Welcome to the second installment of the Reception and Integration series, a series of articles that examines how countries respond to and support asylum seekers and refugees. This week we will take a look at the UK and delve into the pending changes to migration law, destined to control migration to its doorstep.
According to the Refugee Council, the UK is home to approximately 1% of the 26.4 million refugees, forcibly displaced across the world. By the end of 2020, there were 132,349 refugees, 77,245 pending asylum cases and 4662 stateless persons in the UK. The asylum system in the UK like many other countries is extremely controlled and complex and is struggling to cope with rapid influxes of migrants – the weekly total nearly reaching 2,000 in September 2021.
The majority of asylum seekers do not have the right to work in the UK and therefore rely on support from the government. Asylum seekers are placed into a housing that is commonly referred to as ‘hard to let’, meaning the average tenant would not want to live in them. Similar to the case in neighbouring Ireland, there is evidence that there is a commercial benefit to the suffering of international protection applicants. Government contracts to private contractors are well above the standard of accommodation provided to asylum seekers and refugees.
Overcrowding is common, with families forced to share a single room. To survive day to day, applicants can receive a weekly allowance set at £39.63 per week to support their food, hygiene and clothing needs. Applicants may also be moved frequently, uprooting any attempts at integration or establishing relationships. Last minute movement from one location to the next is frustrating and stressful for families who just want a safe and familiar place to raise their children. One refugee, speaking to Refugee Action Colchester described being ‘trapped’ in the asylum process, having come from Syria with a young family and running out of savings, forcing them to be totally reliant on government support.
The UK recently announced a new plan for immigration. The 50-page document outlines over 40 suggested changes to rules, legislation and procedures across the UK asylum system. In a nutshell, there has been an extreme backlash on the proposed changes and a significant questioning as to their legality in International Law as well as in the instruments that define our basic human rights as human beings.
The changes include restricting access to asylum to a two-tiered approach where those who arrive through so-called safe and legal pathways would be treated differently to those arriving via ‘illegal’ means. There is also a limiting change on the appeals process, limiting it to a ‘one stop’ process with higher standards of proof for claims and a stronger focus on removals. Smuggling and trafficking will be a focus in the proposed changes with a likelihood of increased law enforcement. Forbes has described these changes as the ‘cruelest ever’ asylum legislation – a sentiment echoed by many professionals, scholars and NGOs in the UK and more widely. 
What the proposed changes will mean in practice is that it will become a criminal offence with up to 4 years in prison to knowingly enter the country illegally, a clear and blatant attempt to limit the ability of people to seek asylum in the UK, despite no such restriction existing in the UK, EU or international law. Frustration is mounting on this point in particular as the UK government is not offering any type of clarification of their interpretation of the illegality of entering the UK through irregular routes.
Predictably, these proposed changes were met with criticism from EU member states which was, in turn, met with threats from the UK cautioning that they will block visa applications from countries unwilling to take back applicants. There is a laughable sense of irony here given that a mechanism pre- Brexit existed for EU member states to return applicants to their first point of entry to the EU – the Dublin Regulation. However, with Britain’s exit from the EU, this mechanism is no longer available.
The bill is currently at the House of Commons Committee stage and will still need to pass through the House of Lords before moving into the final stages. It is still too early to say what the final outcome will be, however, given the number of people arriving in the UK annually, the passing of this bill would be detrimental for refugees and asylum seekers.