The British government has reportedly been drawing up plans to send asylum seekers to offshore detention camps potentially thousands of miles away from the mainland.
After an exclusive from the Financial Times revealed Priti Patel, the UK’s home secretary, had been exploring the idea, Downing Street confirmed it was under consideration on Wednesday.
It’s prompted experts, activists, and nonprofit organisations to condemn the notion across the board — branding the plans “morally bankrupt”,“grotesquely inhumane”, and “unreal.”
While initial reports centred on Patel, one leaked document suggested that an information request to public officials looking at options on what has been referred to as prison camps came directly from Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The Guardian has since reported that “detailed plans” have been underway for several weeks, including examining the cost of building the detention camps either on Ascension Island or St Helena, just off the western coast of Africa in the south Atlantic, or around countries such as Moldova, Morocco, and Papua New Guinea.
Another idea put forward by ministers was to repurpose disused ferries to hold asylum seekers in ships off the British coast, according to the Times. Other potential options included building a floating wall in the English Channel to keep out migrant dinghies, or a water cannon that would create waves to push them away.
Those that back the plans argue that it would help dissuade people from making the journey.
Inspired by the Australian system of detention camps on islands in the Pacific, experts have pointed to the mammoth costs of a similar idea — where some asylum seekers are held indefinitely, detained for up to nine years without charge.
Australia spends £7.2 billion a year on the camps, condemned as illegal by the United Nations. That’s in contrast to the £36.95 weekly allowance for an asylum seeker in the UK, lower than most EU countries.
But, largely, the bulk of criticism has centred on how the UK’s plans lack humanity. Despite the fact that successful applications for protection, including asylum, have fallen in Britain by 8% between June 2019 and 2020, Patel threatened in August to send in war ships to make the dangerous journey from France to Britain even more “unviable.
Here’s what experts, activists, and nonprofit organisations had to say about the offshore detention camps.
1. Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UK representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
"I do hope the UK will not choose to go down this way. It will really change what the UK is, its history, and the sort of values that it stood for up to now."
"The UK has a very proud reputation in providing asylum and refuge to people across the centuries. This would be a really very significant departure from that approach."
UNHCR is not party to any UK Government discussions on offshoring asylum-seekers or housing them on ferries or islands.— UNHCR United Kingdom (@UNHCRUK) October 1, 2020
States must provide asylum-seekers with access to procedures. Returns to safe countries are possible, but must comply with international law. pic.twitter.com/aQdi2o2TUq
2. Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK director
“It is a dismal reflection upon Home Office ministers that this idea to effectively exile people seeking asylum to far-flung and isolated places has been given any consideration at all.”
“This would be entirely immoral and inhumane.”
2/5 I had just joined the Senior Management Team @refugeecouncil leading on services for people seeking asylum. At that time we were campaigning against the use of ferries being used to detain them.— Kate Allen (@KateAllenAI) October 1, 2020
4/5 On the ferry were over 100 people, mostly I remember young Tamil men seeking asylum. We spent the weekend working to get them housed on land. They had been in cabins on the ferry throughout the storm, absolutely terrified. It was a shocking event that still haunts me— Kate Allen (@KateAllenAI) October 1, 2020
5/5 The @ukhomeoffice of the time were deeply worried about what had happened.— Kate Allen (@KateAllenAI) October 1, 2020
It was a time when all policies relating to people seeking asylum were harsh, and the key aim was to deter others from coming to the UK
I can’t believe how little has changed.
3. Stephen Hale, Refugee Action chief executive
“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 … Britain is better than this.”
“We need a fair and effective asylum system, based on compassion, safety, and the rule of law.”
When MPs asked Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft about ideas to place people seeking asylum on remote islands, oil rigs or disused ferries, he said everything should be on the table.— Refugee Action (@RefugeeAction) October 2, 2020
We couldn’t disagree more. #StandUpForAsylumpic.twitter.com/XsECQnAKew
4. Colin Yeo, Immigration barrister
“There are huge practical obstacles to it, not just around the cost and logistics but the moral consequences on what happens when you detain people in that way in foreign countries.”
“The one idea that does seem potentially doable and is probably lawful is putting people on a ferry. But why would you do that? There aren’t that many of them. If you’re going to detain them, why not have them on-land?
“Most of these people are genuine refugees, the numbers reaching the UK are much smaller than other EU countries, and the numbers are actually falling on previous years. The idea that you need extreme measures to deal with a problem that is not really a problem at all seems unreal.”
The MV Earl William, a former cross Channel ferry, was purchased and used to house up to 240 asylum seekers in 1987. It broke free in a storm after 6 months and the occupants had to be rescued, at which point that experiment was abandoned. Until now... https://t.co/o5ZVgqOk4a— Colin Yeo has a book out (@ColinYeo1) September 30, 2020
5. Andy Hewett, Refugee Council head of advocacy
“The Australian model has shown that offshore detention leads to catastrophic outcomes, including high levels of self-harm and mental illness.”
“It’s an immoral and inhumane policy.”
April to June of this year 4,732 people claimed asylum in the UK – 40% less than in the same period in 2019. No refugees came to the UK through resettlement programmes. 131 family reunion visas were granted - 90% less than for the same period in 2019. pic.twitter.com/h353ivlSF4— Refugee Council (@refugeecouncil) September 10, 2020
6. Sonia Lenegan, Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association legal director
“Australia’s offshore processing policies are absolutely not a system to be admired or emulated, they have received international condemnation because of the levels of human cruelty involved.”
7. Minnie Rahman, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) public affairs and campaigns manager
“These proposals are so ridiculous, they’re almost laughable.”
Again and again we've been calling for safe, practical and legal routes to asylum in the UK. Somehow @pritipatel has interpreted this as 'open up a prison in the south Atlantic'.— JCWI (@JCWI_UK) September 30, 2020
Absurd and grotesquely inhumane. https://t.co/rcB0ICmDID