By Michael Goldin, immigration lawyer and René Cassin detention volunteers group coordinator
Earlier this year the Home Secretary published the government’s New Plan for Immigration, which sets out proposed changes to immigration and asylum law in the UK. These proposals are alarming, fundamentally altering the government’s approach to dealing with asylum applicants, vulnerable migrants, and victims of trafficking.
Central to the planned proposals are the government’s wish to privilege asylum seekers who entered the country via ‘safe and legal’ routes over those who did so clandestinely (illegally). Part of this is a rehash of something the government already attempts to do – be able to refuse to even consider asylum applicants if they have already travelled through another ‘safe’ third country. Yet the government has hamstrung its own ability to do so by choosing to no longer be a signatory to the Dublin III regulations (the EU rules for determining which member state is responsible for processing an asylum claim) and by failing to negotiate even a single agreement on this issue with a third country.
In any event, it is manifestly absurd to suggest that people fleeing persecution and war should take the time to book flights and pack their passports or that the small number of ‘safe’ countries that border countries with fleeing refugees should have to absorb every single asylum seeker. A safe and legal route is a privilege, which most asylum seekers are not afforded when fleeing a dangerous environment, including war and persecution. This is a complex issue which needs to be dealt with collectively with other countries. Creating laws which essentially say, ‘not in my back yard’, without putting the issue into its complex international context, fails to address this in any rational and effective way.
The government also wants to accelerate and enable claims ‘to be dealt with from detention’ bearing suspicious resemblance to the widely discredited ‘detained fast-track’ system, which fails to comply with fundamental human rights for asylum seekers and migrants. This was a system in place between 2000 and 2015 in which asylum seekers who were detained under immigration powers had their asylum applications and appeals dealt with on an accelerated timetable that severely limited their ability to adequately prepare their case or even access legal representation at all. In 2015 the system was found to be unlawful by the High Court with Mr Justice Nichol stating that the system was ‘structurally unfair, because their abbreviated timetable and the restricted case management powers available to the judge created a serious procedural disadvantage’. Attempts were made by the Home Office to bring it back again in 2019 but these were blocked by the Tribunal Procedure Committee.
It is clear from these plans that the government is intent on strategically stripping back the right and proper access to legal advice and fair hearings, making the UK as hostile as possible to those seeking refuge. Gaining an account of someone’s experience of persecution takes time, expertise, and a humane approach. It involves building a relationship of trust with claimants, many of whom are understandably suspicious of authority following prior mistreatment by the authorities in their home country. For people who are victims of torture, human trafficking or who are suffering from PTSD, it can take time for them to feel safe enough to be able to articulate the psychological trauma they are suffering, often only feeling able to do so after a number of meetings with a medical professional (something which can only take place if arranged by the detainee’s solicitor as it is certainly not done by the Home Office). There is also a range of other evidence that is required to adequately prepare an asylum application or appeal (such as medical reports, country evidence and witness statements) which such a system often obstructs applicants from obtaining. A sped-up process cannot as such give asylum seekers a fair opportunity to back up their claims, making it far more likely their application or appeal will be unfairly refused. It is clear that the new plans are incapable of attending to the complex needs and circumstances of both migrant and asylum seekers. They are, in short, hostile by design.
The government’s plan also lays out an intention to ‘bring forward measures to expand the government’s asylum estate’. In other words, to expand and strengthen the UK’s already unjust, immoral and ineffective immigration detention system, something René Cassin has long campaigned against.
The government’s plan was published on 24th March, three days before the first night of the festival of Pesach, when Jews around the world communed together in gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy today, and to meditate on the meaning of liberation. As a people we strive to retain the collective memory of our experience of bondage. This is the same experience of bondage experienced by many others in the present day, in our country and in our name. It is vital that we stand in solidarity with those whose freedoms are being stripped away in the spurious name of ‘strong borders’ or ‘public safety’. We must assert our opposition to the detained fast-track process or any expansion of immigration detention.