Asylum shopping is a strange phrase. When you’re out at Aldi, could you pick up some bananas, some peppers and that nice lemon dessert thing. Oh, and can you get some asylum. You know, just a bit of asylum. You’ll know it when you see it.
We’re in a period of language confusion. Words and phrases and portmanteau confections are casually thrown around to give a sense of a new reality. You either get it or don’t get it. If you don’t, well, that’s kind of your fault and it means you’re ‘other’, you’re not of the clear-sighted few.
These creations normally have the opposite effect. They mask and remould, they set up sides.
Asylum shopping was one of the reasons used to justify Priti Patel’s new asylum seeker bill. The idea is that would-be refugees, fleeing for their lives, are shopping around for the best new home for themselves. Like they’re on a jolly international version of Location, Location, Location. And rather than stop at the first safe nation they encounter, they’re carrying on in an unstoppable wave to Britain. The bill aims to stop this, to find them and send them back to a “designated place”. The shocking idea of establishing one of these on Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic isn’t going away.
There’s a raft of other legislative plans too, including provision to “deter” people from making the treacherous attempt on small boats across the Channel by using “reasonable force”.
In Patel’s Maslow’s hammer world, she’s a thumping great hammer of truth, and the asylum system is simply a whole host of pesky nails.
When you dig into the numbers, you see we’re being sold a pup
There is an argument that tougher legislation will help further criminalise the people traffickers, therefore deterring them from operating their deadly trade. On the surface, who’d argue? But when you start to dig in, will that work? Won’t the kingpins simply find disposable foot soldiers?
And when you dig into the numbers, you see we’re being sold a pup. In the last quarter of 2020 – just the last quarter – the EU nation that issued the most first-instance decisions to those seeking refuge was France, with more than 29,000, then Germany, just under 29,000, then Spain with nearly 23,000.
For the entire year up to March 2020 the UK offered protection, beyond just first-instance decisions, in the form of “asylum, humanitarian protection, alternative forms of resettlement” to quote the government themselves, to 20,339 people. The idea that we’re carrying the weight of a reluctant Europe is bogus.
And even if we were, at some point you have to just do the right thing. The vast majority of those travelling across the rich west of Europe looking for hope are from Syria. That is the crisis that Covid has shadowed. Addressing it and sorting it has to be a key part of any policy. Allowing it to remain a pawn in global geo-politics because it’s messy is shameful.
And rather than pay to use “reasonable force” against frightened people on small boats in the middle of the Channel, get some money to where they’re landing. Help local authorities provide help. This is not to hold out a giving hand and look like a pushover for people-traffickers, but to offer scared, cold people some decency. And it also means that those who would demonise the frightened few would not be able to point a crooked finger and tell local people that their services are being cut because of foreigners on the make.
Let’s not bother with any more asylum shopping. There is a better way.
Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue