A plan to stop people in small boats claiming asylum – but is there a ‘safe’ route to the UK?

UK

The government is stepping up its bid to stop migrants crossing the Channel in small boats with a new set of legislation.

This week the Illegal Migration Bill will be presented in the House of Commons – and will reportedly include a ban on asylum claims for anyone who arrives in the UK illegally.

Refugee groups have said this would effectively “shut down” remaining legal routes for refugees claiming asylum.

Here Sky News looks at what the plans are and where they leave people fleeing their home countries.

What’s in the plan?

Amid soaring numbers of small boats arriving in the UK, the government has made repeated pledges around illegal immigration in recent years.

It put forward its New Plan on Immigration in 2021, which saw the Nationality and Borders Act passed in April last year.

This increased prison sentences for people who smuggle migrants into the UK – and the migrants themselves (from six months to four years).

But the new bill being put forward this week is reported to go a step further with three new proposals:

They are:

• To stop anyone arriving in a small boat from subsequently claiming asylum

• To withdraw their right to appeal against automatic exclusion from the asylum system – or appeal again after they’ve been deported

• To prevent people using the Human Rights Act to block their deportations through the courts

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in December these changes would ensure “the only way to come to the UK for asylum will be through safe and legal routes”.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman added: “It has to be that if you come here illegally you will be detained and swiftly removed.”

Asylum claims vs ‘safe and legal’ immigration routes

To be eligible to seek asylum you must have already left your country and be unable to go back for fear of persecution on the grounds of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or sexual orientation.

You cannot claim asylum from outside the UK.

Seeking asylum is not the same as applying for a visa, which is granted before someone travels to the UK.

Similarly the government’s “safe and legal” immigration routes for refugees are different to the asylum seeker system.

Currently the “safe and legal immigration routes” are:

UK Resettlement Scheme – for refugees in camps whose neighbouring countries are at war or there is instability

Community Sponsorship – whereby already resettled refugees are matched with local organisations

Mandate Resettlement Scheme – for refugees who already have a close family member in the UK

Refugee family reunion visas – for immediate relatives of refugees already in the UK

For the year ending September 2022 most refugees who were successfully resettled in the UK were from Syria (56%), Sudan (15%), and Iraq (11%).

Afghanistan, Ukraine and Hong Kong

Far more people arrive legally in the UK through a small number of country-specific schemes than they do via the more general refugee resettlement ones.

While only 1,391 people successfully accessed the refugee resettlement scheme in the year to September 2022, 186,893 arrived through two Ukrainian schemes, 12,300 via two for Afghan nationals, and 144,576 through one for Hong Kong residents with British National Overseas status.

Immigration solicitor Harjap Singh Bhangal says: “The resettlement schemes aren’t available to everyone.

“They leave out a lot of people – even some Afghans who worked with the British Army – and only a few countries have a scheme.”

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4:08

UK is an ‘outlier’ on human rights

‘Legal routes often inaccessible’

According to the latest briefing for MPs: “Safe and legal routes are often inaccessible” because “people who are being persecuted do not have the time to research the safe and legal routes into a particular country”.

It also says that “Home Office officials recognise that, in practice, there are safe and legal routes from some places and not from others”.

Of the 33,029 people who arrived in small boats between January and September 2022, the majority were from Albania (11,241), Afghanistan (4,781), Iran (3,594), Iraq (3,074), Syria (2,191), Eritrea (1,509) and Sudan (1,211).

In December the prime minister said new Home Office guidance will no longer consider Albania an unsafe country, automatically rejecting “thousands” of applications from there – and effectively removing their right to claim asylum.

There has been criticism of the Afghan resettlement schemes for letting many who put their lives at risk for the British Army fall through the gaps.

Read more:
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Anaysis: Sunak hopes new bill will make Tories look tough on immigration

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights programme director, tells Sky News: “The system is blatantly discriminatory on the grounds of country of origin.

“Apart from a limited number of Afghans, Ukrainians and people from Hong Kong, there is no legal route for asylum seekers.

“There is no visa application to seek asylum but the government requires that any asylum claim has to be made from inside the UK.

“So people have to rely on people smugglers to get to the UK so they can claim asylum.”

As an example, he adds: “If you’re Iranian and at risk of a government that is doing atrocious things to large numbers of its people and want to seek asylum in the UK – you can’t make an asylum claim.

“You can apply for a visa to work or study here. But if the person dealing with your application suspects the reason you’re applying is because you’re seeking asylum, your claim will be rejected.”

Can the government deport everyone who arrives in small boats?

According to the Refugee Council, two thirds of the people who arrived in small boats last year were eligible for asylum.

And more than 80% of those from some of the top countries – Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan and Syria – had their applications approved.

But it says by blocking their claims automatically, the government would leave 45,000 migrants “stuck in limbo facing long periods locked up in detention” each year.

Under the UN Refugee Convention, people escaping war or persecution cannot be forced to return there.

The government also can’t return people or send them to a ‘third’ country – like Rwanda – unless they have agreed to take them.

“You can’t send people back unless there is a return agreement in place with their home country and we only have a very small number of return agreements,” Mr Bhangal says.

“We should have at least 200 in place before we attempt something like this.

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6:04

Sky News speaks to migrants about government’s new plans

“Some asylum claims are taking two years because the Home Office hasn’t got the staff or the staff aren’t properly trained.

“The detention centres are full – we just don’t have the infrastructure to do something like this.”

Mr Valdez-Symonds adds that if the latest bill passes, the government could stop judges granting appeals on human rights grounds.

“The government is going to ask parliament to allow it not to fulfil its international obligations to protect refugees,” he says.

“That will then be the law of this country – so cases can go to court – but that court will only be able to apply UK law.”

What does the government say?

In a statement, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The home secretary has been clear that if you arrive in the UK illegally, you should not be allowed to stay.

“We will shortly introduce legislation which will ensure that people arriving in the UK illegally are detained and promptly returned to their home country or a safe third country.

“Our work with France is also vital to tackling the unacceptable rise in dangerous Channel crossings. We share a determination to tackle this issue together, head-on, to stop the boats.”

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