Patel’s plans for offshore asylum centres plumb new depths

Photo credit: Richard Townshend CC BY 3.0

Increasingly outlandish and inhumane plans to deal with the migrant ‘crisis’ have emerged from the Home Office in recent days. According to the Financial Times, home secretary Priti Patel explored plans to set up asylum processing centres in the South Atlantic. The plans appear to have been dropped only because of the impracticality of shipping asylum seekers more than 4,000 miles away, though Priti Patel has subsequently distanced herself from the idea.

Other ideas considered by the Home Office reportedly include creating wave machines to push dinghies carrying migrants back to France, building detention centres on remote Scottish islands, and even placing refugees on disused offshore ferries. This was considered the Home Office’s worst idea yet by The Huffington Post, being both inhumane and environmentally damaging, and the proposals have also been strongly condemned by opposition parties, the UN High Commission for Refugees, and migrant rights’ groups.

The hand of the UK’s recently appointed trade envoy, former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, can be seen in these ideas. Under Australia’s controversial Operation Sovereign Borders scheme, military police intercepted migrant boats and towed them back to Indonesia. Even if they reached Australia, asylum seekers were sent to offshore processing centres in Papua New Guinea or the Pacific island nation of Nauru, where they were often held indefinitely in unhygienic and cramped conditions. These measures drew condemnation globally from human rights groups and the UN, not least as horrifying abuse against children – much of it violent – was rife. Following legal action, former refugees on Manus Island were eventually paid $70 million, a move condemned at the time by Tony Abbott. The detention centre was deemed ‘illegal and unconstitutional’ by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea, and by the International Criminal Court.

However, Tory plans to build offshore detention centres for UK migrants go back even further. In 2003, Conservative MP Oliver Letwin proposed just such a scheme. In discussions, the Select Committee on Home Affairs considered whether such proposals would contravene Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, now eerily reminiscent of the current government’s proposals to break aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU: legal advice at the time suggested that ‘such a policy could be lawful, with some “necessary adjustment” of the law.’ The Committee concluded, ‘Asylum is a complex and sensitive issue to tackle. Care needs to be taken in proposing solutions that may appear simple but which would be hard to implement in practice.’ One of the recommendations of a subsequent Commission on immigration the following year was: ‘Consideration should be given to establishing one or more off-shore Application Centres in the British Isles’ though this was never followed through.

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A hostile environment for immigrants has long been fostered in the UK, and was whipped up further by Nigel Farage and other Leave campaigners prior to the EU referendum in 2016. Farage continues to inflame this issue, most recently describing a small group of desperate asylum seekers arriving in an inflatable dingy as ‘a shocking invasion on the Kent coast’. His hyperbolic commentary was quickly condemned by Amnesty International and migrants’ rights groups as deliberately racist and dehumanising.

The hostile environment policy affects the rights of EU citizens in the UK as well. As we move towards the end of the Brexit transition period, these rights are coming under increasing scrutiny, with mounting alarm expressed by EU citizens themselves. Critics of the current EU citizens’ Settlement Scheme argue that it does not give adequate protection, especially as there is no physical document proving settled status. Campaigning group the 3 Million has been at the forefront of calls for such a document to back up EU citizens’ digital immigration status.  There is particular concern about the lack of protection for EU citizens in the event of a No Deal.

Current proposals being floated by the Home Office to deal with so-called illegal migrants may not become reality, but they help to increase the hostile climate around immigration in general. Alarmingly, a YouGov poll of 2,000 adults about sending refugees to Ascension Island resulted in 40 per cent responding favourably, compared to 35 per cent who were opposed to the idea. Among Tory voters, 62 per cent were in favour. Support for these extreme suggestions may pave the way for acceptance of more ‘modest’ proposals by the Home Secretary to make asylum claims by migrants who come through the EU and therefore enter the UK illegally ‘inadmissible’ at the end of the transition period, even though it is NOT actually illegal for asylum-seeking refugees to enter the UK via the EU.

Priti Patel is addressing the Conservative Party’s first ever virtual conference on these issues this weekend – assuming the Tories overcome their latest bout of technical difficulties. But it’s not only her fellow party members and the British media who will be tuning in – as a recent CNN piece makes clear, due to all the controversy she’s created, the whole world will now be watching closely.

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