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‘Unbelievably Callous’: Refugee Rights Experts React to Sunak’s Immigration Plans

Sian Norris reports on how plans to reduce migration and the asylum backlog ignore the realities of people fleeing war, persecution and violence – and the lack of safe routes open to people seeking asylum

Rishi Sunak. Photo: PA Images/Alamy

‘Unbelievably Callous’ Refugee Rights Experts React to Sunak’s Immigration Plans

Sian Norris reports on how plans to reduce migration and the asylum backlog ignore the realities of people fleeing war, persecution and violence – and the lack of safe routes open to people seeking asylum

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Planned legislation to make it “unambiguously clear” that people entering the UK “illegally” will not be allowed to remain is “unbelievably callous” and will cause “misery for thousands of already traumatised people” according to refugee rights experts. 

Responding to plans outlined by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to reduce the number of migrant people claiming asylum in the UK, Refugee Action’s Chief Executive Tim Naor-Hilton said “this is another shameful day in the Government’s treatment of people fleeing war and persecution”.

Naor-Hilton’s statement was echoed by Sile Reynolds, Head of Asylum Advocacy at Freedom from Torture, who said Sunak’s proposals are “recycling unethical and unworkable gimmicks”. 

If the law is acted upon, warned human rights charity Amnesty International, it “will make an already disastrous situation created by Sunak’s Government’s policies more harmful to people fleeing conflict and persecution while continuing to profit smugglers, traffickers and other abusers”.

Sunak announced legislative plans designed to cut immigration and reduce the backlog of outstanding asylum claims – which currently stands at more than 140,000 – by the end of next year. The time it takes to process an asylum claim has increased over the past decade: at the end of 2014, 78% of all asylum claims received an initial decision within six months. By Q2 2020, that figure was 22%.

The backlog is now 14 times as high as when Labour was in office – although more people claimed asylum in the UK in the 2000s than today. 

However, it was his proposals to deport those who enter the UK “illegally” that has provoked the most concern from migrant rights groups. 

Sunak told Parliament he would introduce legislation next year that means if an individual enters the country “illegally”, they will be detained and swiftly returned either to their home country or to a safe country where their claim for asylum can be considered.

Once a person has been removed, they will have no right to re-entry, settlement or citizenship. 


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From Kabul to Calais

The majority (60%) of people who enter the UK via the Channel are from countries recognised by the UK Government as having human rights concerns. They are Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt. Under this proposed legislation, people fleeing these countries and arriving across the Channel would be deported to a safe country.

They could also face deportation to Rwanda, after the Government announced plans to transport those who arrive in the UK “illegally” to the East Africa country, where they can claim asylum and be resettled. Sunak has vowed to pursue the policy, which faces legal challenges. 

Despite stating that the only way people will be able to claim asylum in the UK is via a safe and legal route, there was scant detail of what those routes would be. Current examples include the Homes for Ukraine scheme, and the BNO visa for people facing persecution in Hong Kong. 

“The Prime Minister failed to set out any concrete plans to expand [safe and legal] routes through a resettlement programme or an expansion in family reunion visas,” said Enver Solomon, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council.

Afghanistan is a concerning example of the catch-22 people seeking asylum find themselves in. 

While there is a safe, legal route into the UK from Afghanistan – the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme – it is currently only open to a select group of individuals. In the first year of Pathway Three, only people who worked for the British Council or GARDAWorld, or Chevening Alumni, will be resettled through the scheme. Expressions of interest from this group have now closed.

Pathway Two, where the Government partners with international agencies to resettle at-risk individuals from third countries, has only resettled four people since its launch. 

‘We Have Lost Hope in Life’Hiding From The Taliban

Sian Norris

Those facing direct danger from the Taliban, such as women’s rights defenders, LGBTIQ people and religious minorities, as well as those struggling to survive in the country, are left with limited options: they can flee to a third country such as Pakistan; they can wait, often in hiding, until Pathway Three opens up to expressions of interest from at-risk individuals in its second year; or they can attempt to claim asylum by travelling to the UK “illegally”.

Little wonder then that many desperate people are opting for the third choice – with Afghan men and adolescent boys crossing the Channel, claiming asylum and then hoping to be reunited with loved ones under Family Reunification rules. 

But under this proposed law, people fleeing dangerous regimes and crossing the Channel to claim asylum, could face swift deportation to a ‘safe country’ such as France, or to Rwanda. 

“New laws to ban people who have no other choice than to cross the Channel from claiming asylum are unbelievably callous and mean refugees trying to reach family here could be deported back to danger,” said Naor-Hilton. “Meanwhile Ministers remain unable to commit to creating safe routes – a move that could end most small boat crossings overnight”. 

“Fast-tracking refusals and removals based solely on nationality or method of arrival is a dangerous, one-size fits all repackaging of a policy that risks breaching our international obligations to protect refugees,” said Reynolds. “The rapid removal of asylum seekers, in the absence of adequate vulnerability screening, quality legal advice and access to appeal will risk sending refugees back to unimaginable horrors”.

Modern Slavery

Sunak also promised to rewrite the UK’s modern slavery rules, claiming that the system is being “unfairly exploited” by individuals. 

His statement comes days after the Director General of the Office for Statistics Regulation, Ed Humpherson, said the data does “not support” claims that people are “gaming” the modern slavery system. 

In a letter, Humpherson explained that “policy officials in the department could not point to any specific evidence” that “greater gaming of the system” was a “potential contributor” to the increase in potential victims of modern slavery being referred to the system.

Nearly a quarter of people referred as potential victims are from the UK, making domestic referrals the second biggest nationality group of alleged modern slavery victims. This includes children being criminally exploited through county lines and other gang-related activity. 

The Government has claimed that the system is abused by child rapists and threats to national security, however has been unable to provide evidence for these assertions. Humpherson even went so far as to warn the Home Office “to ensure that claims in public statements are clear on whether they are sourced from published statistics or from other reliable evidence, to avoid the risk of misleading people”.

Little Evidence of Victims ‘Gaming’ Modern Slavery System

Sian Norris

Sunak singled out Albania as a country to which people could be safely deported, having signed an agreement with the Albanian Government to speed up removals. He said it will be made “crystal clear” that Albania is a safe country, and he will introduce changes that mean “the vast majority of claims from Albanians can simply be declared ‘clearly unfounded’”.

But no country is safe for everyone, as the situation facing LGBTIQ+ people, as well as victims of gender-based violence, blood feuds, and drug wars in Albania demonstrates.

“Among other things, the Prime Minister has said that Albania is a safe country, but according to the Government’s own country policy and information note on sexual orientation and gender identity in Albania, there is evidence of LGBTQI+ people facing harassment and abuse by some members of the police,” said Carla Manso, from Rainbow Migration. “By demonising people seeking to rebuild their lives here, this Government will not only increase the number of people living in uncertainty, but it will send more people back to dangerous situations”.

Further, Albania is recognised as a source country for thousands of trafficking victims. They make up the majority of potential victims referred to the modern slavery system and represent the largest group of people crossing the Channel this year. The number of genuine cases of modern slavery has risen year by year from 58% in 2016 to 91% in 2021. More than half of asylum claims from Albanians are granted, mostly to women who have been trafficked and exploited. 

“Changes to anti-slavery guidance and deporting people based on sweeping and incorrect assumptions about their nationality will mean many victims and refugees risk further danger and exploitation,” said Naor-Hilton.

This article was updated at 10.15am on 14 December to correct Ed Humpherson’s job title.

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