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The Home Office must replace bullying rhetoric with fair and effective immigration policies

4 min read

The “hostile environment” is being unleashed on genuine refugees. If its aim was to remove failed asylum seekers, it’s not working.

The High Court has now confirmed it was illegal for the government to detain asylum seekers in “squalid” prison-like conditions in Napier Barracks, Kent. It was also inhumane and, at a time of pandemic, dangerous.  

In the words of the judge: “Insofar as the defendant considered that the accommodation was adequate for the needs of the claimants, that view was irrational”. The defendant was the home secretary, Priti Patel, who could now be the subject of a damages claim.    

The findings of the judicial review were damning. The court found Patel ignored Public Health England’s advice that the barracks presented a risk to health. At least 200 people went on to contract Covid-19 at Napier, with the associated risk for the local community, other residents and NHS staff.

The numbers of refugee children washed up on the shores of Kent is almost twice the number it can safely manage

The court also found that Patel ignored fire safety advice and, most concerning of all, breached the human rights of the asylum seekers who were held in detention-like camps. I raised these concerns in February only to be told by the government that they were unfounded.   

A pattern is emerging of a Home Office that makes bad decisions on the fringes of, or in breach of, the law. Moreover, its immigration policies are ineffective. The overall picture is one of incompetence, disguised with bullying rhetoric.  

According to Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers and author of Welcome to Britain, Fixing our Broken Immigration System: “We’re seeing a lot of bluster and distraction at the Home Office but the real story is that as many as three out of four asylum seekers are actually refugees who will ultimately settle in the UK. Yet waiting times have shot up on Priti Patel’s watch and enforced and voluntary returns have reached historic lows. The cruel rhetoric looks like a mask for managerial incompetence.”  

Yeo points to Home Office figures showing around 60 to 70 per cent of asylum seekers in the UK are given refugee status under the 1951 Geneva Convention, that waiting times for asylum claims to be processed have increased by 300 per cent since Patel became home secretary, and that all forms of returns have plummeted since 2012.

What this illustrates is that the current “hostile environment” is certainly being unleashed on genuine refugees – people who will go on to be our neighbours – but if its desired aim was to remove failed asylum seekers, it’s not working.   

Indications from Conservative-run Kent Council are that the Home Office will soon be facing new legal challenges to its failed immigration policies. Since the government scrapped all legal routes for child refugees in Europe to claim asylum here, the increase in numbers of refugee children being washed up on the shores of Kent is almost twice the number it can safely manage. 

A judicial review now being proposed by Kent Council claims there has been a “refusal and/or continuing failure by the home secretary to exercise her powers to prepare a mandatory scheme”.  

Meanwhile, Patel’s ‘New Plan for Immigration’ prompted a volley of complaints after the accompanying press release made unsubstantiated claims about refugees and erroneously equated asylum seekers with “child rapists” and may have breached the Civil Service Code. 

The Home Office response to the legal challenges being brought against it is to ramp up the rhetoric once more – this time the threat is to judicial reviews, including restricting the right of NGOs to bring them.

Evidence informing the Napier judgment came from NGOs who, in the words of one of the barristers, “provided a lifeline to residents at Napier Barracks, ensuring they were able to access levels of support the Home Office had unlawfully failed to provide”. 

And yet the government continues to attack what it describes as unelected courts “overruling democracy”, rather than putting its own house in order and working within the law, as it should.   

It’s time the nasty rhetoric was replaced with fair, effective immigration policies. Whether Patel can deliver those is a matter for the Prime Minister to consider at his next reshuffle.


Lord Dubs is a Labour peer.

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