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If the Asylum System is broken, who broke it?

Manston Migrant Centre, Kent (Credit: Mark Shrieves / Alamy)

4 min read

"The Home Secretary stated that the United Kingdom’s immigration system is broken. The Conservatives have been in government for 12 years. She does not appear to realise that this is an admission of Conservative failure."

These are not the words of Labour leader Keir Starmer at PMQs but the words of a “former Conservative voter” who wrote to me this week.

The public are losing patience with a Home Office clearly unfit for purpose and a broken asylum and detention system that discredits the United Kingdom. The conditions at the Manston detention centre in Kent are a national shame. Originally intended to be used for no more than 24 hours and by a maximum of 1,600 people, there are currently 4,000 people, including children, existing for extended periods in dire conditions, enduring outbreaks of diphtheria and MRSA.  

David Neal, Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, warned the Commons Home Affairs Committee this week that “it’s a really dangerous situation… There are risks there in terms of fire, in terms of disorder, in terms of medical and infection.” Given these risks, talking of an “invasion” the day after an attempt was made to petrol bomb the facility in what counter-terrorism officers are describing as "some form of hate-filled grievance" is reckless in the extreme.

The conditions at the Manston detention centre in Kent are a national shame

Manston is far from unique. MPs from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention visited the Napier Barracks, near Folkestone, in February this year and recommended its “immediate and permanent” closure and that of other sites like it. The APPG said that vulnerable asylum seekers at the former barracks, including victims of torture, received “inadequate safeguarding” within buildings in “an extremely poor state of repair” and “inadequate access to healthcare” among a litany of other complaints. Last year Napier Barracks came under sustained criticism by the United Nations Refugee Agency and the Home Office Select Committee following a COVID-19 outbreak and a fire.

Similar detention centres are springing up elsewhere; including Penally, a former Ministry of Defence training camp in Pembrokeshire and Hassockfield Detention Centre near Durham, suggesting a new Home Office policy which has neither been fully debated nor subject to adequate parliamentary scrutiny.  

People who fled to this country to escape persecution, war and torture deserve better treatment than this. These detention centres should be closed and the Home Secretary should fulfil her statutory duties and ensure suitable accommodation is found for those who have arrived on our shores in desperation.

There are different, better, more humane choices available. Firstly, it is vital that we tackle the people traffickers and prevent desperate people from taking dangerous journeys across the Channel. We must re-establish legal routes to claim asylum in the United Kingdom, especially for children and those seeking family reunion, by doing so we remove the traffickers’ business case.

We have to start working constructively with our French and other European partners. Regrettably, leaving the European Union has meant that we have also left the Dublin Convention which allowed us to return failed asylum seekers to safe countries. Brexit also means that we are no longer at the top table where we could be arguing for Europe-wide responsibility sharing; the only fair and sensible way of managing and absorbing the current influx.

We must tackle the backlog and speed up the asylum process – the current long waits are torturous for the asylum seekers and are costly for the taxpayer. In 2014, 87 per cent of asylum claims were decided within six months. That figure has now dropped to a woeful 6 per cent and an average wait is 450 days. At the end of March 2022, with the latest data available, there was a backlog of 89,344 cases awaiting an initial decision for asylum claims made since 2006. That number has more than quadrupled since the end of 2016.

This broken asylum system is the problem and Rwanda is not a serious proposition for solving it. It is probably illegal, certainly inhumane and has so far cost the taxpayer £140m. Worst of all it clearly does not work as a deterrent; since the government announced the scheme, 30,000 people have crossed the Channel in dinghies.

It is worth remembering that there is nothing illegal in being an asylum seeker – those who seek asylum are exercising a legal human right which is protected by the 1951 Geneva Convention. Asylum seekers will typically have experienced trauma, war, torture, violence or worse and endured long journeys to reach what they hope will be safety in the United Kingdom. It is our responsibility to provide that. The woman who wrote to me this week concluded her letter: “I cannot see myself voting Conservative in the future unless there is a genuine return to Compassionate Conservatism.”

Lord Dubs, Labour Peer

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