Fresh proposals by the UK government to make life more difficult for asylum seekers are illegal and unworkable, an Iranian-born immigration lawyer has said.
In an interview with the BBC this morning, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, said the government wants to assess people claiming asylum in the UK based on how they arrived in the country.
Under the new plans, refugees who come to the UK “illegally”, including those who crossed the Channel from France in small boats, would be barred from ever receiving permanent leave to remain and regularly assessed for deportation.
During the interview Ms. Patel claimed the Home Office was “clogged up” with asylum claims, and that illegal immigration was “putting lives at risk and fuelling criminality” due to many vulnerable refugees’ reliance on people-traffickers.
The proposals have prompted outcry from various British organizations. Refugee Council chief executive Enver Solomon accused the government of "seeking to unjustly differentiate between the deserving and undeserving refugee", while British Red Cross chief executive Mike Adamson called the sentiments “inhumane”.
Kaweh Beheshtizadeh is an immigration solicitor who has lived in the UK since 2004. He first came to the country in the back of a lorry aged 23, speaking no English and having fled persecution in the Islamic Republic for his pro-Kurdish activism.
He was granted asylum in 2006, and learned English and studied law at university before being called to the Bar in 2011. He then qualified as a solicitor in 2016 and won Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year in the Immigration and Asylum Category 2017 for his work supporting some of the most desperate and vulnerable people arriving in the UK.
Mr. Beheshtizadeh told IranWire that what the Home Secretary proposed today was a “clear breach” of the 1951 Refugee Convention as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. In addition, he said, it would make existing problems in the UK worse by leaving thousands of people in limbo, without support, or even the possibility of returning to their country of origin.
“If this becomes law,” he said, “it will be challenged very easily in the courts. I have absolutely no doubt that the High Court will declare it unlawful. I just don’t know what the Home Office is thinking, or how they think they can get away with this.
“The plan is unlawful, unworkable and stupid, and it doesn’t do any good – not to the Home Office, not to the Home Secretary, and not to asylum seekers.”
Asylum Seekers Blamed for Systemic Issues
While migration and refugees have regularly made headlines in the UK in recent years, the number of asylum claims is actually at a historic low.
In 2019, approximately 46,000 people claimed asylum in the UK: around half the annual number registered in the early 2000s. New applications dropped again by 20 percent in 2020, with just 36,000 applications last year.
Iran was the single biggest country of origin for new arrivals to the UK, with more than 4,300 Iranians claiming asylum on British soil by September 2020. There was a small increase in the number of people making the Channel crossing in this period, to a total of around 8,000, of which Iranians again accounted for the largest number.
Overall, however, the number of applications the Home Office needed to process was far lower than before. Despite this, the backlog of applications has grown significantly. There are now nearly 50,000 asylum seekers who have been left waiting for a decision for more than six months, up from 11,500 three years ago.
People waiting for their claims or appeals to be processed in the UK are not allowed to work and must stay in often sub-standard government-approved hostels, making the waiting process a painful and sometimes unsafe one in its own right.
Since 2012 the British government has pursued a “hostile environment” policy which seeks to make life harder for asylum seekers in the UK. As part of this, their appeal rights have also been slashed, and the number of appeals against asylum decisions are around one-fifth of a decade ago, at between 40,000 and 45,000 a year. But more than half of these are successful – meaning that many earlier decisions taken by the Home Office were at fault.
The problem, Mr. Beheshtizadeh asserts, is therefore one of bad management. “I have worked as an immigration solicitor under the leadership of four different Home Secretaries,” he said. “We had an effective system before. It wasn’t perfect, but before Priti Patel, the whole appeals process would take eight to 12 weeks. Now, you’ll be waiting a year or more.
“For the last 10 years, the UK government has been gradually making it harder and harder for people to be recognised as refugees. And the mismanagement of the Home Office is getting worse and worse. Priti Patel is right to say the system is broken. And well done to her: she has broken it.”
New Plans Would Leave “Ineligible” Refugees With Nowhere to Go
Under the new plans, future refugees coming to the UK through “legal resettlement routes” would be accepted as normal. But, Mr. Beheshtizadeh points out, the UK has only committed to resettle 23,000 people through the program set up in 2015, for Syrians fleeing the civil war.
The vast majority of asylum applicants, he says, are people who first came to the UK legally – on student or work visas, for instance – who then had to claim asylum because of political changes in their country of origin, or changes in their life circumstances. It is not clear how these people would be treated if the new plans became law.
Before January 2021, the UK was also part of the European Union’s Dublin Convention. This allowed the Home Office to send asylum seekers it deemed “ineligible” back to the first “safe country” they passed through in the EU on their way to the UK.
Since the UK has now left the European Union, it can no longer simply send people who arrived via the Channel back to France. “Before Brexit,” Mr. Beheshtizadeh says, “10,000 to 12,000 people a year were moved back to the EU as they could claim asylum there. Why would the German or French authorities accept failed asylum seekers now?”
Countries outside of the EU such as Turkey, while technically “safe”, do not have a proper asylum system in place and are therefore not admissible options either. And the situation is all the more complicated for Iranians, Mr. Beheshtizadeh says.
“The Iranian authorities have a hostile attitude toward the UK,” he explains. “They haven’t trusted each other since the Islamic Revolution. The Iranian authorities will only accept those asylum seekers to return to Iran who want to go back voluntarily. If an asylum seeker from Iran says they’re not willing to go back under any circumstances, the UK government cannot do anything about it.”
In effect, these people would be left in limbo in the UK – and could remain in detention centers for illegal migrants for an as-yet unspecified amount of time.
A Darkening Atmosphere in the United Kingdom
Kaweh Beheshtizadeh arrived in the UK at a time when around 80,000 people were arriving each year, most of them from Iraq. At the time, he said, “I felt it was a welcoming country that provided sanctuary to people who were in desperate need of international protection. The UK had a proud history of providing for asylum seekers. I never thought I’d see this happen in this wonderful country.
“The government is trying to find any way it can to make it harder, and the atmosphere has become less welcoming. It’s a political point that Priti Patel is trying to make [with these statements]. She’s trying to send a message to those Conservative Party bases which are mainly anti-immigration, and to whom these issues are extremely important.
“It’s like this with every populist government around the world. They are just trying to be controversial rather than dealing with issues and making people’s lives better. You could remove more people from the UK by having a humane and liberal system.
“The majority of the British population is still welcoming of refugees, and strongly believes that if someone is in need, they deserve protection. It’s only public opinion that prevents the politicians from doing much worse.”