Senior Tories have demanded a radical overhaul of the asylum system to allow migrants to claim refuge at UK embassies anywhere in the world – rather than having to travel to the UK – in a bid to cut the numbers attempting dangerous Channel crossings.
Ex-cabinet members David Davis and Andrew Mitchell are among those calling for the change, which marks a stark challenge to the punitive approach taken by Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, who are demanding tighter controls on French beaches and are threatening to “push back” small boats at sea.
Mr Davis, the former shadow home secretary and Brexit secretary, and Mr Mitchell, the former international development secretary, also poured scorn on the home secretary’s plan to take on powers through her Nationality and Borders Bill to send migrants arriving in the UK to camps in third countries overseas for processing – something that has already been ruled out by Albania after it was named as a potential destination.
Writing for The Independent, Pauline Latham, a Conservative member of the Commons International Development Committee, said that allowing migrants to claim asylum at embassies abroad was “the only viable alternative to the tragedy of deaths in the Channel and the chaos of our current approach”.
Twenty-seven migrants, including three children and a pregnant woman, drowned off the coast of France in November when their boat sank, marking the single biggest loss of life of the crisis so far.
The Home Office is opposing an opposition amendment to the borders bill, due for debate in the House of Commons this week, which would allow migrants to seek “humanitarian visas” in France, allowing them to be transported safely across the Channel to claim asylum.
But Ms Latham’s proposal goes a step further, removing the need for asylum seekers to pay thousands of pounds to criminal gangs to smuggle them into Europe and then risk their lives in order to reach Britain to make their claim.
The Mid Derbyshire MP said: “This feels to me like a genuine win-win. The customer base of the people smugglers would vanish, ending deaths in the Channel and ensuring that people seeking safety here can travel in a humane fashion.
“The UK would be better able to control who arrives here, and anyone arriving without a visa or pre-approved asylum claim would face non-negotiable deportation.”
Current government policy has “got it the wrong way round” and should be reshaped as a “global resettlement programme” similar to those set up in Syria and being established for Afghanistan, said Ms Latham.
With the vast majority of those arriving in the UK by small boat having a legitimate claim for asylum, the question Ms Patel must answer is why the UK’s current policy requires them to put themselves in the hands of lawless gangs and then risk their lives in order to be able to submit their paperwork, she said.
“Desperate people will continue to seek safety in the UK for as long as there is conflict and persecution elsewhere,” said Ms Latham. “But nobody puts their child in an overcrowded, flimsy dinghy on a cold November morning if they think a better alternative is available. So, when we talk about deterrence we have to talk about alternatives.”
And Mr Davis said: “Instead of a policy which is built solely on keeping people out, the government should consider creating a legitimate route in for genuine refugees. Migrants fleeing repression in Iran or famine in war-torn Yemen are not able to apply at British embassies. The only options available to them are either illegal, or dangerous, or both.”
The bill being debated in the Commons on Tuesday and Wednesday aims to deter small-boat crossings by restricting the rights of those who enter the UK by “irregular” routes, allowing “offshore” processing of claims in third countries, and speeding up the removal of failed asylum seekers.
It would also give border and immigration staff powers to redirect boats out of UK territorial waters in a way that MPs and unions have warned could increase the risk of capsize and deaths.
Mr Davis said that offshoring would represent a “moral, economic and practical failure”, inflicting a terrible ordeal on those fleeing terror and persecution.
And Mr Mitchell said: “So far, Norway, Rwanda and Albania have all distanced themselves from suggestions that they would host a UK offshore processing centre. The bill seeks a power for a policy which the government is yet to define.
“Even in Australia, 75 per cent of those sent to remote islands for processing eventually had their claims upheld. Indeed, most of the people crossing the Channel are also having their asylum claims upheld. Offshore processing looks like a policy which delays the inevitable. But at far greater cost to the taxpayer.”
The Labour MP behind the humanitarian visa amendment, Neil Coyle, said Ms Patel’s proposals “will cause more dangerous routes and more risk to people seeking to reach the UK”. He told The Independent it was “garbage” for her to claim they would reduce the so-called “pull factors” attracting those fleeing war, civil conflict or persecution to Britain.
“A humanitarian visa offers the government the chance to prove it means what it says, when it says it doesn’t want people to be subjected to gangs and criminality,” said Mr Coyle. “The amendment would save lives, help us meet our international obligations, and prevent money going to smugglers.”
Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party, backing the amendment alongside MPs from the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Labour, said: “Claiming asylum in the UK is a fundamental right, but asylum seekers are in a Catch-22, whereby asylum can only be claimed on UK soil yet the UK provides no safe and legal routes to enter the country for those purposes.
“The home secretary doesn’t care about asylum seekers, but if she were serious about tackling people smuggling, this visa is a workable solution.”
But a Home Office spokesperson said: “The government has noted the amendments relating to asylum visas for persons in France and they will be debated in parliament in due course.
“However, there is the risk of creating a wider pull factor, putting vulnerable people in danger by encouraging them to make dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean and overland to France in order to make claims to enter the UK, motivating people to again entrust themselves to heinous smugglers.”
The chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Minnie Rahman, dismissed this argument.
“Like people who travel to the UK for work or study, people seeking protection in the UK deserve safe ways of getting here,” she said. “If the government were serious about preventing dangerous crossings and upholding our commitment to refugee protection, they would back this amendment. Instead it seems they’re happy to continue driving refugees into smugglers’ boats.”
And Bridget Chapman, of the Kent Refugee Action Network, said: “The simple fact is that those who have made this journey tell us that they never wanted to leave their homes in the first place. It wasn’t the ‘pull factors’ that made it happen, it was violent ‘push factors’, such as war, conflict and persecution.
“Once displaced, most people stay close to their country of origin and only a relatively small number come to the UK. There is no evidence whatsoever that making their journey to the UK marginally more safe would be a ‘pull factor’, and we cannot allow that to be used as a reason not to give them better and safer options.”
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said: “This humanitarian visa amendment would help to prevent deaths in the Channel and undermine the dangerous boat journeys offered by people smugglers.
“If the government is concerned about a so-called ‘pull factor’, they should show clear evidence of it and then expand this amendment to include refugees further upstream.”