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Is Britain turning its back on asylum-seekers? 

BETHANY RIELLY reports on the latest immigration rules, which allow asylum-seekers to be kept in ‘indefinite limbo’ and have been branded by experts as ‘completely unworkable’ and ‘inhumane’

NEW rules that deny asylum to refugees who’ve passed through a “safe” country are “unworkable” and risk plunging the asylum system into “chaos.”

Under changes to the immigration rules, which came into effect on January 1, any person who has travelled through or has a connection with a safe third country could have their asylum case declared inadmissible. 

The changes allow the government to remove asylum-seekers not only to countries they have passed through but also any state willing to accept them. 

However, lawyers and refugee rights groups interviewed by the Morning Star claim the rules are “unworkable” in practice, and will only add further delays to the asylum system. 

“The immediate problem is that we are going to have a very large number of people … most of whom will have valid asylum claims and we are going to be refusing to look at the claims which is just going to create huge delays and costs in the asylum system,” Chai Patel, the legal policy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, told the Morning Star. 

Guidance on the new rules specifies that officials have six months to make an inadmissibility decision, after which time if no country is willing to accept them, the asylum claim must be considered. 

However the rules add that this six-month period can be extended. 

Patel, who also specialises in human rights law, warns that the procedure is set up to allow asylum-seekers to be kept in “indefinite limbo” while officials repeatedly attempt to return them to different countries. 

These waits will likely be challenged in the courts on a case by case basis, he said, leading to “a huge amount of costs and delay while people are just sort of stuck.”

“I mean it really will undermine the whole asylum system, it will throw it in into chaos,” he warned.

Those waiting for decisions will be held in makeshift “camps,” including one next to Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where campaigners fear residents’ basic rights will not be met. 

The new rules will rely on agreements with third countries to replace those used previously under EU laws — the Dublin Regulations — to remove asylum-seekers to other states. 

However it’s unclear whether return agreements with any countries have yet been secured. 

Refugee Council policy manager Judith Dennis told the Star that the new system is likely to create “more anxiety, more distress, more uncertainty at a time when people are already waiting very long periods for decisions on their asylum claims.”

People waiting over six months for an initial decision on their asylum claim reached a record high of 60,548 — 76 per cent of applications — in November last year. 

However Dennis’s biggest worry is the prospect of people not even knowing what country they face removal to. 

“Under the Dublin Agreement we were quite concerned people were being removed to countries that hadn’t treated them well, but at least they would know what country was being pursued,” she said. 

Under the rules, asylum-seekers face removal not just to EU countries, but any other country outside the bloc deemed “safe” by the Home Office. 

Once a decision is made, the claimant will only be able to lodge an appeal once outside Britain, however they can challenge it inside with a judicial review. 

Leading immigration lawyer Colin Yeo has claimed that the rules are “completely unworkable” and will result in “very few if any third country returns,” arguing the new approach is about “politics and presentation, not governance.” 

The rules are seen as part of the government’s campaign to crack down on illegal routes into the country, after more than 8,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Britain on small boats across the Channel last year. 

This intention is clearly stated in the Home Office’s guidance on the new rules, which claims that asylum-seekers should claim asylum in the first country they pass through, not make “dangerous and unnecessary journeys” to Britain. 

“Illegal migration from safe countries undermines our efforts to help those most in need,” it adds. 

But despite the rise in people using the Channel route, asylum applications dropped by 8 per cent in 2020 compared with 2019.

The Tories’ increasingly hostile approach to asylum-seekers has also been criticised in light of Britain’s pitiful intake of refugees compared to its European neighbours. 

In the year till September 2020, Britain received 31,752 initial asylum applications while Germany received 155,295 applicants, France 129,480 and Spain 128,520. 

“Other countries in Europe deal with far, far more refugee claims than we do,” Yeo wrote in Free Movement. 

“It is only us who cannot cope with a few refugees and whose government feels the need to evade our international responsibilities under the Refugee Convention.” 

The barrister, who specialises in asylum law, claims the inadmissibility rules “clearly” breach the UN’s 1951 Convention, to which Britain is a signatory. 

Home Office Minister Chris Philp claims the rules are compatible with the convention because they are drafted “to ensure no individual is refouled” — forcefully returned to a country where they face persecution. 

When asked by the Morning Star for its position on this the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that the rules did not strictly breach international law. 

This is because returns do not constitute a “penalty” under the convention, providing certain criteria are met, UNHCR spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh explained. 

However, while the UN agency did not go so far as to say the rules broke the convention, Saltmarsh made clear that the international refugee support system “should be based on responsibility sharing, not burden shifting.” 

“Beyond the legal aspects, the Refugee Convention is an instrument for international co-operation and responsibility-sharing, to which readmission agreements can contribute,” he said. 

“An approach predicated on the notion that every asylum-seeker should remain in the first country they found themselves in would negate this important aspect and the need for international solidarity on which the international protection system is built.”

Saltmarsh also echoed concerns that the system is likely to leave many people in “limbo” and “adversely affect the efficiency of a system that is already struggling.”

Critics also claim the new approach will do nothing to prevent illegal crossings in the absence of safe routes. 

“People don’t come here because they think the asylum system is easy, they come here because they don’t have a choice or they come here to family or to friends when they don’t have anywhere else to go,” Patel said. 

“All it will do is increase the dangers that people who are trying to get to safety face.”

The lawyer said the rules were part of a “general push by the government to delegitimise most of the ways in which refugees actually in practice are able to get to safety in favour of saying that the only legitimate refugees are the tiny numbers of people that we allow to come through resettlement programmes.

“That is not how refugee protection works; it’s not in the spirit of the refugee convention.”

While the government claims that controlled resettlement is the best way to protect refugees and disrupt smuggler gangs, it has yet to restart its resettlement programmes halted last year due to the pandemic. 

This means the only routes currently into Britain for people fleeing persecution are “illegal” ones. 

Afghan refugee Nas Popalzai came to Britain when he was 14 in the back of a refrigerated lorry from France, and was granted refugee status 10 years later. 

During his journey he was passed from one country to the next by a smuggler and said he did not even know where he was heading, let alone the details of the asylum system of that country. 

“I was in Calais and I didn’t know anything about the asylum process or passport or anything,” he told the Star. 

“Most people they don’t really know, they just want to get out of their country, so I think it’s unfair what they are saying that you should have claimed asylum in the first country, in the safe country.”

He added: “It’s cruel, these people lost their families, and you know they come here, there’s a very small chance to get here and then when they do they are sent back — it’s very bad.”

Migrant Voice director Nazek Ramadan says the rules are “inhumane” while the prospect of sending asylum-seekers to countries they’ve been to is “both absurd and barbaric.”

“We urge the government to fully consider all asylum claims made in the UK and to treat everyone in the immigration system with dignity and fairness,” she said. 

“These new rules represent a deeply concerning shift even further away from the fair, humane Home Office the Home Secretary has pledged to create and they must be abandoned immediately.”

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