The UK government’s plans to seek to deport asylum seekers to other countries are not workable and will end up costing the department more, former Home Office ministers and civil servants have warned.
Lord David Blunkett, who served as home secretary between 2001 and 2004 under Tony Blair, said there was not a “cat’s chance in hell” that the UK would manage to secure bilateral returns deals with EU nations.
The criticism comes after Priti Patel unveiled new measures that will see refugees who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes denied an automatic right to asylum and instead regularly reassessed for removal to safe countries they passed through, which are usually in the EU.
Under the plans, ministers will seek to “rapidly return” what they term “inadmissible” asylum seekers to the safe country they most recently travelled through, “contingent on securing returns agreements” with said countries. No such arrangements are currently in place.
The former home secretary and a number of ex-civil servants who worked in senior positions in the department have told The Independent that bilateral returns deals with EU countries are “not feasible”, and that the plans will therefore only push more asylum seekers into the undocumented population and increase delays in the asylum system.
Prior to Brexit, the UK was part of the Dublin Regulation, which provided a framework through which asylum seekers who had travelled through safe EU nations before reaching Britain could be returned to those countries. Britain returned 891 individuals under this law between 2017 and 2020.
Lord Blunkett said: “It was really difficult to send people back even when we were part of the EU. While [Ms Patel] is right in saying Dublin didn’t work as intended, at least it existed, and you could argue with other countries that they had an obligation to take people back to mainland Europe – we’ve got no argument for that now,” he said.
The Labour peer, who held the post at a time when asylum applications in the UK were the highest they have ever been – at more than 80,000, compared with around 30,000 now – accused the current government of “inventing a crisis that doesn’t exist”.
“There isn’t a crisis, and to pretend there is does everybody a disservice. You may have a successful party political hit in pressing buttons for those who remain concerned about immigration, but it won’t in practice be implementable,” he added.
Lord Blunkett’s remarks were echoed by Dave Wood, who was head of immigration enforcement under Theresa May’s Conservative government, and said that the idea of striking deals with EU countries to send people back was “not realistic”.
“I don’t see the agreements being feasible. I don’t think they will be able to [work]. They haven’t in the past,” he said.
Under the new immigration plans, people who cannot immediately be removed will be stripped of benefits – placing them in the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) category – and have their family reunion rights limited.
Ms Patel also plans to change sections of the law to make it possible to move asylum seekers from the UK while their claims are processed, in order to “keep the option open” to develop the capacity for offshore asylum processing if required in the future.
Asked about Ms Patel’s plans to develop capacity for offshore asylum processing, Mr Wood said that this was “mad” and “cannot work”, adding: “We do get a bit caught up in this country with the idea we’re being invaded. There is a balance to that – we’re not; not compared to some others in northern Europe who take quite a heavy burden.”
A former senior staff member at the Home Office, who did not want to be named, said he believed Ms Patel was trying to “sound tough”, but that her policies would have very little effect.
“There is little incentive for most member states to do a bilateral deal, since the UK tends to be the end of the journey for asylum seekers, and there aren’t really any sanctions the UK can credibly threaten if member states don’t want to agree to a deal,” he said.
“And the longer asylum cases are held up in the UK, the more complex and costly they become to resolve – and actually, the more likely it is that you will have to allow less meritorious claimants to stay, if only by default, which is of course the opposite of what Patel says she wants.
“I think Patel is playing to the gallery when it would be more fruitful to focus on improving the system, and dealing with the culture issues identified by the Windrush Lessons Learned review.”
Raising alarm over the Home Office plan to “divide people into acceptable and unacceptable methods of arrival”, Lord Blunkett added: “It will end up with many people who you can’t send back and are thus treated as second-class citizens, and they will disappear into the sub-economy. All you’re doing is pushing people into illegality.”
The Home Office said Britain and the EU had agreed a joint political declaration which “made clear” the UK’s intention to engage in bilateral discussions with member states to discuss “suitable practical arrangements” on asylum.
But Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a network of non-governmental organisations across the continent, said the prospect of the UK securing bilateral agreements with EU states was “wishful thinking”.
“We don’t see any appetite for this in any European country, EU or not – why on earth would there be? What interest would they have in a bilateral agreement with the UK where the main purpose is for the UK to return people that have crossed one of those EU countries?” she said.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty UK’s programme director for refugee and migrant rights, said the prospect of striking bilateral deals was “pie in the sky”, but that even if the UK did reach such deals with EU nations, they were likely to be “inefficient” and expensive.
He added: “It will lead to more backlogs and delays in the asylum system. The UK will have to pile people away while they’re in limbo, and will still have to pay for that.”
Minister for immigration compliance and justice, Chris Philp, said: “Our new plan for immigration will overhaul our asylum system and speed up the removal of failed asylum seekers and dangerous foreign criminals.
“While people are dying making life-threatening journeys, no one – at home or abroad – can ignore the moral responsibility to tackle this issue.
“We expect our international partners to work with us on facilitating the return of their own nationals back to their country where they have no lawful right to remain in the UK. This is an established principle of any functioning migration relationship.”