylum. Calls from well-meaning liberals and the capitalist left for recognition of and better treatment for ‘genuine’ asylum seekers disguise the enormity of the wider refugee problem generated by capitalism; a problem which further confirms capitalism’s historical decrepitude. It is the capitalist system itself which creates the imperialist wars from which millions are now fleeing. The wars in the Middle East are an obvious example, and the military intervention of the British government has played a direct role in creating this devastation. We can add ecological devastation and climate change to the capitalist charge sheet. This is responsible for the desertification of the Sahel region of Africa devastating food production, leading to wars in Darfur and elsewhere, leading millions to flee from starvation. This is yet another glaring example of the need to overthrow global capitalism. Yet another reason for revolutionaries to organise internationally to urge on the working class everywhere to take up their historic task and create a new world socialist society without borders. A society that does not force people to flee their homelands in order to survive.