Search continues for offshore asylum centre location, after Priti Patel’s Ascension Island suggestion rejected

Government does not rule out following Australian example

Home secretary Priti Patel ordered officials to look into the possibility of building an asylum processing centre on Ascension
Home secretary Priti Patel ordered officials to look into the possibility of building an asylum processing centre on Ascension

The government has not ruled out using remote islands to process asylum seekers and illegal migrants offshore, despite concluding that the Atlantic Ocean outposts of Ascension and St Helena are too far away. 

On repeated questioning from reporters over whether ministers were still considering the plan – potentially using islands in the English Channel or off the coast of Scotland – Boris Johnson’s official spokesman would say only that the UK was looking at systems which have been used elsewhere in the world. 

His comments have fuelled suspicions that the UK may follow in the footsteps of Australia, where asylum seekers attempting to cross into the country were held in detention centres on Nauru and Manus Islands in Papua New Guinea.

It emerged today that Priti Patel, the home secretary, ordered officials to look into the possibility of building an asylum processing centre on Ascension, a remote volcanic outcrop inhabited by fewer than 1,000 people and closer to Brazil than the 4,000-mile distant UK.

According to the Financial Times, Home Office civil servants were also asked to provide an assessment of the practicalities of shipping asylum seekers to the rocky island or to nearby St Helena, where Napoleon was exiled after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, was also considered.

A Home Office source said Ms Patel had asked staff to explore how other nations process claims and confirmed that the Foreign Office was consulted about the two islands before they were dismissed as too far away.

Asked whether the search for an offshore location for a processing centre continued, and could potentially look at islands in the Channel or Scotland, Mr Johnson’s spokesman replied: “As part of the work that we are conducting on preventing abuse of the system and the criminality associated with it, we have been looking at what a whole host of other countries do, in order to inform a plan for the UK.

“The work is ongoing and when there is more to say on it, we will do so.”

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds described the Ascension proposal as “ludicrous … inhumane, completely impractical and wildly expensive”, adding: “So it seems entirely plausible this Tory government came up with it.”

He said: “It’s a disgraceful proposal to put forward – and if it turns out to be true, we’ll oppose it all the way”.

And the idea was dismissed as an unfeasible, “logistical nightmare” by a member of the Ascension Island Council, Alan Nicholls.

He said he had only found out about Ms Patel’s proposal when contacted by journalists and worried that security concerns from the presence of two military bases on the island could make it “prohibitive”.

“Looking at cost and logistics, we are some 4,000-plus miles away from the UK, I would have thought it would be extremely expensive and a bit of a logistical nightmare to get asylum seekers here to Ascension because of the fact we are very isolated and I don’t think the whole thing would be very feasible, to be quite truthful,” Mr Nicholls told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He also spoke of concerns among the locals on the island, with a population of less than 1,000, of forcing migrants there during the coronavirus pandemic.

“There could be quite an influx of individuals and at this state and time with pandemic lockdowns and everything else, I don’t think that anybody would be very receptive to that,” the councillor said.

Refugee Action chief executive Stephen Hale added: “It’s deeply troubling that our home secretary even considered that this immoral and inhumane plan was a serious solution to a humanitarian crisis.”

A senior United Nations official told the Commons Home Affairs Committee she urged the Home Office not to adopt the idea.

Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UK representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said: “This is the Australian model and I think we have already seen that the Australian model has brought about incredible suffering on people who are guilty of no more than seeking asylum.

“It has also additionally, I think, cost, and continues to cost, an incredible amount of money, so it seems to be both extremely inappropriate in terms of the commitments that the country should have to human rights and to asylum, but also an incredibly impractical and expensive way of doing so.”

A Home Office official said: “The UK has a long and proud history of offering refuge to those who need protection. Tens of thousands of people have rebuilt their lives in the UK and we will continue to provide safe and legal routes in the future.

“As ministers have said we are developing plans to reform policies and laws around illegal migration and asylum to ensure we are able to provide protection to those who need it, while preventing abuse of the system and the criminality associated with it.”

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