(Leon Neal/Getty Images)

An island for asylum

Is the Home Office serious about sending asylum seekers to a British island?


The 800 asylum seekers that crossed the English Channel so far this year represent a threefold increase on the same period in 2020 – a year which saw over 8,000 make the journey in total.

One of the few areas of widespread agreement in the debate about Britain’s policy towards asylum seekers is that migrants that cross the English Channel in dangerously flimsy craft, including inflatable dinghies, should be rescued and then processed properly but that there needs to be disincentives aimed at dissuading them from making so perilous a voyage in the first place. In this, “them” is not just the migrants themselves. More especially, the policy should target the people-smugglers fostering and profiteering from their clients’ heightened expectations.

That is as far as the consensus goes, for there is no agreement on the form that the discouragement should tale. One way to dissuade asylum seekers from crossing the Channel perilously would be to make it much easier to do it by safer means. Relaxed immigration rules would encourage economic migrants to apply officially through that category. It is because they do not currently qualify as economic migrants that they rely on people-smugglers to create an alternative narrative so that they can then portray themselves as in need of asylum, taking the risky route to British shores in the process. If only they could apply easily, honestly and with positive expectations, why would they pay criminals to help them take the dangerous course?

Politically there is an obvious problem with this – making immigration easier is likely to increase it at a time when the British government is prioritising high skills-based migration rather that based on the dreams of the migrant rather than the priorities of the host. Hence, the alternative way to dissuade those claiming asylum who would not qualify on economic grounds from coming to Britain is to no longer make Britain the place where they will be processed. Once approved, genuine asylum seekers would then be given settlement in the UK.

Next week, the home secretary, Priti Patel, will set out proposals to reform the current system. Will those priorities involve consideration of a British version of Australia’s “Pacific Solution”?  On and off in the last twenty years, it has seen visa-lacking migrants to Australia sent to Papua New Guinea and Nauru for processing. If approved, they are either settled there or in another country that agrees to take them. At its reintroduction in 2013, when upwards of 18,000 migrants a year were making the dangerous voyage from Indonesia to Australia, the country’s Labor Party prime minister, Kevin Rudd, promised, “from now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees.” That remains the case.

The policy has failed in the sense that it has resulted, in some cases, in migrants spending unacceptably long periods – frequently years – in detention and of at least ten reported suicides. But it has succeeded in destroying the people-smuggling business and stemming the flow of dangerous and forlorn boat journeys. Patel is not likely to replicate Canberra’s measures with their blanket ban on settlement in Australia, not least because of the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights and the prospect of a legal defeat. But is offshore-processing viable?

There are obvious differences. It is not clear what the surrogate for Papua New Guinea would be. Australia has a long history with that Commonwealth country, having administered it from 1914 until 1975 and it pays PNG to take the migrants. Court cases have thrown its future into doubt, but PNG has found this source of revenue worthwhile. Yet, it is hard to think of an equivalent country or island group within a few hours flight-time of the UK inclined to make a similar calculation.

That has not stopped the Home Office looking. With remarkable ineptness, government sources have not dampened down speculation about which locations might be about to be leant on. It is inept because no responsible politician in any of the suggested domains is going to publicly welcome the prospect of their territory becoming (as it would be described) a “dumping ground” for Britain’s asylum seekers unless generous compensatory terms have first been agreed. It does not appear that this necessary preparation has even commenced.

From Whitehall, the British overseas territory of Gibraltar might seem like a neat solution. Secure but under-used armed forces buildings and ancillary sites could be pressed into service as migrant reception centres. Wholly foreseeably, Gibraltarians see it differently. Their chief minister, Fabian Picardo, has written to Patel asking her to confirm that the speculation is unfounded (evidence that he was never even informally approached) and that, either way, The Rock is a non-starter on this score. By publicising his blunt message to Patel, Picardo has covered his own back and ensured Gibraltar will not be targeted.

The Home Office has also failed to rule out the crown dependency of the Isle of Man. The island hosted internment camps during the second world war, but why would the tax haven want to take asylum seekers-for-cash now? A Manx government spokesperson has confirmed it too has not been approached by the Home Office, but that it would not agree to the proposal without the support of its parliament. That support it is hard to foresee being forthcoming.

As a public relations masterclass in how to raise apprehensions about something that was only at the theoretical stage, this casual folly takes some beating

It is tempting to think that the Home Office has been caught on the backfoot, the victim of journalists playing public guessing games with locations that were never actually in contention but making for a proactive news story in the meantime. Whitehall was, however, happy to provide a steer last year that distant locations, like St Helena and Ascension, were formally ruled-out, so why not those closer to home?

The most politically incompetent part of the Home Office’s exercise in thinking aloud is its explicit failure to rule out sending asylum seekers to one or more of Scotland’s islands. If Whitehall cannot see the political danger in letting this rumour gather strength then it is not clear what purpose was served by the Union Unit, designed amongst other things to encourage cross-departmental integrated thinking to boost the case for the Union. The new look Cabinet Union Strategy Committee has its work cut out.

The rumour is not entirely fabricated. Last October, a Whitehall source briefed the Herald newspaper in Glasgow that “it would be remiss of the Home Office not to look at all options on how best to resolve this problem. All these options are on the table, including using Scottish islands. Everything is being considered … and nothing has been ruled out.” As a public relations masterclass in how to raise apprehensions about something that was only at the theoretical stage, this casual folly takes some beating. It achieved the inevitable tweet from Nicola Sturgeon, that we “can rest assured that any proposal to treat human beings like cattle in a holding pen will be met with the strongest possible opposition from me.”

Even considering dumping asylum seekers on Hebridean or Northern Isles communities is, as Alistair Carmichael MP, the Liberal Democrats’ MP for Orkney and Shetland, says, “disrespectful” and “an attitude straight out of the nineteenth century.” Carmichael is a Unionist phrasing as temperately as possible the vernacular response, “oi, England, we’re nae yer colony.” And if that is what the Lib Dems think, the response of Scotland’s more carnivorous phrasemakers can be imagined.

If the Home Office is going to announce it is planning to use a part of the British Isles or an overseas territory as a camp for asylum seekers then it should have the political nous, as well as the courtesy, to agree it with the relevant representative body first. Neither nous nor courtesy are current hallmarks of the Home Office.

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