Yesterday, the government introduced yet another piece of asylum legislation doomed to failure. This was an opportunity to end chronic delays in processing claims and introduce safe routes that negate the need for refugees to take dangerous journeys. Instead we are seeing more of the same so-called ‘deterrence’ policies that have already failed on every possible metric, while causing untold harm and bringing the asylum system grinding to a halt.
Last year the government introduced processes for making asylum claims ‘inadmissible’ – this policy, intended to have a ‘deterrent’ effect, has had the sole consequence of increasing waiting times and caused an alarming spike in the asylum backlog. This latest proposed legislation works in a similar way and there is not a shred of evidence that it will have different consequences.
As journalist May Bulman recently reported, the pursuit of unworkable, headline-grabbing policies has diverted focus and resources from asylum decision-making and, as one civil servant put it, a “neglect of the fundamentals of how the asylum system functions”.
We know these policies don’t work – the Home Office was even brazen enough to admit the lack of evidence in the course of last year’s Nationality and Borders Bill. We do know they cause distress, anguish and trauma on a massive scale. And this is just through announcing ever crueller measures with increasingly extreme rhetoric that make it clear to refugees: the UK government does not want you here. We have witnessed first-hand the unfolding mental health crisis among asylum seekers made to live in temporary accommodation for months or years, surviving on meagre subsistence payments without the legal right to work or participate in society.
A key part of the latest legislation is the intention to detain tens of thousands of people each year – possibly as many as 60,000 men, women and even children fleeing persecution will be locked up indefinitely without trial. Detention destroys lives and particularly those who are already vulnerable, as people arriving in the UK fleeing conflict or persecution usually are. Policies that traumatise tens of thousands of people will harm ‘integration’ and create further strain on public services when people are eventually released – the government knows they cannot be locked up forever, but in a radical departure from existing detention laws, the government will remove the power of individuals to challenge their detention.
The UK is in no position to implement this type of mass-scale performative cruelty. The prison population is on average around 90,000 people. Anyone who believes the government could lock up another 60,000 people next year is deluded, but that is the government’s proposal. The UK is nowhere near having the resources to do this state, and any attempt to actually implement these plans will only divert vital funds away from dealing with the cost of living crisis.
When it comes to deterrent policy, there are no new ideas. These proposals are a re-working of the Nationality and Borders Bill, and many other short-lived ideas that have been trialled over the past 20 years. The Guardian traced 43 times we were promised flashy new plans to end the crisis, once and for all.
The government could have introduced measures designed to increase the quality and efficiency of asylum decisions. That is what other European countries have done. It could also finally create safe routes for refugees to get to the UK, both by introducing a humanitarian visa and expanding the scope of family reunion. The government has shown no interest in doing so, despite leading figures such as Home Secretary Suella Braverman being unable to explain how a refugee should travel to the UK.
The longer the government persists with deterrence-based policies, the more difficult it will be to eventually implement sensible and evidence-based solutions. The government cannot continue to take the public for fools, and these measures will do nothing to prevent further tragedies in the Channel.