Rishi Sunak's plan to block all asylum claims may lead to hell on Earth – Ian Johnston

If other countries follow the UK’s lead and turn away all refugees, there will be no escape for the victims of utterly horrific human tragedies

"Claiming asylum, that's now blocked,” said Rishi Sunak as he appealed to Conservative MPs to back his Rwanda plan. It’s a fairly simple statement that passed by without too much comment last week. I found it surprising enough that I replayed the radio clip twice to double-check that I’d heard him right.

And yes, I had. Here was the Prime Minister saying the UK was no longer allowing anyone to claim asylum. But was it actually true? I decided to ask the Home Office. “I’d probably contact No 10’s press office about this one given it’s the Prime Minister’s words. Sorry, I can’t be of much more help here” was the reply. If it was true that no one was allowed to claim asylum, I’d have thought the Home Office would be able to confirm this, but no matter, I sought guidance from Downing Street.

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The only on-the-record comment that they provided was: “I would point you to the Bill itself which sets this out. And any further follow-ups on the legislation would be for the Home Office.” However, I can say that a government source – if you imagine I met a modern-day ‘Deep Throat’ in a badly lit car park as in the Watergate film, the reality is far more mundane – informed me that Sunak was actually talking about what the Rwanda Bill would do to stop “people who come here illegally from claiming asylum in the UK”.

I suspect this departmental ping pong was mainly caused by civil servants not wanting to be seen to contradict the Prime Minister. But, so far as I can tell, it’s not true to say that claiming asylum has been blocked. After all, in the year to September, more than 38,700 people were granted refugee status or other protection after making an asylum application.

However, it seems like Sunak and a large number of his MPs are determined to make this statement true. And there are already considerable obstacles. According to the UK Government’s website, which does not reflect Sunak’s statement, asylum applications “might not be considered” if the people involved “travelled to the UK through a ‘safe third country’” – such as, say, France – or even if they have “a connection to a safe third country” where they could claim asylum.

Also, anyone claiming asylum has to be in the UK. However, under the Illegal Migration Act, they are essentially not allowed to come here without getting permission to do so first, setting up a Catch-22 that may have prompted some to attempt to resolve the situation by crossing the English Channel in a small boat. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said the Act is “at variance with the country’s obligations under international human rights and refugee law” and “extinguishes access to asylum in the UK for anyone who arrives irregularly, having passed through a country – however briefly – where they did not face persecution”.

As suggested, I read the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill and, while some of the legal implications may have been beyond me, didn't see any plain statement that the UK had “blocked” all asylum claims. There were, however, some rather alarming statements. The “validity” of the act will not be affected by international laws such as “the Human Rights Convention, the Refugee Convention, the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of 1984...” or indeed “any other international law... whatsoever”.

Furthermore, everyone from the courts and immigration officers to the Home Secretary “must conclusively treat the Republic of Rwanda as a safe country”. What happens if Rwanda’s current situation – deemed safe by the government but not by the Supreme Court – changes dramatically, undeniably, for the worse?

I set out wanting to find out if Sunak was right – whether “claiming asylum, that's now blocked” was a true statement – because, if so, I would find that appalling. It might not be true now, but it may soon will be, effectively at least. Perhaps the Prime Minister’s mangling of tenses was designed to send a message to asylum seekers – as well as the voters who object to them.

Standing up for the right to claim asylum is sometimes portrayed as a “luxury view”. However, the potential fate of about 200 former members of the Afghan special forces, who were trained and fought alongside British soldiers, provides an example of the people we are discussing. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan, they fled to Pakistan, but it is now threatening to send them back to face a likely death sentence. Sunak can choose to turn his back on these people, but as General Sir Richard Barrons, who served in Afghanistan for more than 12 years, rightly told BBC Newsnight this would be “a disgrace... a betrayal”. A life-and-death issue is the opposite of a luxury.

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Obviously, the UK cannot play host to every refugee on the planet. But in seeking to abandon its international responsibilities entirely, to refuse to take its fair share, it is inviting other countries to do the same. With anti-immigrant populists on the rise the world over, there will be no shortage of those who say their governments must follow in Britain’s footsteps.

Ultimately, if this becomes part of a new, callously indifferent world order, there will be no places of refuge and the citizens of peaceful, wealthy countries will simply watch, from behind walls and barbed wire fences, as various utterly horrific human tragedies unfold. People of the future, presumably inured to the suffering all around, may look back and marvel at the ‘naivety’ of a time when refugees – victims of war and oppression – were treated as individual human beings, rather than being dehumanised, belittled and abandoned.

Sunak’s vision for Britain is an isolationist one that will not work in the real world – or at least any world worth living in.



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