A year after 27 drowned crossing the Channel, our asylum system is still broken
In the early hours of 24 November 2021, a boat carrying 34 people capsized in the Channel.
At dawn light a grim tragedy was revealed: 27 people – children, parents, siblings, partners and friends – were dead, five were and remain missing, two survived. The tragedy showed how dangerous the Channel is but what followed a few hours later was revealing: more people were crossing it.
Undeterred by the dangers that had just killed dozens, people were still prepared to risk death and take their chance. This should have been the moment the government realised what charities had said for years: deterrence won’t stop people crossing the Channel. Instead, ministers doubled down.
It’s a grim race to the bottom that has led – and will lead – to tragedy
Since last year they’ve passed the Anti-Refugee Act, signed a deal to deport people to Rwanda, threw money at France, planned wave machines, and ran down the asylum system to the point where 35,000 people now call a hotel room their home.
The result? A record number of people will make the treacherous journey this year. Drownings off our coast are now more likely. Deterrence has failed. And its cost the public a fortune.
What leaders – in the United Kingdom and other rich nations – must accept is a familiar human need drives refugee migration: to feel safe. And where we feel safe is among family, community, in a country where we can speak the language or where human rights are protected. For a small minority of refugees, that’s the UK.
We must ditch the deterrence and create an asylum system that’s accessible, humane, just, and works for everyone. Here’s how. First, let people travel to the UK so they can claim asylum. It’s the one policy that will do more than any other to make small boat crossings unnecessary. Give people a route to safety by air, sea or train and ensure they have documents that can be handed to UK immigration on arrival. And let’s urgently widen resettlement schemes to welcome people directly from regions afflicted by violence and make it easier for refugee families already in the UK to be reunited.
Deterrence isn’t just at the border, but in the system people face when they arrive. Minister Robert Jenrick said the government must make the UK less welcoming than other countries. It’s a grim race to the bottom that has led – and will lead – to tragedy.
The glacial speed at which the Home Office processes asylum claims means the number of people in the system has snowballed, leaving refugees in limbo for years in poverty and isolation. This backlog strains accommodation and other services at significant cost to the taxpayer. So a second change must be a huge investment in more and better-trained decision makers to clear the backlog and decide all claims within six months.
Third, people seeking asylum must be allowed to work. They’re banned because ministers believe it’s a deterrence. It’s a position as unconvincing as it is unevidenced. The benefits would be incalculable. Better wellbeing and integration, less poverty and isolation, tax income for the Treasury, and more staff for struggling businesses.
Next, the government should create a national refugee reception service to provide proper support for people seeking asylum when they arrive, instead of leaving them isolated and traumatised. Such a service would not only help people access asylum support, assist them with work, healthcare and trauma recovery, and education, it would reduce pressure on services further down the line.
Finally, the government must create a taskforce to work with councils and housing charities to solve the accommodation crisis and keep people housed in our communities. None of these policies are radical but all require a systemic shift in how the government approaches traumatised and vulnerable fellow humans who come to the UK.
Most people who seek asylum receive refugee status. Families stay here to rebuild their lives. They are new Britons, our new neighbours and colleagues, our children’s new friends. So let’s welcome them.
Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action.
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