The government’s latest asylum gambit will not work

Suella Braverman’s tough rhetoric will soon dissolve in ridicule

March 08, 2023
Suella Braverman

A starter for 10. What proportion of asylum applications last year were approved—including those who arrived in small boats, who the home secretary tells us day after day are “illegal” and the cargo of “people smugglers”? The answer is 76 per cent (and that is before appeals, which will push the number higher). So the illegal turn out to be mostly legal. 

Specifically relating to the small boats which conveyed 45,000 people into the country last year, four in 10 of those who crossed the channel in 2022 came from five countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. Those nationalities currently all have asylum grant rates of over 80 per cent.

This is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of recent arrivals—notably from Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan—who have arrived under specific refugee schemes without needing to apply for asylum at a port of entry into the UK. And the 76 per cent approval rate has almost nothing to do with the European Court of Human Rights. These asylum approvals are given by UK immigration officials applying UK law and international agreements. 

However, asylum determinations are lagging well behind the flow of applications. There is now a backlog of more than 100,000 cases, because of the collapse of effective Home Office management. 

All this explains why, under the guise of curbing “illegal” asylum seekers, Suella Braverman is trying to prevent anyone outside designated refugee schemes from even claiming asylum. She says she wants parliament to require her to immediately deport them “where practicable” without considering their cases, together with sweeping powers of detention before deportation. And irrespective of their UK refugee status, she wants to remove their right to re-enter the UK.

These reforms might indeed bring the UK into conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights and the Refugee Convention. Except that the deportation “where practicable” takes us to Suella in Wonderland, because there is nowhere practicable to deport almost all of these asylum seekers. Often either the country from which they originated, or the country from which they entered the UK, won’t take them back or is deemed unsafe. Which is why fewer than 2,500 failed asylum seekers were returned—either forcibly or voluntarily—last year. This figure is a fraction of the more than 10,000 returned in 2010, when EU rules applied requiring member countries to take back asylum seekers where they were the first port of call. Because we are an island, the UK was a big net gainer from this requirement. 

As in so many other areas, Brexit is the opposite of “taking back control”. Emmanuel Macron has made clear that France will not be agreeable to reverting to the pre-Brexit regime of asylum seeker returns, for all the theatre of his meeting with Rishi Sunak in Paris on Friday. That just leaves the Rwanda option, much trumpeted by Sunak and Braverman. Yet no asylum seekers have so far been deported to Rwanda—and the number who could be sent there under last year’s agreement with the African state is tiny, even if the courts permitted it. 

So to where in Suella’s Wonderland are all these asylum seekers in small boats going to be deported? In reality, they will be stuck in huge new immigration detention centres— and they will still be claiming asylum. 

Pause here to compare with the early 2000s, when asylum applications at ports of entry were last in the high tens of thousands like today, and Tony Blair made a big thing of “sorting out” the backlog to deter new applicants. Then, nearly nine in 10 asylum applications were rejected on first application, and removal numbers were leagues higher than today, thanks to the EU and other international agreements. In 2004 alone the Home Office deported more than 20,000 people. So sorting out the asylum backlog meant… really sorting it out. Today it means pretending to sort it out while repackaging it. 

In the real political world, the government’s latest asylum gambit is all about trying to frighten potential asylum seekers into staying away from Britain, while laying down Daily Mail dividing lines with Labour on being “tough”. I don’t think it will work on either front, for a simple reason. You can’t hide more than 100,000 unprocessed or unreturned asylum seekers, or the 76 per cent success rate for those whose cases are determined. The new detention camps will, if anything, draw even more attention to the scale of the unresolved issue. As the “28 days and you’re out” policy becomes an obvious fantasy, Braverman’s rhetoric will dissolve in ridicule. 

And the real solution? Sustained international cooperation, starting with the EU. But that would require a government of realism and competence. No sign of that in Wonderland.