We must defend the right to seek asylum
For decades, the international right to seek asylum has offered hope and protection to those forced to flee their homes in search of safety.
Born of the devastation of the Holocaust, it is the principle that when your life is in danger you can arrive in a safe country and make your claim for protection, and it has long acted as a lifeline for men, women and children fleeing violence, conflict and persecution.
The Illegal Migration Bill, which returns to the Lords today, is an unprecedented threat to the right to seek asylum in the UK. Under the guise of controlling so-called “illegal” migration, the legislation would override decades of international law and remove this right.
We can set the standard for an effective and humane policy globally – or we can participate in a race to the bottom
The new law would apply to every individual, no matter their genuine need for protection. The Home Office’s own data shows that the protection need is real: at least two-thirds of people who arrive in the United Kingdom by small boat go on to be recognised as refugees. Now, instead of being offered sanctuary, these people fleeing conflict and persecution would be detained and removed from the UK with no hope of return.
The unfolding situation in Sudan demonstrates exactly why this matters. The vast majority of people fleeing the conflict are being received and hosted not by Britain, but by neighbouring countries like Chad. But for those few who look to Britain for safety – whether because they speak English or have family here – their only viable route would be to cross the Channel and seek asylum on arrival. The government says they could register with UNHCR and be eligible for resettlement. But the reality is that the eligibility criteria for resettlement is narrow, and only one per centof refugees globally go on to be resettled.
The story is the same for many of the conflicts from which people flee. Even for Afghanistan, for which in theory there is a dedicated refugee resettlement scheme, the reality is that safe routes have been far too slow to operationalise, with only 22 people arriving through the Afghan Citizen’s Resettlement Scheme Pathway 2 in 2022. As a result, thousands of desperate Afghans continue to risk their lives in the Channel: 8,600 Afghans made the journey in 2022, one in five of all arrivals on that route.
MPs like Tim Loughton have persuaded the government to successfully recognise that safe routes are essential if they want to stop people risking their lives in the Channel. That commitment to safe routes must be firmed up as the bill goes through Parliament – with both clear numbers and a concrete timeline. But safe routes are no substitute for the right to seek asylum: there will always be those who need protection without meeting the specific criteria of a particular safe route or who simply cannot afford to wait months in limbo.
We all want to bring dangerous Channel crossings down and we can and must do this while upholding the right to asylum. The government could choose to fix the broken asylum system here in Britain, so that claims are heard quickly and fairly – and this includes telling people whose claims fail that they have no right to stay and facilitating their removal from the country. This would likely be cheaper than the proposals in the bill: The Refugee Council has estimated that between £8.7bn and £9.6bn would be spent on detaining and accommodating people impacted by the bill in the first three years of its operation. Already the Rwanda scheme has cost £140m.
Unfortunately, it’s not just in this country that we are seeing the right to seek asylum facing unprecedented threats. You cannot now cross the southern border of the United States and expect to have your asylum claim heard. Canada has struck an agreement with the US to turn asylum seekers back from its southern border. The sad truth is that other countries are watching what’s happening in Britain and may be encouraged in their own withdrawal of this fundamental right if the bill passes. We can set the standard for an effective and humane policy globally – or we can participate in a race to the bottom where ultimately people in conflict and crisis are left without protection.
Yet the government continues to present a false choice in its refugee and asylum policy: between compassion and control, and between humanity and order. The reality is that you can take an approach that is both humane and orderly, in which an effective asylum system sits alongside safe routes, ensuring those in need are given the necessary options and a fair hearing.
After all, if we were to find ourselves in a similarly awful situation to our fellow human beings in Sudan, Afghanistan or Ukraine, we would hope to be met with compassion and with some options for safety.
Laura Kyrke Smith, executive director of International Rescue Committee UK
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