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Are the UK’s “Safe and Legal Routes” to Asylum Really Enough?

“What is your plan to help cut illegal channel crossings?”


This is a question posed to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Sky News, to which he responds: I'm a product of this country's extraordinarily compassionate approach to welcoming immigrants to our shores.”


He continues: “It is something we should all feel really proud of, and it's something the UK is amazing at. Most recently, for Ukraine, Hong Kong, Syria, and Afghanistan, we've shown our compassion.


“But it's also absolutely right that we have control over our borders. Because all the people I just mentioned came here legally.


“And what is not right is for people to break the rules to come here illegally. The scenes we see on our TV screens and the small boat crossings are wrong, and they need to stop.”


         The Home Office’s approach to asylum has become one of the most divisive issues in the UK in recent years. Underlying these debates is the wider issue of a massive backlog of unprocessed claims, and adding to the backlog is a rise in the number of asylum seekers arriving on the shores of the UK, especially via the English Channel.


         Small boat crossings have gained widespread media attention as the number of asylum seekers crossing the channel from France to the UK rose to 45,000 in 2022. However, in the first half of 2023, the number sat at 11,500, which is a 10% decline compared to the first half of 2022.


Sunak has made “stopping the boats” one of his five key priorities in 2023, and as part of his pledge to prioritize the issue, the flagship Illegal Migration Bill was introduced to Parliament in March 2023. The Home Office states that the Bill “will fulfil that promise by ending illegal entry as a route to asylum in the UK.”


“The Illegal Migration Bill will change the law to make it unambiguously clear that, if you enter the UK illegally, you should not be able to remain here. Instead, you will be detained and promptly removed either to your home country or to a safe country where any asylum claim will be considered.” 


Are There Illegal Routes to Asylum?


In his speech, Sunak claims that people who come via small boat crossings are entering the UK illegally. Existing British law states that it is illegal to enter the UK without special permission or a visa. However, if an individual claims asylum immediately after entering the UK through irregular or informal routes such as boat crossings, they will be protected by international law.


Article 31 (1) of the 1951 Refugee Convention states that asylum seekers cannot be penalized for illegally entering a country, given that they are “coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened” and that “they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.”


         According to The Migration Observatory, 92% of people who arrived on small boats from 2018 to March 2023 claimed asylum. Due to the backlog, only 13% of these claims received an initial decision by the end of March 2023. Among those who have received a decision, 86% were granted refugee status or permission to stay.


Safe and Legal Routes


Another emphasis of the bill is the requirement that: “The only way to come to the UK for asylum will be through safe and legal routes.” Currently, the only “safe and legal” routes available are family reunion routes, several resettlement schemes, and country-specific routes.


Family Reunion


Family members of refugees who have been granted protection in the UK can apply for a Family Reunion visa to join their loved ones in the UK. In the year ending June 2023, 4,671 people were granted Family Reunion visas.


However, an investigation by The Independent has found that more than 11,000 people are currently awaiting family reunion visas, most of which have applied more than 6 months ago, and are women and children stranded abroad in dangerous or even life-threatening situations.


The scheme’s narrow eligibility criteria determining who can qualify as a sponsor and a family member is also widely criticized by charities and experts. One of the critics, the University of Bedfordshire’s Centre for Research in Law (CRiL), has stated that the eligibility criteria are “not in line with the generally accepted minimum standards under international law, nor with the practice of other European States.”


A 2021 report by the CRiL also concluded that the ban on unaccompanied refugee children acting as sponsors for the scheme breaches international law, specifically ones deriving from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.


The report also criticizes the “culture of disbelief” within the UK asylum system, describing it as: “the main cause of a decision-making process that appears too often to be about looking for reasons to refuse rather than to grant applications.”


Resettlement Schemes


There are currently three non-country-specific resettlement schemes in the UK. These are the UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS), the Community Sponsorship Scheme, and the Mandate Scheme.


There is no application for resettlement. Refugees are selected and transferred by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), from the country they originally claimed asylum in, to a third country that has agreed to admit them. The UK Resettlement Scheme is the route through which selected refugees are transferred to the UK. Home Office statistics show that in the year ending June 2023, only 622 people have been resettled through the UKRS. According to the UNHCR, less than 1% of the world’s refugees are submitted for resettlement annually.


The Community Sponsorship Scheme complements the UKRS by allowing communities to directly welcome refugee families that are resettling in the UK. For the first year after their arrival, community sponsors will be helping them access medical and social services, English language tuition, job registration, and navigating social welfare provision, to ultimately achieve employment and self-sufficiency. Community sponsors will also need to source and provide housing to their allocated families for the first two years after their arrival.


Becoming community sponsors is a long and complicated process, involving finding lead sponsors which can often be charities like Reset, fundraising a minimum of £9000, and gaining approval from local authorities.


The Mandate Scheme resettles refugees who have a close family member in the UK who is willing to accommodate them. According to The Refugee Council, only 6 people have been resettled under the Mandate Scheme by the end of 2022.


Country-Specific Routes


Country-specific routes are currently only available to Afghans, British Nationals (Overseas) from Hong Kong, and Ukrainians. In the year ending June 2023, 102,807 people were granted the Ukraine Visa and the Extension Schemes visas, and 43,368 people were granted Hong Kong BN(O) visas.


There are currently two main routes for Afghans, the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) launched in January 2022, and the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP). The ARAP is only applicable to Afghans who have worked for the British Government, and as a resettlement scheme, the ACRS does not accept applications.


There are 3 pathways under this scheme, pathway 1 is for people Afghans who have already arrived in the UK in 2021 before the scheme was launched. Pathway 2, similar to other resettlement schemes, is for people who are identified and transferred by the UNHCR. There are currently 1,500 places open for pathway 3, which is for at-risk individuals from Garda World and British Council contractors and Chevening alumni (and family members). The scheme aims to resettle up to 20,000 people in the UK.


A report published on August 3, 2023, by The Refugee Council found that so far only 54 Afghans have been newly resettled under the ACRS in the UK. This figure does not consider those who were already in the UK since 2021 and were transferred onto the scheme under pathway 1, as they were not newly resettled.


The report also compares this figure to the 8,000 Afghans who sought asylum after crossing the Channel. This meant that “For every Afghan who managed to arrive through a resettlement scheme, almost 90 resorted to risking their lives at sea.”


Are These Enough?


Legal organization Free Movement, founded by barrister Colin Yeo, concludes that for the vast majority of asylum seekers that fall beyond the remit of the available legal routes: “There are no “safe and legal” routes for them to come to the UK.”


Another major factor the UNHCR points to is that: “Most people fleeing war and persecution either do not have or are unable to access formal documents such as passports and visas. Safe and “legal” routes are rarely available to them.”


Concerns were also raised about the quality of Home Office decision-making on applications to the available legal routes. Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (Ramfel) found via freedom of information requests that two-thirds of family reunion applications that were initially rejected were overturned on appeal.


In November of 2022, Tory MP Tim Loughton questioned Home Secretary Suella Braverman on the UK’s asylum system during a home affairs select committee: “Let's do a bit of role play. I’m a 16-year-old orphan from an East African country escaping a war zone and religious persecution and I have a sibling legally in the UK at the moment. What is the safe and legal route for me to come to the UK?”  


Braverman was unable to answer specifically, only repeatedly emphasising that: “You can do it through the safe and legal routes that we have.” Eventually, she called on other colleagues to answer the question for her.


Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, then said: “Depending on which country you are from, you could engage with UNHCR and that would be a way of getting leave to enter the UK in order to put in an asylum claim, but I accept that there are some countries where that would not be possible.” 


In response, Loughton said: “The point is that there is a shortage of safe and legal routes other than for specific groups of people.”


Nick Beales, head of campaigning at Ramfel, similarly said: “Suella Braverman and her colleagues insist people should use ‘safe routes’ to come to the UK, yet in practice such routes barely exist.” 

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