Refugee Survival Trust (RST) has been supporting some of the most vulnerable people in society for 24 years. RST was created in response to the need to protect fundamental human rights aligned to the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) 1950 and the 1951 Convention guaranteeing refugee’s human rights and its 1967 Protocol.
We provide an immediate response to people seeking asylum protection and refugees who are destitute in Scotland, through the provision of destitution grant aid and temporary community-based accommodation for those who would otherwise be homeless. We also provide other types of grants including travel, education, and employment; provide opportunities for community integration, skills development, and volunteering; we raise awareness, campaign, conduct and commission research to affect positive change and influence national policy.
We lead the Destitute Asylum Seeker Service (DASS) in Scotland, a partnership approach to finding routes out of destitution. Together we support people in the asylum system who are experiencing destitution and who are struggling to meet their most basic needs because they have no Home Office financial support or accommodation. DASS provides casework support, legal advice, emergency shelter and temporary accommodation to assist people seeking asylum facing destitution to work towards resolving their situation, which gives us considerable insight into the experiences of people navigating the asylum system.
We are extremely concerned about the language, tone, misleading data, and the reform proposals contained within The New Plan for Immigration (the New Plan), presented to the UK Parliament by the Home Secretary on 24 March 2021, which contains substantive changes to policies and legislation of the UK asylum and immigration system. This written response presents the views of Refugee Survival Trust and focuses on the central principles of the New Plan.
On 26 April 2021, over 75 charities, belief groups and community organisations from across Scotland wrote to the Prime Minister expressing shared concerns to the New Plan for Immigration. This letter can be read here https://www.scottishrefugeecouncil.org.uk/letter-to-the-prime-minister-home-secretary-and-secretary-of-state-for-scotland-on-the-new-immigration-plan/.The letter conveys serious and wide-ranging concerns and opposition from across Scottish civil society to the New Plan.
Refugee Survival Trust rejects the basis of much of the content, and the ‘consultation’ process for the UK Government’s New Plan for Immigration. We urge the UK Government to reconsider these harmful proposals, which will have dangerous consequences for existing and new refugees seeking protection in the UK. We implore the Home Secretary to take more time to consult with asylum organisations, charities, academics, and people with lived experience, to fully understand and uphold the government’s responsibilities under international law and introduce reforms that will address the current evidenced and long-standing flaws of the UK asylum system, which contribute to homelessness, trauma, exploitation, trafficking, isolation, poor mental and physical health, and wider societal problems in the UK. We also urge the Home Secretary to adopt the human rights PANEL principles 1.
Our concerns about the new plan are:
The language and tone of the document is divisive, inflammatory, and uses unconstructive terms. The persistent use of the terms “illegal”, “legal” and “criminal” will compound the erroneous perception and prejudice that people seeking asylum and refugees face in the UK, increasing inequality and discrimination.
The concepts of “legal” and ‘“illegal” immigration are introduced but are not clearly defined. There is an implication that anyone who comes to the UK through other European countries or by other means than recognised by the UK Government in the New Plan are entering the UK illegally. There is no legal requirement for a refugee to claim asylum in any particular country. Neither the 1951 Refugee Convention nor EU law requires a refugee to claim asylum in one country rather than another. Nor is there any rule requiring refugees to claim in the first safe country in which they arrive. There is also an implication that those entering the UK in this way are economic/criminal migrants. There is no evidence to support this. There is and should be no such thing as an “illegal” route to claiming asylum. The new plan conflates Foreign National Offenders with immigration ‘overstayers’ and the wider asylum seeking community. The criminal justice system and immigration system are separate. Refused asylum seekers are neither “illegal” nor “criminal”.
The New Plan refers to increased “safe and legal routes” but these routes will not be sufficient for the numbers required. The UK Government does not specify how the required numbers will be met or provide assurance that these routes are workable. The New Plan does not accept that people fleeing persecution may need to resort to extraordinary means, to find safety. The New plan oversimplifies the ability to use these ‘routes’. This is not reflective of the realities of the atrocious circumstances people around the world find themselves in or the barriers and vulnerabilities of those fleeing these circumstances. Resettlement and other “legal routes” to protection in the UK only are not sufficient and do not ensure that the UK meet its legal and ethical obligations to people seeking asylum.
The UK intends to disengage from international law. If implemented, it will render many people seeking refugee protection, on arrival in the UK, ineligible for asylum. This shifts the basis for protection from persecution to the way people travel to the UK to seek safety. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (“Refugee Convention”) makes no requirement to claim asylum in the first safe country. Family, community, and language ties may mean for some people the UK is where they judge they will be safe, settled, and able to rebuild their lives.
The New Plan creates a two-tier asylum and refugee protection and support system. In shifting the basis from protection to how a refugee arrives in the UK, all but those who have arrived via UK through authorised channels will be placed in a lower tier system. To punish refugees for the methods in which they flee/travel is unfair and unlawful. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the UK’s commitment to non-penalisation under Article 31(1) of the Refugee Convention. This two-tier system will increase inequality, discrimination, and welfare concerns.
The New Plan is predicated on a false premise of the numbers and pressures those seeking protection place upon the UK Government. It is a fact that the UK accounts for relatively few people seeking asylum compared to Europe and a fraction of those displaced globally. Asylum applications to the UK numbered 31,752 in the year to December 20204.
The New Plan makes no reference or seeks to address systemic internal problems: asylum decisions are slow, frequently lack necessary good practice, quality, sensitivity, and often cause people to be stuck in the system, existing in poverty. There are several points in the system that can lead people into destitution in the UK. The New Plan will not address these issues. They will exacerbate them. The new plan will not reduce the modest number of people who come to the UK to seek asylum. It may, however, compel many of these people to try to avoid the authorities; and it may cause many others to be left in situations of deprivation, more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
The New Plan seeks to transfer responsibility to other states to protect refugees. In doing so, this undermines international law, and damages the UK’s reputation globally.
The New Plan seeks to misinform and deceitfully influence the UK population using inaccurate terminology and biased data regarding refugees e.g., using resettlement figures that misrepresent the UK Governments contribution in the global context. The New Plan selects figures based on resettlement schemes that suggest the UK Government is accepting and supporting more refugees than other countries rather than presenting unbiased verified figures on asylum and migration generally. The term “resettled” is very important here. “Resettled refugees” are not all refugees which a country might take in. It refers to refugees who were resettled in a new country as part of a specific scheme run by that country. Most refugees arrive in the EU as seeking asylum, not as people being resettled as part of a scheme2. The New Plan creates the impression that the UK are overwhelmed with asylum claims and are doing more than enough to help people fleeing war and persecution. But in reality, the picture looks very different. The UK Government are failing to meaningfully share the responsibility for protecting people who have fled their homes in search of safety. In other words, they are failing to agree on and support a fair and predictable system for protecting people forced to leave everything behind because of violence and persecution. Instead, lower and middle income countries are doing much more, hosting more than double the number of refugees that high income countries are. There are 26 million refugees globally, half of the world’s refugees are children, 85% of refugees are being hosted in developing countries. In 2019, only half a per cent of the world’s refugees were resettled. Over the past decade, just over 1 million refugees were resettled, compared to 3.9 million refugees who returned to their country5.
The UK asylum system is strictly controlled and complex. It is very difficult for people seeking asylum to provide the evidence required to be granted protection. The decision-making process is extremely tough, and many people’s claims are initially rejected. The New Plan does not reflect that appeals are often due to initial poor Home Office decision-making. Many refugees rely on the courts rather than the Government to provide them with the protection they need. There are particular problems with decisions on women’s claims. Women who turn to the courts for help when their asylum claims are refused are more likely to have their protection needs recognised by the courts. Women tell us that it is in part because the asylum system can feel very hostile, and it is difficult for them to give full details of the violence and abuse they have experienced.
Consultation on the New Plan has been planned and conducted in bad faith. It was concurrent with the purdah for devolved parliaments, local authority, and mayoral elections. This effectively silenced many who have insights and evidence relevant to the consultation.
The New Plan ignores devolution, the approach of a reserved matter oversimplifies and disregards the impact of the reforms proposed across the UK, and the role of devolved agencies and decision makers.
We welcome the commitment to resettlement and emergency resettlement but are concerned that there is no numerical target or little detail behind proposals for resettlement and “safe and legal routes”. The proposal suggests that ‘capacity to integrate’ as opposed to vulnerability, may be a criterion for selection onto the future resettlement scheme. However, the proposals relating to “safe and legal routes” in the New Plan, as presented, will not protect significant numbers of refugees.
By effectively seeking to close off the asylum protection route and, by association, family reunion, this represents a reduction in the UK protection system. The reality is that more people will be denied any authorised access to the UK. There is a likelihood that the New Plan will force more people to consider perilous journeys to seek protection in the UK. We fear that more people will die or risk their lives in this process. More will endure exploitation and mental health deterioration and push vulnerable people to the hidden margins, where organised crime is.
It is positive that the UK Government intend to grant all resettled refugees immediate Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR). ILR status will provide clarity and stability for those resettled. It gives a basis to rebuild one’s life. We urge that it be extended to all protection routes.
It is important that the proposed integration support provided to each resettled refugee is delivered holistically and is based on evidence of best practice; is sustainably funded by the UK Government and delivered by experienced local organisations, charities, local authorities and, where applicable, devolved governments.
Chapter 4: Disrupting Criminal Networks and Reforming the Asylum System. We are saddened that the UK Government has written this Chapter and reject it in its entirety. This chapter seeks to destroy the principles of asylum protection and human rights. This immoral, shameful, fearmongering does not give a true account to the people of the UK and must stop.
Defining test for persecution – We are unsure why the Home Office is seeking to introduce a “clearer and higher standard for testing” whether an individual has a well-founded fear of persecution. The definition of a refugee is well established and defined in law. We do not see how this will aid the Home Office to improve its system and speed up the decision making process. It seems very likely that the asylum system will become even more inefficient, and more injustices will ultimately need to be rectified.
The intentional shift to institutional accommodation and the New Plan’s holding centres separate people from housing in communities and their human rights, leaving an increasing number of people in small rooms alone or sharing with strangers, with no monies, for months on end. That fate has been suffered by thousands of people before and since Covid-19. Reports have consistently noted an escalation in mental health problems. Additionally, the Scottish Refugee Council have identified a rapid increase in deaths in asylum support system across the UK, from April to November 2020 (inclusive), with at least 25 people having lost their life in those 8 months, as compared to the 7 deaths in the preceding two financial years7. A Community housing approach should be adopted.
Offshore processing of asylum claims. We remain deeply concerned that the New Plan continues to promote the concept of offshoring asylum claims. There is no detail within this plan (so we question why this is even included at all in a consultation). The New plan only notes that this option will remain open and would be developed “in line with our international obligations.” We implore the UK Government to remove Offshore processing from the New Plan and abandon this approach.
Interpreting non-refoulement. Article 32 requires States not to “expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order.” And provides at 32(2): “The expulsion of such a refugee shall be only in pursuance of a decision reached in accordance with due process of law.” The plan proposes that refugees convicted and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment would now be deemed as serious criminals. This seeks to change Article 32 (2) from a measure of last resort into allowing the Home Office to routinely bypass the fundamental right of non-refoulement and expose refugees convicted of a wide range of criminal offences, including immigration offences to persecution. In addition, the arbitrarily sentence length as the threshold raises major concerns in relation to evidenced racial disparity in sentencing in the UK.
Chapter 6: Supporting Victims of Modern Slavery Human Trafficking. We are concerned and strongly oppose the inclusion of human trafficking and exploitation proposals within an immigration plan as this represents a conflation of policy areas that have far reaching and dangerous consequences.
How the consultation processes could be improved
The consultation process is too short. Does not allow for the voices of people with lived experience to contribute. It does not give charities and academic bodies enough time to fully respond to proposals nor to present alternatives or new ideas.
The online consultation response system is restrictive and uses closed questions on specific sections of the New Plan as determined by the Government. It is not possible to provide whole views.
What organisations, groups, charities, academies were involved in the drafting of the New Plan? This should be transparent and evidenced through research and findings.
Devolved Governments should be involved pre and post consultation.
Lessons that need to be learnt
The Windrush scandal began to surface in 2017 after it emerged that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, many of whom were from the ‘Windrush’ generation, had been wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights. Coverage of these individuals’ stories began to break in several newspapers, and Caribbean leaders took the issue up with then-prime minister, Theresa May. There was widespread shock and outrage at the fact that so many Black Britons had had their lives devastated by Britain’s deeply flawed and discriminatory immigration system. Falsely deemed as ‘“illegal” immigrants’ / “undocumented migrants” they began to lose their access to housing, healthcare, bank accounts and driving licences. Many were placed in immigration detention, prevented from travelling abroad and threatened with forcible removal, while others were deported to countries they had not seen since they were children. For those who have been affected by the Windrush scandal, justice has still not been done. There is a huge back log of cases still to be resolved. The Government compensation scheme has made only a handful of payments. The Windrush generation is still waiting for a full, unqualified apology for the way the Home Office has treated them. The New Plan has not applied learning from these previous unlawful decisions and is likely to repeat past mistakes.
The human rights failures at the military barracks in Penally and Napier since 2020 have highlighted neglect of the health, safety, and care of vulnerable people by the Home Office, its contractors, and sub-contractors. It is wholly irresponsible that Napier barracks remain in use for asylum accommodation and that this type of accommodation is being sanctioned by the UK Government.
Hotel room isolation increased significantly during Covid-19. At the end of December 2020, over 12,000 people were in hotel rooms in the UK with no discernible control over their lives. It was only in January 2021, that they started to receive any financial support (£8pw), and that decision was forced on the Home Office, from a successful legal challenge. We have also seen tragic incidents, loss of life and an increase in metal health issues due to these conditions.
Refugee Survival Trust Recommendations
Reconsider the harmful proposals contained within the New Plan.
Discontinue the terms “legal” and “illegal”’ and the proposed two tier system.
Consider, publish, and compare unbiased figures. Including globally recognised figures on the displacement of people around the world, the circumstances and emerging issues which contribute to this global issue, and contextualise the UK’s obligations, contribution, and system requirements before introducing reforms.
Introduce a timeline of extended consultation that includes people with lived experience, refugee groups, charities, organisations, and academics.
Collaborate with people with lived experience, refugee groups, charities, organisations, and academics.
Adopt and apply the PANEL principles.
Do not depart from the UN Convention or international law.
Recognise and acknowledge the limitations and delays in the system are due to other factors, Brexit, the pandemic, under resourcing etc. and put forward plans to address these aligned to other reforms.
Consider the role and limitations of private accommodation contractors in any proposed reforms.
Align the New Plan to other connected policies and systems i.e., child protection, additional vulnerabilities, women, children, disables, mental illness, trauma.
Ensure that separate agencies and departments are involved in the creation and implementation of reforms.
We urge the UK Government to reflect upon the serious and ligitimate concerns raised about the New Plan, to discontinue this path and implement a fair, humane, and effective protection system, aligned to Human Rights principles and International law.
The Scottish Human Rights Commission Human Rights Based Approach | Scottish Human Rights Commission
Scottish Refugee Council Response to the UK Governments New Plan