Opinion

The Illegal Migration Bill shows a government in crisis and refugees are paying the price

The asylum system has broken down, writes political commentator Ian Dunt, and it's the most vulnerable people who are suffering.

British Home Secretary Suella Braverman visits Bwiza Riverside Houses in Kigali, Rwanda on March 18, 2023. Image: Cyril Ndegeya/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Grim days in Westminster. The Illegal Migration Bill is arguably the most extreme and draconian piece of legislation the Conservatives have passed since they entered government in 2010. It does not tighten up the criteria for asylum seekers arriving in the UK. It completely closes down the asylum system.

It doesn’t matter if they have been sold into sexual slavery, or been tortured, or escaped war. It doesn’t matter if they’re an Afghan who helped British forces before the Taliban takeover, or if they’re a woman fleeing persecution from Iran. Indeed, no-one in Britain will ever hear what happened to them, because there will be no process to assess their asylum claim. They will simply be imprisoned in a vast new detention estate. And then the home secretary will attempt to remove them from the country – either to Rwanda, or back to France, or to their home country.

As the UN refugee agency said: “The legislation, if passed, would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how compelling their claim may be.”

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Home secretary Suella Braverman’s argument for the bill is simple. “The financial and social costs,” she told the Commons on March 13th, “of uncontrolled and illegal migration are unsustainable”. In fact, this entire argument is false. The costs are not uncontrollable and the levels are not unsustainable.

The core of the issue has nothing to do with Braverman’s brutalist rhetoric. It is to do with basic operational capacity. This is never really covered in British political reporting, but it defines what happens on the front pages every day.

There is, at the heart of the asylum debate, a single dynamic. It is processing speed. Nothing can ever be done to stop people arriving in the UK to escape war and persecution. The question therefore becomes how quickly can we process the claims, making sure that those entitled to asylum status are granted it and those who aren’t are not. It’s this part of the system which has fallen into complete disarray.

Those arriving by boat have indeed increased – going from 28,526 in 2021 to 45,755 in 2022. About 90 per cent of arrivals claim asylum. Generally speaking, around two-thirds of them are accepted. This is because, despite all the coverage of Albanians in the press, most people come from countries torn apart by war and persecution. Nearly half of those who crossed the Channel last year came from just five countries – Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. Three of those states have asylum grant rates of 98 per cent and the other two are at 84 per cent and 80 per cent.

The cheapest and most humane way to deal with the situation is to quickly process the claims. Once someone has been verified as a genuine refugee, they no longer have to be provided housing and sustenance by the state. They can work, pay tax, and establish themselves as part of society.

But there is a problem. Our ability to process their claims has collapsed. Over the last five years, the number of claims has risen by 160 per cent, but the backlog has quintupled in size. We receive far fewer asylum applications than Germany, France and Spain, but have a worse backlog than any of them. Of over 40,000 people who arrived last year on boats and claimed asylum, just 340 had been processed by the end of 2022. That’s less than one per cent.

It’s this operational failure which explains the soaring costs. It currently stands at £3 billion, with nearly £6 million a day spent housing migrants in over 300 hotels. If asylum seekers were processed, those costs would disappear. But they are not, so they do not.

The breakdown in processing took place because of a deprofessionalisation in the machinery of government. There was a reduction in the number of staff assessing claims. Caseworkers were not attached to particular nationalities, so they never acquired the specialist skills to quickly appraise their account. With low pay and no social recognition, there was very high turnover. Antiquated IT systems predominated. “This inspection has shown that the Home Office has failed to keep on top of the volume of claims it receives,” the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration reported in 2021. “Workflow and case progression were still reliant on Excel spreadsheets.”

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We find the same thing across the policy landscape: in health, in education, in foreign policy. Why do A&E waiting times grow? Because the operational structure in Downing Street which coordinated funding and cross-departmental health management went into terminal decline. Why was our evacuation from Afghanistan such a shameful embarrassment? Because our ability to secure reliable foreign information and organise major emergency projects gave in.

How Westminster Works... and Why It Doesn’t by Ian Dunt book cover

What we are witnessing, across society, is the effect of a breakdown in effective governance, the result of a lack of deep subject knowledge, expertise, rigorous scrutiny and viable technical planning.

It’s not a refugee crisis. It’s a governance crisis. But it’s refugees who will pay the price for it.

How Westminster Works… and Why It Doesn’t by Ian Dunt is out in hardback (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99) on April 13. It’s available to preorder here

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