Government plans to overhaul the asylum system have been branded “cruel and unfair”, with campaigners arguing that they “slam the door in the face” of people who could be in urgent need of the UK’s protection.
Immigration reforms announced in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday include proposals to refuse any asylum seeker who has passed through a safe country before reaching the UK the right to refugee status in Britain.
It confirms ministers’ intention to implement their New Plan for Immigration, unveiled in March, under which refugees which who arrive in the UK via unauthorised routes will be denied protection and instead regularly reassessed for removal to safe countries they passed through.
People who cannot immediately be removed would be stripped of benefits – placing them in the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) category – and have their family reunion rights limited.
The Queen said that under the New Plan for Immigration legislation, measures would be “brought forward to establish a fairer immigration system that strengthens the United Kingdom’s borders and deters criminals who facilitate dangerous and illegal journeys”.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the plans “undermined” the UK’s “vital commitment” to providing protection to those in need by “unjustly differentiating” between refugees based on how they arrive.
“This is a cruel and unfair approach that slams the door in the face of people who could be in urgent need of our protection,” he added.
A background briefing to the speech states that the new rules would “better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum, deter illegal entry into the UK, break the business model of criminal trafficking networks and protect the lives of those they endanger”.
It said it would ensure the system did not “reward” those who enter the UK “illegally” and that those who have travelled through a safe country “where they could have reasonably claimed asylum, such as France or Belgium”, would not be admitted into the UK asylum system.
The Independent revealed last month that a number of EU countries, including France and Belgium, did not intend to strike bilateral agreements with Britain to facilitate the deportation of refugees to Europe, in a blow to the Home Office’s plans.
It comes after the UNHCR expressed serious concern about the reforms, saying they will “damage lives” and undermine international cooperation on refugee issues, as well as being expensive and difficult to implement.
Minnie Rahman, campaign and communications director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the asylum plans were an “attack on what it means to care for each other”.
She continued: “The immigration system is in need of desperate reform but not of the kind being proposed in this speech.
“The government's plans would roll back our commitment to the refugee convention and make the asylum system more dangerous – denying people safe routes and pushing them into the hands of people smugglers.”
Beth Gardiner-Smith, chief executive of Safe Passage International, echoed her concerns, saying: “This is not who we are as a country – the plan is cruel and ineffective, only serving to benefit smugglers’ bottom line.
“Instead, the government must open safe routes to the UK for people seeking sanctuary, which would prevent dangerous journeys and stop people smuggling.”
In 2019 UK asylum applications increased by 21 per cent on the previous year to almost 36,000, the highest number since 2016 – though they dropped by 18 per cent in 2020. In 2019 around half of asylum seekers arrived via unauthorised routes.