Over the course of the last year, the UK Home Office has been brainstorming ways to deal with the refugee crisis — and it looks like almost everything is on the table.
But instead of working on how to better offer sanctuary, save lives, or successfully integrate refugees into British life, the government department led by Priti Patel has instead been plotting prison islands, containment ships, and weapons to deter migrant dinghies.
Reports have been circling since August 2020 of ideas to make the English Channel an “unviable” route for asylum seekers, some condemned as “unlawful, reckless, and dangerous.”
And on Monday, Patel was making headlines once more as news broke of her plan to set up a processing facility for asylum seekers arriving in Britain based thousands of miles away in Rwanda.
This is where we are. Despite the global refugee crisis, it is a myth to suggest that there is a refugee crisis in the UK. There are not many refugees in the UK — just 0.2% of the total population as of 2019 — and the UK receives far fewer asylum applications than its neighbours.
According to UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UK received 31,752 asylum applications in the year ending September 2020, almost five times less than Germany (155,295), and much less than France (129,480) and Spain (128,520) too.
However Britain, instead of taking its fair share of refugees, has been coming up with ways to avoid responsibility. Here are some of the “grotesquely inhumane” ideas that the Home Office has genuinely been considering in just the last year alone.
1. Create an offshore centre in Rwanda.
Next week, Patel will reportedly bring a Nationality and Borders Bill to parliament.
In the event such legislation is passed into law, it would allow her to set up an offshore processing centre to hold asylum seekers in Rwanda. It’s thought that the processing centre will be shared with Denmark, another country recently condemned for being the first European country to revoke refugee status for 200 Syrians, including teenagers who had been in Denmark for many years, arguing that their war-torn home country was now safe to return to.
Australia has implemented "offshore processing" since 2012 — where refugees arriving by boat are intercepted and told to turn back, or be taken to a third country, namely Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, while their claim for asylum is processed.
The UK plan has been described as “barbaric” and “cowardly” by Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive at Refugee Action, while the Refugee Council called it “an act of cruel and brutal hostility.” It was widely condemned as “dystopian”, with Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, saying it “would be an appalling and inhumane way to treat some of the world’s most vulnerable people.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council charity, said: “Offshore processing is an act of cruel and brutal hostility towards vulnerable people who through no fault of their own have had to flee war, oppression, and terror.”
Not in our name - I’m ashamed for our country when Priti Patel plans to ship people seeking asylum and a new life in Britain to a camp in Rwanda.— Kevin Maguire (@Kevin_Maguire) June 28, 2021
Callous, colonial states are not entitled to call themselves civilised.
2. Keep people on disused ferries at sea.
The idea was to buy retired ferries and convert them into floating processing centres.
The ships, moored off the English coast, would hold asylum seekers while they waited for their applications to be dealt with. Along a similar vein, another thought was that migrants could be processed on decommissioned oil platforms in the North Sea, according to the Times.
Eventually it was deemed a “no go” after being discussed in a Whitehall brainstorming session.
But as we’re about to find out, not all binned ideas find themselves banished for eternity…
3. Build detention camps off the coast of Africa.
The Rwanda centre is merely the latest iteration of an idea that was pitched, and scrapped, between September and October 2020.
Initially, "detailed plans” were drawn up to build detention camps on either Ascension Island or Saint Helena, British Overseas Territories based just off the western coast of Africa. Islands around Moldova, Morocco, and Papua New Guinea were also considered.
But there was a huge public backlash. The idea was described as “entirely immoral and inhumane” by campaigners. Eventually, the plan was shelved — for nine months, at least.
“The government’s speculative plans to round up human beings and confine them to prison boats or camps on remote islands are inhumane and morally bankrupt,” said Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action. “Britain is better than this.”
Hale added: “We need a fair and effective asylum system, based on compassion, safety, and the rule of law.”
"Priti Patel will introduce new laws next week to enable the government to send asylum seekers abroad for processing as she opens talks with Denmark over sharing a processing centre in Africa". pic.twitter.com/pV3gOgqgbn— Shoaib M Khan (@ShoaibMKhan) June 27, 2021
4. Erect a floating wall in the English Channel.
A leaked document from last summer showed that the Home Office reached out to Maritime UK, a trade body, asking for tips on how to build temporary "marine fencing" in the English Channel.
The Financial Times first broke the story, reporting that they had seen an email requesting advice on how to "prevent a slow-moving, heavily overloaded migrant boat from making progress". But Maritime UK said that the idea was "not legally possible" under terms set out in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.
Apparently the barriers would be set up "on the median line" between British and French waters, with technology that was "rapidly deployable and rapidly removable."
5. Use water cannons against dinghies.
In the news around the Rwanda processing centre, the statistics around migrants arriving in the UK on small boats — approximately 5,700 in 2021 so far — have been put forward as something Prime Minister Boris Johnson is actively concerned about.
As we’ve already established, this is a miniscule proportion of the number of asylum applications made to other countries. But in 2018, it led to former home secretary Sajid Javid declaring a “major incident”. It has since frequently been portrayed as an escalating emergency.
Last year, the BBC and Sky were accused of "voyeurism" after they sent reporters to chase some of these dinghies in their own boats, described by one MP as like "grotesque reality TV". To further add to the hysteria, government rhetoric has grown increasingly bombastic.
Which led to this idea: water cannons in the English Channel to create actual waves that might repel migrant boats before they can land in the UK. Seriously.
6. Send navy warships to intercept boats.
Last but not least, there was the whole warship debacle.
In August 2020, Patel requested support from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to prevent migrants crossing the English Channel, and appointed an ex-royal marine as a "clandestine channel threat commander."
Among the critics of the idea to send in the military to deal with migrants were people within the MoD itself, with one source reportedly calling it a “completely inappropriate and disproportionate approach to take."
In the end, navy ships weren’t called in. But judging by the return of the Rwanda processing centre, it might be naive to believe the idea may never come back.