Priti Patel’s plan to deter migrants from crossing the English Channel in small boats took on elements of farce this week, with revelations that officials had considered locations from Ascension Island to Papua New Guinea to house asylum seekers.
The news that some were looking to build a floating wall in the English Channel brought further claims that the UK’s home secretary was pursuing Donald Trump-style policies. Britain’s opposition Labour party called the proposals “inhumane, completely impractical and wildly expensive”.
Ms Patel was furious at the leaking of ideas from what her officials said was a “brainstorming” exercise. But questions were left hanging about why she was considering such dramatic interventions, whether they would work and who would have an interest in making her look foolish.
Ms Patel is renowned for her tough line on immigration: it is one reason Mr Johnson appointed her to run the Home Office. She has promised to make the dangerous crossings by migrants from France to Britain in inflatable boats and rafts “unviable”.
Channel crossings make up only a small proportion of more than 34,000 people who registered asylum claims in the UK in the year to June, but unofficial estimates suggest the numbers using the route have grown.
The issue has become politically dangerous for Ms Patel. Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit party, stationed himself during the summer on the white cliffs of Dover posting videos of himself on the lookout for migrants — a reminder that the Tories could yet be outflanked on the right on immigration.
On Sunday Ms Patel is expected to set out a tough line when she makes a “virtual” address to the annual Conservative party conference, a forum that traditionally enjoys nothing more than a hardline speech on issues of law, order and immigration.
A snap poll by YouGov showed 62 per cent of Conservative voters thought placing an offshore centre on Ascension Island was a “good idea”.
By the end of August about 5,000 people had arrived in dinghies, more than twice the 1,890 seen in the whole of 2019, prompting Ms Patel to instigate a pan-Whitehall attempt to resolve the issue and to reduce the “pull factor” for migrants considering the crossing.
The Foreign Office was asked to draw up a list of possible places to house asylum seekers while their claims were being processed. Ascension Island, as the FT revealed on Tuesday, was added to the list.
Ms Patel’s allies say the creation of such remote asylum processing centres was “not imminent” — indeed a disused prison on the Isle of Wight has been discussed as another alternative — while ideas for turning back boats at sea with maritime fences were being trialled.
The leaking of the proposals started a blame game, with Home Office insiders suggesting the plan was being driven by a Cabinet Office “task force” and that the Foreign Office was responsible for the global trawl of possible sites for asylum processing centres.
“Do you really think the Cabinet Office is spending its time working out how to pump waves across the Channel to France,” one official working in Michael Gove’s department told Politico, referring to another anti-migrant wheeze. “This idea is coming from brain-dead morons in the Home Office.”
Others close to Ms Patel claimed that some officials needed to be rooted out and were “the enemy within”, briefing against a home secretary whose bracing approach to immigration and enthusiasm for Brexit has upset liberal sensitivities in the civil service.
Another motive widely circulating was that some officials were still bristling at the fact that a report into alleged bullying of staff by Ms Patel, completed in April, had still not been published by prime minister Boris Johnson. Ms Patel denies the bullying claims.
Ms Patel will give details of the latest iteration of her migrant policy in her speech to the Tory conference on Sunday. Disused ferries or abandoned oil rigs have also been considered.
Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister and author specialising in asylum law, said it was “probably” lawful for the government to detain asylum seekers while their claims were processed, based on challenges mounted on previous occasions when the UK has used such facilities.
But Mr Yeo, who worked as a legal adviser at the Oakington Immigration Reception Centre, a now-closed detention facility for asylum seekers in Cambridgeshire, added: “There could be circumstances where it becomes unlawful if you put them through such an accelerated process that they didn’t have time to mount an effective case.”
He went on to question why the government would consider such options, given that asylum seekers have been placed in detention centres before and the tactic was abandoned. There has also been a steady uptick in the number of claimants being recognised as having genuine fears of persecution, with up to 73 per cent of those arriving in the year to June likely to win some kind of refugee protection, according to the latest figures.
“The number of asylum seekers is falling,” Mr Yeo said. “It’s not as if these people are running away from the government. They’re not absconding. It’s just that the Home Office doesn’t try to remove [failed asylum seekers].”
Matthew Rycroft, Ms Patel’s chief official at the Home Office, told MPs on Thursday that Britain would comply with international law in any proposals it drew up. “Everything is on the table,” he said.
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