Failed attempts to deport small boat migrants causing ‘costly limbo’, damning report finds

Only 23 asylum seekers deported under policy that has so far delayed over 27,000 claims, official figures show

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Wednesday 31 May 2023 14:17 BST
<p>The report, based on eight months of research, allowed UNHCR officials access to its internal records, interviews and small boat processing centres </p>

The report, based on eight months of research, allowed UNHCR officials access to its internal records, interviews and small boat processing centres

The government's failed attempts to deport small boat migrants are “merely leaving asylum seekers in limbo at a higher cost” to the public, a damning United Nations report has found.

It suggested that ministers should drop their refusal to consider claims from refugees who have passed through France and other safe countries because of the “absence” of deportation agreements.

An eight-month audit of the UK’s asylum system by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) found that Home Office staff were “frustrated” at being barred from considering small boat cases immediately when “it was inevitable that these cases would be determined in the UK”.

They warned that failing attempts to declare boat migrants “inadmissible” for asylum “merely caused unnecessary delays and inefficiencies”, worsening the asylum backlog and driving up soaring costs for hotel accommodation.

With the Rwanda deal held up by legal action and an EU-wide arrangement lost during Brexit, the UK has only deported six asylum seekers for passing through safe third countries in a year.

Official figures show that since the government changed its rules in January 2021, 55,000 asylum seekers have been considered for “inadmissibility” but only 23 have been removed from the UK, while over 27,500 were “subsequently admitted into the UK asylum process for substantive consideration”.

More than 170,000 asylum seekers are currently awaiting an initial decision on their claims, with the record figure rocketing by 50 per cent in a year.

The UNHCR’s report called for the government to “re-evaluate policies” that are slowing down asylum processing, “in particular with regard to inadmissibility decisions that merely leave asylum seekers in limbo at a higher cost to the UK government”.

Vicky Tennant, the body’s representative to the UK, said: “Fair and efficient asylum systems help ensure that refugees are able to access the protection they need and to start rebuilding their lives.

“Equally important, they help maintain public confidence by allowing governments to pursue arrangements for the return of people who are found not to have international protection needs.

“Flawed and inefficient screening procedures are currently undermining the UK’s asylum capacity – placing vulnerable people at risk and adding to the pressure on public resources.”

The UNHCR called for the government to stop suspending asylum processing for people “who are not reasonably likely to be readmitted or transferred to other countries”, saying the change would “reduce demands on asylum support and accommodation and promote asylum seekers’ integration or return”.

Archbishop of Canterbury condemns Rwanda deportations

It also said civil servants should not be made to “waste time” requesting deportations to countries that the UK does not have an agreement with.

Internal Home Office guidance states that asylum seekers can be declared “inadmissible” if they are deemed to have a connection to a safe country that is not the UK or their home nation.

It includes people who have travelled through countries like France, where the government argues they could have made an application for asylum before moving onwards to the UK.

Examples given to civil servants include an asylum seeker who spent “a couple of weeks in Brussels staying with friends whilst trying to find an agent to bring them illegally to the UK”.

An official who decides asylum claims told The Independent the situation was “ludicrous”, adding: “Britain is an island, you have to pass through a different country.”

David*, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he considers cases that have been delayed for months before the Home Office gives up on the process “all the time”.

“We don’t have any deportation agreements to deal with it,” he added. “In order to send people to another country, you need to have an agreement.”

The UNHCR warned of potential legal action over the process, saying that people are referred for inadmissibility consideration on the basis of brief “screening interviews” where they are asked questions about their route to the UK without being made aware of the reasons why, or the potential consequences of their answers.

It also found that some asylum seekers arriving at airports were being wrongly flagged for simply “changing planes” on direct journeys to Britain.

The report, based on eight months of research Home Office allowed UNHCR officials access to its internal records, interviews and small boat processing centres in 2021, called for an overall “redesign” of processes.

It warned that Home Office staff were not adequately trained and overseen, that “poorly designed” systems were causing hours of wasted or duplicated work and that failings were causing “numerous risks to the welfare of asylum seekers”, including children and the victims of torture and trafficking.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “This report is based on an audit that took place in 2021 and early 2022. Since then, significant improvements have been made to the processing of small boats arrivals.

“Our staff are working relentlessly to safely register and screen unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving in the UK illegally. We are pleased that their professionalism was praised and thank the UNHCR for their report.”

*name has been changed to protect anonymity

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