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Hundreds of leading academics criticise Government’s New Plan for Immigration for being “completely unfounded in any body of research evidence”


Open letter notes "deeply troubling echoes" of Australia's Temporary Protection Visa

Date of Publication:
01 April 2021

Over 450 leading academics in the UK have responded to the Government's recent announcement of a New Plan for Immigration with an open letter criticising the plan's near-total lack of basis in evidence.

UK BorderImage credit: UK GovernmentIt was picked up by The Independent, but doesn't seem to have been reported elsewhere so it is well worth highlighting here on EIN.

The academics say the Home Secretary's plan is based on claims which are "completely unfounded in any body of research evidence" and has "deeply troubling echoes" of Australia's Temporary Protection Visa.

You can read the open letter in full below:


New Plan for Immigration has no basis in research evidence

The 24th of March 2021 saw the announcement of the UK's new post-Brexit asylum policy, set out in the New Plan for Immigration. This plan centres on 'criminal smuggling gangs' who facilitate the cross border movement of people seeking asylum, particularly in this case, across the English Channel. In doing so it advances and formalises a distinction between two groups of people seeking asylum: those who travel themselves to places of potential sanctuary, and those who wait in refugee camps, processing and/or transit centres for the possibility of meeting the criteria for resettlement through UNHCR. Under the New Plan, those who arrive 'spontaneously' will never be granted permanent leave to remain in the UK. Those in the privileged group of resettled refugees will gain permanent status.

Asylum is a topic that has been extensively researched across the social sciences and humanities. Yet in the 31 references cited in the New Plan for Immigration policy statement (mostly Home Office documents), there is just one reference to research evidence, a research paper on refugee integration. As researchers with decades of knowledge and experience in the field of migration and asylum research, we wish to express our objection to these plans which not only circumvent international human rights law, but are also based on claims which are completely unfounded in any body of research evidence.

Resettlement represents a tiny proportion of refugee reception globally. Of the 80 million displaced people globally at the end of 2019, 22,800 were resettled in 2020 and only 3,560 were resettled to the UK. Under the new plans, forms of resettlement are set to increase, which can only be welcomed. But of course, the expansion of resettlement will make no difference to people who are here, and arriving, every year. Research has shown that people who find themselves in a situation of persecution or displacement very rarely have knowledge of any particular national asylum system. Most learn the arbitrary details of access to work, welfare, and asylum itself upon arrival.

There are distinct and deeply troubling echoes here of the Australian Temporary Protection Visa programme and the vilification of people with no option but to travel through irregular means to flee persecution and seek sanctuary. In making smugglers the focus of asylum policy, the UK is inaugurating what Canadian Professor of Migration Alison Mountz calls the death of asylum. There is little difference between people fleeing persecution who make the journey themselves to the UK, or those who wait in a camp with a small chance of resettlement. The two are often, in fact, connected, as men are more likely to go ahead in advance, making perilous journeys, in the hope that safe and legal options will then be opened up for family members who would struggle to travel and survive these perilous routes. And what makes these journeys so dangerous? The lack of safe and legal routes. Britain, and other countries across Europe, North America and Australasia, have gone to huge efforts and massive expense in recent decades to close down access to the right to asylum. Examples of this include paying foreign powers to quarantine refugees outside of Europe, criminalising those who help refugees, and carrier sanctions. Carrier sanction are why people pay 10 times the cost of a plane ticket to cross the Mediterranean or the Channel in a tiny boat.

Research has shown in a wide range of international contexts, including within the EU and the UK, that when government policy closes down safe and legal routes, people are forced to take more perilous journeys. These are not illegal journeys, as claimed by Home Secretary Priti Patel, because under international law one cannot travel illegally if one is seeking asylum. People's only option becomes to pay smugglers for help in crossing borders. At this point criminalising smuggling becomes the focus of asylum policy. In this way, government policy creates and frames the 'crisis' which it then claims to solve. Again, there is a body of research which has analysed this phenomenon in the UK and beyond. This policy practice extends to people who are seeking asylum themselves. Arcane maritime laws have been deployed by the UK in order to criminalise irregular Channel crossers who breach sea defences, and therefore deny them sanctuary. Specifically, if one of the people aboard a given boat touches the tiller, oars, or steering device, they become liable to be arrested under anti-smuggling laws. In 2020, eight people seeking asylum were jailed on such grounds, facing sentences of up to two and a half years, as well as the subsequent threat of deportation. For these people, there are no safe and legal routes left.

We know from extensive research on the subject, that poverty in a sending country does not lead to an increase in asylum applications elsewhere from that country. Things like wars, genocide and human rights abuses need to be present in order for nationals of a country to start seeking asylum abroad in any meaningful number. Why then is the UK so obsessed with preventing people who are fleeing wars, genocide and human rights abuses from gaining asylum here? On their own terms there is one central reason: their belief that most people seeking asylum today are not actually refugees, but economic migrants seeking to cheat the asylum system. The UK government has tended to justify its highly restrictive asylum policies on the basis that it is open to abuse from 'bogus, cheating, young men'. It then makes the lives of people who are awaiting a decision on their asylum application as difficult as possible on the basis that this will deter others. Forcing people who are here to live below the poverty line, then, is imagined to sever 'pull factors' for others who have not yet arrived. Again, such claims have been closely examined by researchers and there is no evidence to support this idea of economic pull factors, or that deterrence strategies work, they simply cost lives.

A fresh commitment to resettlement and the use of safe and legal routes is of course welcome. However, it should not be at the expense of people fleeing persecution who have no alternative but to find sanctuary by travelling to the UK themselves. The unveiling of this policy reveals that lessons are not being learned and that research evidence continues to be disregarded.