The UK’s Ongoing Criminalisation Of Asylum Seekers

A guest blog from Phil Nash of the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of UK
immigration lawyers providing free advice and support for asylum-seekers and victims of abuse.

The toxic conversation around migration in the UK demonstrates few signs of improvement.
Misinformation continues to be rife, with hostility to migrants encouraged by both the
media and scaremongering politicians. Talk of floods of migrants inundating the country has
combined with Home Office moves to criminalise those entering from abroad. Asylum
seekers find themselves increasingly demonized and unguarded by the machinery of our
faltering Justice System.

The harsh reality of life as a migrant is often forgotten within this hysteria. It is rarely
acknowledged that migration can be a consequence of necessity, rather than choice. Asylum
seekers have a legal right to claim refuge, and yet successive UK governments have set out to make the process of achieving legal status as difficult as possible. To claim asylum in the UK, for example, a migrant must do so from within the country’s borders. On this basis, many assume asylum seekers are entering illegally, when in fact they are only following required protocol. The Home Office also expects those seeking asylum to claim asylum immediately upon entry. This has become a handy loophole for officials looking to discredit asylum claims, as migrants new to the country are often unaware of this procedure.

For those who do make it to the UK, the long and convoluted journey to asylum begins. In
order to have their claim recognized, an asylum seeker must be able to demonstrate a
genuine fear of persecution that endangers their life or wellbeing. This equates to an
immediate shifting of responsibility onto the migrants themselves to provide evidence of
their own persecution. After an initial screening interview, a more substantive appointment
takes place in which the migrant is questioned in depth on the documentation they have
provided. Inconsistencies in accounts are often cited when claims are turned down, although
in practice these can happen due to human error or the stress of interrogation.

The Home Office continues to target this vulnerable group. The asylum process has been
refashioned to render it nearly impossible to navigate, with the spirit of Theresa May’s
‘hostile environment’ overshadowing procedures to this day. Although no longer official
policy, refusal rates at the initial decision stage increased in both 2016 and 2017, when 68% of initial decisions were refusals. Even more harmful was 2014’s ‘Deport First, Appeal Later’ scheme, which has fuelled xenophobia by framing asylum seekers as a criminal element to be purged.

One aspect of the asylum process rarely touched upon in the media is indefinite detention.
Although the Home Office states that detention should be used sparingly in asylum cases,
research shows it has become the norm rather than the exception. Many thousands are held
this way, some for extensive periods, causing untold mental distress through isolation. In
2018, 24,748 individuals were detained, some of these asylum seekers who had had their
claims rejected, others who were being held as their claims were being processed. In prison-
like surroundings, new arrivals to the country mingle with individuals who have lived and
worked here for years, convicted criminals awaiting deportation, and those who have
overstayed their visas. To make matters worse, 63 children entered detention in 2018,
despite the government’s claim seven years earlier that child detention had ended for good.

The UK is in fact the only EU country to have not recognized, legally speaking, an upper limit to these detentions. As revealed by a 2019 Parliamentary report, currently 12% of detainees are held for six months or longer. Home Office guidance may state that decisions on asylum claims should take no longer than half a year, but it is far from uncommon for a claimant to be waiting upwards of twelve months for a decision. Recent Home Office statistics show the number of people waiting over six months for a decision is at an all-time high, with half of all cases stuck in limbo for the duration of that time. These ‘cases’, lest we forget, involve real people, who suffer daily the strain of being treated like criminals. Ostracized and segregated, even the claimants who escape detention with their asylum claims successful carry the mark of their removal from society. Homelessness and destitution often result, and suicide and mental health issues are both on the rise.

Our politicians have repeatedly scapegoated migrants by helping to spread the message that
they are a threat to national security. As recently as this August, the Home Secretary Priti
Patel met with her French counterpart Christophe Castaner to discuss increasing surveillance
and interceptions of asylum seekers crossing the Channel. The tune from our leaders is
relentlessly one-note: migrants are a threat. The media too play a role in shaping and
disseminating this idea. Consider, for example, their willingness to misrepresent the ‘Dublin Regulation’ – the inaccurate belief that asylum seekers are legally obliged to claim asylum in the first country they enter. The truth is, as ever, inconvenient to those in power. In reality the asylum seeker has no legal obligation to claim and remain in the first safe country they arrive in, and an asylum seeker who keeps moving is neither breaking international law nor undermining their future right to seek refugee status.

It is now critical that the UK’s asylum system undergoes a complete overhaul, and fast. Our
politicians and media have a responsibility to dispel damaging myths about those who seek
refuge in our country. To fight their stigmatization, the legalities of asylum seekers’ claims should be emphasized, and a light shone on the failings of our current legal system. Every aspect of asylum seekers’ treatment demands a rethink: from the ban on working while
their status is undecided, to the effect on public opinion of spending millions of pounds
extending our border security. Ultimately, the government’s criminalisation of asylum
seekers is a choice, a bad choice, and it must end.

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