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Asylum: British Overseas Territories and Ferries

Volume 806: debated on Monday 5 October 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are planning (1) to establish asylum processing centres in British Overseas Territories, and (2) to house those who are seeking asylum on disused ferries; and, if so, how any such plans would comply with international obligations.

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said yesterday, the asylum system is broken, and we stand by our obligations to safeguard the most vulnerable people fleeing oppression, persecution and tyranny. We will take every necessary step to fix this broken system and we will continue to examine all practical measures to effectively deter illegal migration. We do not comment on leaks.

My Lords, but will the Minister concede that the options which have been very authoritatively leaked and have been in almost every newspaper would be inordinately expensive, probably illegal but, above all, inhumane? As a do-gooder, I ask the Minister if she will go back to the Home Secretary and say that on this issue, doing good is just common humanity.

Well, I think any noble Lord who listened to my right honourable friend yesterday will at least concede that humanity was at the heart of what she was saying. She was talking about a “firm and fair” immigration system, and about the people traffickers who exploit the most vulnerable. I can confirm that we will act in accordance with our international conventions, and I will not comment on the leaks.

My Lords, I have read the Home Secretary’s speech, but how do such ideas, which are widely condemned as inhumane and dehumanising, square with her stated ambition to build a

“more compassionate … Home Office that puts people first”?

Are asylum seekers not people with human rights who are entitled to be treated with dignity? According to the central recommendations of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, that should underpin all Home Office policy.

The noble Baroness will appreciate that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary’s words do not accord with many of the things that were leaked. She is absolutely committed, as the noble Baroness will have heard, to accepting all the recommendations in the Wendy Williams lessons learned report. We are working through those now and we want a humane, fair but firm immigration system.

My Lords, are the reports intended as a message to people who seek sanctuary in the UK or as a dog whistle to the red wall?

My Lords, can the Minister please say why there is such delay in deciding applications for asylum status that so much accommodation is required for applicants?

My noble and learned friend is right to point out the delays in assessing asylum claims. Of course, it has been incredibly difficult during the last few months, and many people who should have had their claims processed in normal times are having to wait. However, to that end, they are still able to receive Section 95 support while their claims are assessed. On accommodation, my noble and learned friend is absolutely right that an awful lot of people are in accommodation for those very reasons.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness at least accept that the answers to the root causes of why 70.8 million people are displaced worldwide will not be found on Ascension Island or disused oil rigs or ferries, and that we must urgently tackle those root causes and bring people together who will look for them? Will she also accept support for the Home Secretary’s call for legal routes for those who are at genuine risk of harm and for the Government’s determination to tackle criminal gangs involved in the trafficking of migrants, and say when detailed plans on that will be published?

I am very pleased to agree with the noble Lord. In fact, he and I spoke the other day about our absolute agreement on how, if we can find the root causes and tackle them, we will cut out some of the criminality around this. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary was absolutely serious yesterday about pursuing those legal routes, because they are the way to run the system.

My Lords, talk of Her Majesty’s Government possibly acquiring timeshares in property on the isle of Elba or anywhere else aside, it is worth noting that the Home Secretary yesterday stressed the importance of “safe and legal routes” to asylum in the United Kingdom. I was grateful to hear that. Since the Government have now determined that it is safe and appropriate to resume deportation flights from the UK, will the Minister confirm that they have decided to resume immediately the refugee settlement programme they suspended in March? If not, will she inform the House of the difference in criteria for holiday and deportation flights and for those seeking sanctuary in this country?

As the right reverend Prelate said, my right honourable friend talked specifically about safe and legal routes. Deportation flights, and indeed the processing of asylum claims and removals, are still very difficult. Some deportations have taken place, and some arrivals have taken place over the last few days. However, both sides of the system are incredibly slow at the moment, for obvious reasons. I can absolutely assure the right reverend Prelate that, when things become more normal, resettlement will resume in the way that we would want it to.

Somebody has done the newspaper leaking, and they are probably in government. Yesterday, the Home Secretary said that she would “fix” the asylum system—but, typically for the Government, who have been in office for 10 years, blamed others for the Government’s own failings in processing asylum applications. Did the Home Secretary mean “fix” the asylum system like the Government and their algorithms “fixed” the school exam systems, or like the Government and their private contractors have “fixed” the test and trace system, or like their Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016 and the hostile environment “fixed” the Windrush generation? Can the Government say in advance which innocent parties will be unjustly and unfairly hurt this time by yet another loudly announced government scheme to “fix” something—namely, the asylum system?

The word fix—by the way, may I join other noble Lords in wishing the noble Lord a very happy birthday?—was in reference to something that I think nobody in this Chamber can deny was completely broken. Noble Lords have talked consistently about legal routes and the humane treatment of asylum seekers, and I agree with absolutely all of those things. We need to recognise that something is broken in order to fix it.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said it is not party to any UK government discussions on offshoring asylum seekers or housing them on ships or far-flung islands. So can the Minister assure the House that the UK will provide asylum seekers with access to procedures which comply with international law? Also, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, when will the legal routes that are being referred to be brought forward so that vulnerable asylum seekers can take them without being demonised by the Government?

I can certainly assure the noble Baroness of the first, which is that we will abide by our international obligations. The legal and safe routes will be announced in due course; I am looking forward to that, because the whole issue of legal and safe routes has needed to be sorted for some time now.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is essential to destroy the business model as currently used by the people traffickers, either by reaching agreement with the French Government that British ships may intercept migrant boats within French territorial waters and return them to France, or by establishing assessment centres overseas, possibly by agreement with countries such as Morocco or Algeria, along the lines of the former Australian detention centres in Papua New Guinea or the Republic of Nauru? Would the Minister also agree that such a policy would indeed comply with our international obligation to provide protection as required by the UN refugee convention of 1961?

I say to my noble friend that we need to explore diplomatic and legal avenues and those that comply with international law to explore some of the options that will be available to us.

My Lords, will reviewing the asylum appeals process also be considered? Also, on a question of practicality, will the Government consider by what routes failed asylum seekers could be repatriated if they have come from a third location, the cost of doing so, with the costs of valuation teams and healthcare provisions properly factored in? Does this not all make the case to utilise cruise ships in the Thames estuary a sensible provision for the Government to consider?

My Lords, I am sure that many options will be considered. However, the noble Viscount is absolutely right that asylum appeals are protracted, cost a fortune and leave the people claiming asylum, and their appeals, in limbo.

My Lords, this is a huge cash business for the traffickers, and many countries that we deal with, particularly the Cayman Islands, Gibraltar and Malta, are the homes of the traffickers’ bank accounts. What is being done to take forward the legislation that we have to do something about this?

Noble Lords will have gleaned from my right honourable friend the Home Secretary’s speech yesterday that dismantling those trafficking business models, as the noble Lord said previously, is key to bringing forward safe and legal routes, but the only people who are benefitting currently are the people traffickers.

My Lords, while accepting that we must do everything humanly possible to help those arriving on our shores claiming to have been persecuted in their native countries, the Government’s first duty must be to protect UK citizens. What assurance can the Minister give that those immigrants awaiting assessment who are being placed at various locations around the UK, such as the Penally camp in west Wales, do not have a history of criminality which could be a threat to local residents who, along with local political representatives, it seems were not warned of their impending arrival?

It is very important that local authorities are not only warned of impending arrivals but consulted with and engage with the people arriving. Criminals should be assessed quickly and expeditiously, and I think that no noble Lord would disagree with criminals who need to be deported being deported quickly.