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New law to stop small boats must not risk our moral and legal obligations


3 min read

The government is currently seeking to stop the boats by introducing legislation, underpinned by a policy that would grant the Home Secretary a legal duty to remove those who come to this country irregularly.

The legislation contains several sensible measures and principles. I believe it is right that it contains provisions for safe and legal routes, through an annual cap, on the number of refugees the United Kingdom will resettle. This will be based on capacity, in line with practice in other countries, and follows the model of our own resettlement scheme.

Human rights are personal and individual, with every person entitled under our laws to due process

I also welcome the focus on early and swift decision-making. The government recently announced that thousands of asylum seekers would be considered for refugee status without face-to-face interviews. This will streamline the asylum system and reduce the asylum backlog.

Despite this, I have concerns. Human rights are personal and individual, with every person entitled under our laws to due process. Given that nobody can apply for UK asylum unless they are physically here, we must expect that those with a genuine claim but no access to a safe or legal route to continue to arrive by irregular, though not illegal, means. In consequence, it is hard to see a British court holding their means of arrival against them, given that under our laws they had no alternative.

Furthermore, I have concerns about the detention of migrants without trial. I expect that this policy will be challenged in the courts, and it will not be straightforward to justify. The right to not be imprisoned without trial dates back at least as far as Magna Carta.

The government have not yet set out where they expect asylum seekers to be detained. Asylum accommodation capacity is creaking, and asylum hotels are at capacity. New accommodation sites can take years to construct. There are currently around 166,000 people in the backlog, with the Home Secretary anticipating an additional 80,000 this year. In comparison, the current asylum capacity in this country is a few thousand.

The aim is to detain them until they can be removed. Whilst I welcome the returns agreement with Albania, the majority of those crossing the Channel are not from Albania. We also have an agreement with Rwanda but that is tied up in the courts. Furthermore, the Rwandan government itself has said that it only has capacity to take in a few hundred asylum seekers.

Ultimately, success on Channel crossings will only come when we move our focus upstream. The Prime Minister deserves enormous credit for mending the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union and unlocking recent deals with France. His strong relationship with President Macron will be vital if we are eventually going to see a comprehensive agreement with France that will stop the incentive for Channel crossings.

This could take many forms. It could introduce an asylum visa so people will be able to apply for asylum in the UK from France or even online. It could potentially take the form of offshore processing centres in Europe, like those we already operate with the UNHCR in crisis regions. Streamlining the process, in this manner, would at a stroke annihilate the business model of the smugglers. In return for taking in those who have been vetted and found to be genuine refugees, we would be able to return failed asylum seekers back to France.

There are no simple solutions to what are tricky and challenging issues but I am confident that with mutual respect and understanding, we can make real headway in ensuring that our asylum system works in the best interests of our citizens whilst upholding our moral and legal obligations.


David Simmonds is the Conservative MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration

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