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EU countries rule out bilateral asylum deals in blow to Priti Patel’s immigration plans

Exclusive: Questions over Home Office intention to deport asylum seekers to Europe as EU governments dismiss idea, saying Britain can no longer ‘count on European solidarity’

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
@maybulman
Sunday 25 April 2021 08:06
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In a major blow to Priti Patel’s immigration plans, EU countries have said they will not strike bilateral agreements with Britain to facilitate the deportation of refugees to Europe.

New measures unveiled by the home secretary last month would see refugees who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes denied an automatic right to asylum and instead forcibly removed to safe countries they passed through on their way to the UK, which are usually in the EU.

The Home Office has said it 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”.

But The Independent has learnt that France, Belgium and Germany do not intend to make bilateral deals with Britain, warning that the country “cannot continue to count on European solidarity” and that it “remains bound by international law”.

Meanwhile it has emerged that a number of people in Napier Barracks, a military site housing a number of asylum seekers, have been issued letters by the Home Office stating that they may face deportation to Europe and that their protection claims may not be considered by the UK.

Lawyers warn that given the unwillingness from EU nations to strike bilateral returns agreements, this will lead to the protection claims of vulnerable people being put on hold for no good reason.

Belgium’s asylum and migration secretary, Sammy Mahdi, said the country had no intention of negotiating unilateral readmission agreements with the UK and that he had already explained his position to the immigration minister Chris Philp. 

The UK chose to leave the EU and therefore cannot continue to count on our European solidarity. We cannot be expected simply to agree on the return of these migrants

Sammy Mahdi, Belgium’s asylum and migration secretary

“Despite Brexit, trans-migrants cannot be sent back to Belgium just like that. The UK chose to leave the EU and therefore cannot continue to count on our European solidarity. We cannot be expected simply to agree on the return of these migrants,” he added.

The German embassy in London meanwhile told The Independent that no negotiations between Germany and the UK on return arrangements had taken place, adding that the country “generally prefers a common EU approach” – indicating that bilateral returns deals are not on the cards.

France echoed these remarks, with a government spokesperson saying: “We will naturally continue our operational cooperation to prevent departures and fight against smuggling networks. With regards to readmissions, asylum is a European subject, which calls for a European response.”

EU officials last August rejected a British request for a pact that would allow the government to return asylum seekers to European countries, saying the proposal “isn’t very operational and doesn’t bring a lot of added value”.

Claude Moraes, who was a British MEP until the end of the Brexit transition period and is in touch with former colleagues working on migration in the bloc, said he believed nothing had changed with regards to the EU’s position, and that the British government was aware of this.

“The EU will not budge on this. They have no sympathy for Britain on this because they realise Britain played fast and loose on this during Brexit, and they have taken much bigger numbers,” he told The Independent.

“The reason the UK is talking about bilateral deals is entirely political, for the press. As long as they talk about bilateral deals they can fool people into thinking they’ve got some kind of EU plan up their sleeve.

“In the end, there will be smoke and mirrors and they will swallow big numbers. We will end up taking refugees but we will pretend to play hardball and in the end there will be some brutal things happening. Probably they will pick some far-flung territory and test the waters.”

Letters seen by The Independent sent by the Home Office to a number of asylum seekers at Napier Barracks in recent weeks state that there is “evidence” they “were present or had a connection” in an EU state before arriving in Britain – and that their claim may therefore be deemed “inadmissible”.

“If your claim is treated as inadmissible, we will not ask you about your reasons for claiming asylum or make a decision on your protection claim. We will attempt to remove you to [EU country] in which you were present of have a connection, or any other safe country that will receive you,” the letter states.

Jeremy Bloom, a solicitor at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, which represents around 20 asylum seekers who have received the letter, said it was “striking” that the Home Office was distributing it even though negotiations with EU states did not appear to have even started.

“This is the sort of thing that you would expect to have been ironed out well before the new rules were put in place. Now that Brexit has happened, it is difficult to see what incentives countries in the EU would have to enter into these types of agreements with the UK,” he added.

Now that Brexit has happened, it is difficult to see what incentives countries in the EU would have to enter into these types of agreements with the UK

Jeremy Bloom, lawyer representing asylum seekers

“One major problem is the potential for the new rules to cause long delays in the consideration of asylum claims.”

Maddie Harris, of the Humans for Rights Network, which supports a number of people who received the letters, said it was “political fodder” to inform an individual that they are subject to the inadmissibility rule without agreements for return with EU countries.

She warned that the situation could exacerbate already high levels of mental ill health among people in the barracks. At least 15 asylum seekers have so far been transferred out of the camp on the grounds of vulnerability after lawyers have intervened, and charities say there have been at least two suicide attempts in recent weeks.

“The delay created for those subject to the inadmissibility rule, on top of pre-existing long delays within the UK asylum system, will prevent people from beginning their lives again in the UK,” Ms Harris added.

“It will create a serious deterioration in people’s mental health whilst the threat of removal from the UK, possibly to a country they have never set foot in, hangs over their heads.”

It comes after former Home Office ministers and civil servants told The Independent Ms Patel’s plans to seek to deport asylum seekers to other countries were not workable and would end up costing more.

Lord David Blunkett, who served as home secretary between 2001 and 2004 under Tony Blair, said there was not a “cat’s chance in hell” that the UK would manage to secure bilateral returns deals with EU nations.

Mr Philp said: “All countries have a moral responsibility to tackle the issue of illegal migration. We expect our international partners to engage with us on this, building on our good current cooperation.

“Individuals should claim asylum in the first safe country they reached – rather than making dangerous and illegal journeys to the UK. In December, we introduced new rules to make asylum claims inadmissible where people have travelled through or have a connection to safe countries and we are now delivering on this commitment.”

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