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The UK’s “broken” asylum system is the Home Office’s own doing – Priti Patel’s cruel reforms punish the wrong people

Lord Alf Dubs, who came to the UK as a child refugee on the Kindertransport in 1939, condemns Priti Patel's latest plans for asylum seekers | Alamy

4 min read

The newly announced asylum “overhaul” does this country and our proud humanitarian tradition a disservice

It’s hard to know where to start unpacking the claims made by Priti Patel to justify the “overhaul” of the rules regarding asylum which she announced this week. But unpick them we must, because truth matters and the facts tell a strikingly different story.

Patel claims that that the Home Office is “collapsing” under the number of asylum claims it receives. The home secretary herself described the asylum process as “broken”. But this government has been in charge for over a decade, and ensuring the asylum process is not broken is the responsibility of the department that Patel heads up. 

When the Conservatives assumed control of the Home Office, the asylum process was eight times faster than it is today. The impact of today’s interminable delays can be devastating for refugees who cannot work while they wait, or start the new lives that their hopes were pinned on. Self-harm is not an uncommon consequence and even sometimes suicide. It is disingenuous to blame asylum seekers for what is a Home Office failure.

Which brings me to the numbers of asylum applications we process here in the UK. To provide some context, in 2019, there were approximately five asylum applications for every 10,000 residents in the UK. Compare that to the EU average of 14 asylum applications per 10,000 of the population. Indeed, there are 16 EU countries whose asylum systems were able to process more asylum applications per head of population than we manage here in the UK.

Last year, there were 18% fewer applications for asylum in the UK than the previous year. According to government figures, in 2020, the UK received 29,456 asylum requests. In contrast, the same year, Germany received seven times the number of asylum applications that we did (121,955), France and Spain processed three times as many (93,470 and 88,530) and Greece, with a population of just 10.7 million, processed 40,560.

Meanwhile, the countries that border conflict zones have taken significantly more; Turkey is now home to between 3-4 million, mainly Syrian, refugees, and Lebanon and Jordan, with populations respectively of 10 million and 7 million, have taken a million refugees each. Our contribution to the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War is paltry in comparison.

It is worth remembering that at its peak (2002) the UK was processing as many as 103,000 asylum applications. So let’s not pretend that today’s asylum system is collapsing under the number of applications when the system itself has been undermined by a lack of resources and, I dare say, political will. Blaming refugees, who have fled war, torture and human suffering, only to languish, sometimes for years, in a system that is not fit for purpose, is a failure of governance and leadership.

Which brings me to the home secretary’s claim that she wants a system that would "better support the most vulnerable”. There is no-one more vulnerable than a lone child stranded in Europe. Indeed, in 2016, it was estimated that 10,000 refugee children in Europe simply disappeared, one can only assume at the hands of traffickers and criminals. Today, thousands of child refugees are surviving in camps or living rough on the streets or on wasteland across Europe. 

And yet, the Home Office has closed the only two legal routes that were available to these children, including those who simply want to be reunited with their loved ones here. Closing our doors to children who are vulnerable to exploitation, prostitution and human trafficking is not, "fair but firm” – it keeps families apart, lacks basic compassion and betrays both the children and also the UK’s proud humanitarian tradition.

Patel would have you believe that removing these legal routes to safety prevents criminality. It doesn’t, it fuels it. The day the legal routes for refugee children seeking asylum here was closed was a field day for people traffickers and smugglers who exploit despair. Patel cannot claim that she wants to encourage legal asylum applications, while closing legal routes to safety.

Meanwhile, the government has slashed its overseas aid budget and abolished the Department for International Development. The consequence is likely to be that desperately poor countries will become even poorer resulting in more desperate people and more refugees. Yemen is just one example.

How we as a country treat refugee children should be above party politics. Offering sanctuary to the most vulnerable goes to the heart of who we are as human beings and the sort of country we are. Patel’s rhetoric and her “reforms” do this country a disservice.

Lord Dubs is a Labour peer

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