Priti Patel immigration plan: what are the proposed changes to the asylum system and will they be effective?

Home Secretary Priti Patel will soon unveil a series of reforms, billed as “the biggest overhaul of the UK’s asylum system in decades”

Priti Patel immigration plan: what are the proposed changes to the asylum system and will they be effective? (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

While the full details of the scheme will be announced later today (24 Mar), the Home Secretary has laid out some of the main aspects of the proposals.

These include a move to prevent people who enter the UK “illegally” from obtaining permanent residency, and the introduction of “more accurate age assessments”, aimed at preventing adults from posing as children.

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Further proposed measures, including tougher maximum sentences for people smugglers, are said to be intended to make “profiteering” from “illegal” migration to the UK “no longer worth the risk”.

The proposals have attracted significant criticism from human rights organisations and experts on immigration, with the British Red Cross saying the changes will “effectively create an unfair two-tiered system”, and referring to the measures as “inhumane”.

Other experts have taken issue with the characterisation of some asylum seekers as being “illegal,” because they have passed through “safe countries”.

Ms Patel said she makes “no apology” for the measures, describing them as “undeniably fair”.

She commented: “If people arrive illegally, they will no longer have the same entitlements as those who arrive legally, and it will be harder for them to stay.

“If, like over 60 per cent of illegal arrivals, they have travelled through a safe country like France to get here, they will not have immediate entry into the asylum system – which is what happens today.

“And we will stop the most unscrupulous abusing the system by posing as children, by introducing tougher, more accurate age assessments.

“Profiteering from illegal migration to Britain will no longer be worth the risk, with new maximum life sentences for people smugglers.

“I make no apology for these actions being firm, but as they will also save lives and target people smugglers, they are also undeniably fair.”

What does it mean to enter the UK ‘illegally’ as an asylum seeker?

Under international law, asylum seekers are entitled to claim asylum in any country they wish, regardless of whether they have travelled through so-called ‘safe countries’ on the way.

This does not mean that they will be granted asylum, only that their claim will be processed, and many of those whose claims are unsuccessful will be deported.

Chief executive officer of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, argued that the way in which an asylum seeker enters the UK has no bearing on the strength of their claim, which relates to the degree of risk or persecution they face and other issues.

He said: “The government is seeking to unjustly differentiate between the deserving and undeserving refugee by choosing to provide protection for those fleeing war and terror based on how they travel to the UK.

“The reality is that, when faced with upheaval, ordinary people are forced to take extraordinary measures and do not have a choice about how they seek safety.

“The government is effectively creating a two tier system where some refugees are unfairly punished for the way they are able to get to the UK.”

Can people make asylum claims without travelling to the UK?

Migrants are only able to claim asylum once they reach the country where they want their claim to be processed.

Experts say that a lack of safe routes means asylum seekers are more likely to try dangerous methods, such as channel crossings in boats or in the back of lorries.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) has raised concerns the proposals could have the opposite effect to that desire, in making asylum seekers more reliant on dangerous crossings facilitated by criminal gangs.

Chief executive of JCWI, Satbir Singh, said: “Under these proposals, LGBTQ+ people and those fleeing political or religious persecution will be left with no options. Those at our borders trying to reach family and friends in the UK will be pushed into the hands of people smugglers. “

What legitimate routes exist for asylum seekers to reach the UK?

For many migrants already in Europe (such as those in northern France and Belgium) or who wish to travel from conflict zones like Yemen and Eritrea, there are no ‘legal’ routes to entering the UK in order to claim asylum.

Many organisations have long called for the creation of more safe routes to asylum as a more effective way of reducing the need for people to pay criminal gangs to help them reach the UK.

Chief executive of the British Red Cross, Mike Adamson, said: “At the heart of reform should be the creation of safe routes, like resettlement programmes, humanitarian visas and ways of reuniting families torn apart by war and persecution. 

“People should have a safe, secure home where they can get the support they need to deal with their trauma and start rebuilding their lives before and after a decision has been reached. And we must speed up asylum decisions and get them right first time, to prevent so many from being left in limbo.”

The Labour Party has said it recognises the need for change within the UK’s asylum system, but that the Home Office’s proposals will “do next to nothing to stop people making dangerous crossings.”

Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, said: “Measures are clearly needed to speed up processes and stop criminal gangs profiting from dangerous crossings.

“However, we fear these plans will do next to nothing to stop people making dangerous crossings, and risk withdrawing support from desperate people, such as victims of human trafficking.”