The UK has still failed to strike any bilateral returns deals with European countries – despite the government revealing this week that thousands of asylum seekers are being considered for removal to the EU.
Ministers have been accused of “adding further delay and cost” to the asylum process after new data revealed that more than 4,500 people who have claimed asylum in Britain since the start of this year, including a number of Afghan nationals, have had their cases halted so the Home Office can assess whether they can be deported to the continent.
Under Priti Patel’s new asylum reforms, their claims are put on hold for six months to determine whether they travelled through an EU country, and if this is confirmed the government will seek to return them there.
But none of the 4,561 people whose case have been put on hold in the six months to June have been removed to EU countries, according to government statistics published on Thursday.
The home secretary has said she intends to replace the Dublin regulation, which allowed it to return asylum seekers to EU member states while Britain was part of the bloc, with “bilateral returns arrangements”.
However, The Independent has received confirmation from a number of EU countries this week, including France – which many asylum seekers pass through on their way to Britain – that they still do not intend to strike bilateral returns deals with the UK government.
A French interior ministry spokesperson said: “The question of readmissions to the EU is an EU affair and should be dealt with at the EU level”, while a spokesperson for the Netherlands said it was “not in the process of making bilateral agreements with the UK for returning irregular migrants”.
An Austrian government spokesperson meanwhile said: “We are not aware of any discussions between Austria and the UK in view of substituting bilaterally the arrangements under the Dublin Regulation after the UK’s exit from the EU.”
An EU spokesperson said the Trade and Cooperation Agreement it had entered with the UK “did not include provisions on asylum and return” and that the bloc was “not considering pursuing further negotiations to complement the agreement”.
It comes after official figures published this week showed that the backlog of people waiting for an initial asylum decision in the UK now stands at 70,905 – up 73 per cent over the past two years, despite a decline in the number of applicants, and nine times higher than in 2011.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds described the situation as “a total mess”, saying the government’s failure to put in place deals with European countries to replace the Dublin Regulations was leaving people in “terrible limbo”.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, echoed his concerns, saying: “It’s clear that the government’s inadmissibility rules are clearly not working and are simply adding further delay, cost and human misery to the asylum system.”
Charity Care4Calais said that over 100 of the asylum seekers it supports who have arrived in the UK this year have had their claims put on hold for consideration for removal, including at least two Afghan nationals.
Hannah Marwood, of the charity, said: “This process has had an undeniable affect on their mental health, leaving them in a limbo, not knowing whether they will have their claims heard in the UK where they should finally feel safe after horrendous journeys.”
The home secretary announced proposals in March to deny refugees who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes an automatic right to asylum and instead forcibly remove them to safe countries they passed through on their way to the UK, which are usually in the EU.
The UK receives considerably fewer asylum claims than other EU nations, with 26,900 in the 12 months to March of 2021, compared with 122,000 in Germany and 94,000 in France. Britain ranks 17th for asylum applicants in Europe when measured per head of population.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee and migrant rights director at Amnesty International UK, said: “It is an utter disgrace that the government is putting the claims and lives of people seeking asylum on hold – and adding yet more cases to a backlog of more than 50,000 already in the system.
“The countries to which ministers are trying to shift the UK’s asylum responsibilities have long received significantly larger numbers of claimants and refugees than the UK – why on earth would they be willing to take still greater responsibility from a country doing comparatively little?”
The Home Office has been approached for comment.
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