No one would get into a small boat to cross one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world if they had another choice. But right now, there is no way to claim asylum in the UK until you set foot here.
If the Government was serious about protecting the lives of vulnerable people, it would build a fair and effective asylum system, with multiple accessible, safe routes for people to apply for refugee protection.
1. Resettlement schemes
Resettlement schemes, like the “Homes for Ukraine” project or the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, are one strand of an effective refugee protection system. For those who are selected for the schemes, they can be life-changing, providing a visa that allows refugees to travel safely into the UK.
However, the UK has a poor record with delivering these schemes. Around 12,000 Afghan nationals are still stuck in hotel accommodation – in other words, homeless – stranded in a dysfunctional scheme that opened in August 2021.
The Homes for Ukraine scheme has been hampered by slow administration, and created opportunities for abusive and exploitative individuals to take advantage of vulnerable people.
The Government has also shut down two UK schemes in recent years, despite hailing these as the “solution” to the growing numbers of refugees globally. The Syrian refugee resettlement scheme closed in 2020, having welcomed 20,000 people from a conflict that displaced 13 million. And the Government even closed down the Dubs scheme, a lifeline for unaccompanied children who reached refugee camps in Europe, to join family in the UK.
Despite their importance, these schemes are not a substitute for a fair, effective asylum system. These resettlement projects see the Government re-inventing the wheel with a new scheme for each crisis; announcing bespoke visa routes as bombs struck Aleppo, as Kabul fell to the Taliban, and as Putin’s forces shell cities across Ukraine. They risk turning refugee protection into a divisive, racist popularity contest – simultaneously offering a supposedly “warm welcome” to Ukrainians while threatening those who cross the Channel (mostly black and brown people) with deportation to Rwanda.
2. Travel documents
Resettlement schemes do not work for all people seeking refuge. We saw with the fall of Kabul and the destruction of Kharkiv – there is no ‘queue’ to join, people simply pack a bag and run for safety. And no one should be punished for doing so.
Under the Refugee Convention we each have the right to claim asylum in any country we feel we will be able to find safety, and to get a fair hearing from that country, regardless of how we travel there. But instead of cooperating to create a system that works for people fleeing terror and violence, many countries, including the UK, frustrate this process. Airlines and ferry operators face huge Government fines if they bring an asylum seeker to a country like the UK.
This effectively rules out any safe route that a person could use to seek asylum. Instead, people are left with incredibly dangerous options, like crossing the Channel in a dinghy or the back of a lorry. No one should be left with these dangerous routes – that is why many organisations, including JCWI, are calling for the creation of new travel documents, which would allow an asylum seeker to enter the UK safely on a plane, ferry or train.
3. Applications within the UK
Resettlement schemes and travel documents are two strands of a holistic refugee protection system – but nothing should stand in the way of asylum seekers being given a fair hearing when they apply for asylum within the UK.
Refugees are refugees because they need protection, no matter how they travel to reach safety.
But the new Nationality & Borders Act undermines the principle of refugee protection in the UK, and for the first time will grant protection based on someone’s mode of travel, instead of their need. The Rwanda plan sees refugees deported 4,000 miles away with no chance to even make their case here. This plan must be scrapped, and the UK must start fairly and efficiently processing applications from people who are seeking asylum here.
A safe, accessible and effective asylum system is possible
If the Government was serious about protecting the lives of vulnerable people, it would create, or re-open, safe routes for people to travel to the UK to claim asylum here. And it would give a fair hearing to anyone who applies for asylum, regardless of how they travel to the UK, just as the Refugee Convention established.
There is a growing movement for this fairer approach. We fought back against the first planned deportation to Rwanda and we won. But we need to stand together in solidarity with those whose lives are being put at risk as a distraction from the Government’s failings.
We believe this is a future worth fighting for. Are you with us?