Asylum seekers who enter the UK “irregularly” – that is, without the required legal documents for entry – will be moved to asylum centres abroad where they will be held until their claims have been processed.
This is part of the UK government’s proposed UK Nationality and Borders Bill. Though the details for this so-called “offshore asylum processing” remain unclear, the programme will simply further displace people who have been forced from their homes and are seeking protection. It is a counterproductive response to forced migration – and represents a form of violence that undermines international law.
This model was first introduced in Australia in 2001 and Denmark has recently passed legislation to enable a similar policy. It is not clear where the UK’s offshore asylum centres would be, and whether any state would agree to host them, although there has been much speculation – including on Ascension Island or on oil rigs or disused ferries.
At any rate, these plans are not compatible with international law and have been widely condemned by civil society and international organisations, including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The right to claim asylum is a universal right, which is enshrined in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, to which the UK is a signatory.
Anyone has a right to claim asylum regardless of how they arrive in a particular country. Asylum seekers have a right of access to the country and to a fair legal process. In addition, under the principle of non-refoulement, asylum seekers and refugees cannot be returned to a country where they might be subject to persecution.
Yet the existence of these rights does not mean that people have access to straightforward routes into many countries. Looking at the European context, it has become increasingly difficult to enter EU countries and the UK by legal means, due to the development of sophisticated border regimes since the 1980s, including visa requirements and a range of other physical and technological bordering systems. The latter include the European Border Surveillance System (Eurosur) and the Schengen Information System (SIS).
The development of internal “freedom of movement” for EU citizens went hand-in-hand with the fortification of the EU’s external borders. People who are forcefully displaced often do not have the documents required to formally cross these borders. This means they can only travel to the EU and UK “irregularly” – turning to smugglers to facilitate travel. This might mean ending up on a rickety boat in the Mediterranean Sea or passing the Alps on foot in snowy conditions. As a result, journeys are lengthier, more dangerous, and more costly.
These people are often erroneously referred to in common parlance as “illegal migrants”. My research – and that of other migration scholars – shows that they have rather been made illegal by restrictive border policies. For instance, there are no visas for claiming asylum. The fact is that legal pathways to protection are inaccessible to the vast majority of people seeking asylum.
The new UK Nationality and Borders Bill seeks to fortify the distinction between people who arrive regularly and those who arrive irregularly. The former will be allowed to apply for asylum in the UK, while the latter will be shipped to processing centres offshore, thus denying them the right to apply for asylum in the UK. As noted by the UNHCR, making such a distinction contradicts the Refugee Convention by creating a two-tier system.
It is disturbing to see how far the UK government – and especially the Home Office under Priti Patel’s leadership – is willing to push its hostile environment agenda. The measures are not only in breach of international law but will also be inefficient and costly, will not respond to the perceived problem.
From the government’s perspective, moving asylum seekers to countries that might not have the same rights protections would mean not being “burdened” by human rights regulations such as protection from inhuman and degrading treatment. Having said that, it must be said that such protections are constantly under threat in the UK, too. The situation in Napier Barracks in Folkestone, on England’s south coast, where asylum seekers were detained in sub-standard conditions that were ruled unlawful by the high court, is but one example of this.
Moving asylum seekers to another country would be a dangerous development from a human rights perspective and might constitute refoulement. In addition, it is not clear that the proposals could be implemented in practice; and it would be very costly to do so.
Politics of exhaustion
I see the plans as another example of what my colleague and I have called the “politics of exhaustion” – the effort to make life as difficult as possible for irregular migrants. Exhaustion is both a deliberate political strategy to wear people down and a lived experience of enduring this violence.
As has been shown repeatedly over the years, such measures to deter people from travelling to the UK are hugely inefficient and just make people’s lives miserable. They do not address the underlying reasons people are forced to move, which means people will continue to arrive in the UK (although the numbers remain relatively low: around 27,000 people claimed asylum in the UK in the year ending March 2021, compared to just over 100,000 in Germany).
The sad irony is that, among the many reasons that forced migrants end up in the UK are the connections forged through colonialism and empire. Most asylum seekers in the UK come from countries that were part of the British empire.
A more inclusive and cost-effective approach would be one that starts with solidarity, resisting the differentiation between people on the basis of how they entered the UK, and acknowledging the humanity of all migrants as people with their own histories, skills, stories and dreams. Enabling asylum seekers to settle in and contribute to society, for instance through work and education, would benefit us all.