Priti Patel has been accused of “peddling dangerous myths” after claiming that people crossing the Channel are not genuine asylum seekers but are making the perilous journey because they want to live in UK hotels.
Speaking to peers on Wednesday, the home secretary said that single men arriving via small boats were “economic migrants” and that the Home Office’s use of hotels as asylum accommodation had acted as a “pull factor” for people to enter Britain via unauthorised means.
This is despite the fact that conditions in hotels, where thousands of asylum seekers currently reside, have been widely reported to be challenging for asylum seekers as many have to stay there for months on end, with charities having described the conditions as “dehumanising”.
While in hotels, people are given £8 a week, are often required to share rooms with strangers and, according to a report by the Refugee Council earlier this year, are sometimes left without adequate shoes, clothing or suitable food.
There have also been numerous incidents of far-right groups targeting hotels housing asylum seekers across Britain, with police having to be called to several incidents where activists have filmed and harassed migrants. The issue is believed to have intensified in recent months.
During the evidence hearing with the Lords Home Affairs and Justice Committee, Ms Patel was questioned by former Labour home secretary Lord David Blunkett over her new policy of deeming any person who arrives in the UK after passing through a “safe” country as “inadmissible” – meaning their claim will not be considered.
Describing the people who would fall into this category, she said: "In last year, 70 per cent of individuals on small boats are single men who are effectively economic migrants. They are not genuine asylum seekers.
“They are literally elbowing because they are able to pay the smugglers and get in contact with gangs [...] These are the ones elbowing the women and children who are absolutely at risk and fleeing persecution."
Government statistics show that 63 per cent of asylum seekers who received a decision in the first three months of this year were granted protection, before successful appeals are factored in. Around 60 per cent of asylum seekers arrive via unauthorised means such as small boats, and 98 per cent of them claim asylum.
Later in the committee hearing, the home secretary was asked about her plans to introduce reception centres to house asylum seekers en masse, at which point she raised concerns about the fact that many were currently in hotel accommodation.
Citing the pandemic as the reason for hotel usage, she said: “So we’ve ended up having to put people into hotel accommodation and I’m afraid, I think it’s pretty suboptimal.
“It is counterproductive; I think it’s also acted as a pull factor for people to come to the country illegally, thinking that they’re going to end up in hotels.”
It comes after a report by the Refugee Council in May found that asylum seekers in hotels were being left without essentials such as basic clothing and suitable food, in what was condemned as “dehumanising” treatment.
The charity found that people had been confined to their rooms for days because they had inappropriate footwear – for example only a pair of flip-flops – while sick people had no option but to eat food that was harmful to their health.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said Ms Patel’s comments bore “little relation to reality”.
“Rather than people being attracted by the idea of living in a hotel, the problems people are experiencing in their lengthy stays in temporary accommodation have been well documented,” he said.
“It is also important to recognise that the majority of the people crossing the Channel are likely to be refugees and we will be publishing evidence shortly to demonstrate this.”
Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, accused the home secretary of “peddling the sorts of dangerous myths that quickly become the rallying cries of the far right”.
He added: “The government must stop its vile policy of whipping up hatred against families fleeing violence and persecution and fix the asylum system that its own incompetence has broken.”
Ms Patel also revealed during the evidence hearing that she had secured no bilateral returns deals with EU member states, raising concerns about her new policy of deeming asylum seekers who arrive in the UK after passing through Europe “inadmissible” and deporting them back to the continent.
The government has said repeatedly that it will negotiate bilateral agreements to replace a Europe-wide mechanism that the UK left during the Brexit process, but several EU nations have told The Independent they have no intention of striking such deals.
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