The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee published its report, Channel Crossings, Migration and Asylum on 18 July. The committee is chaired by a Labour MP, Dame Diana Johnson, but has a Conservative majority. The report made clear that the asylum system is broken, but stressed that it was broken by the antiquated IT systems, high staff turnover, and too few staff rather than by the migrants crossing the Channel.
The Committee was established in 2020 and sought:
“To consider why there has been a sharp and apparently continuing rise in the number of small boats carrying migrants to the United Kingdom across the English Channel in the past five years … what can be done to prevent such crossings … what our obligations are to those who seek to reach our shores, and what can be done to prevent the illegal smuggling and trafficking of people across international borders by criminal gangs.”
A broken system
In June 2021 there were 125,000 cases in the asylum system of which 57,100 were awaiting an initial decision. Of the remainder, 39,500 had been refused asylum and were subject to removal action while most of the other 28,400 applicants still in the system were appealing decisions. The backlog is expected to grow at least until 2023.
Delays in the system were attributed to several factors including too few staff and insufficient skills, high staff turnover (between 33-39 percent), and, crucially, to outdated administrative systems using inappropriate software to manage workflow and case progression. The report refers to reliance on Excel spreadsheets that have to be updated manually. One has over 100 columns of data entry options per claim and “there is a tendency for them to crash [risking data loss] and inputting into them is very time-consuming”.
The same is true of other arrangements. For example, booking a substantive asylum interview took between 20 and 40 minutes and “the process required frequent cross referencing to a total of seven different Excel spreadsheets, liaison with legal advisers, DMs, the claimant and interpreters, with data being inputted multiple times into different spreadsheets”.
The committee identified systemic problems which led to greater inefficiencies, an error prone system and a “glacial” pace for assessing asylum claims (550 days for a child and 449 for an adult). The long delays had a deleterious impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of those seeking asylum, many of whom, especially children, went missing while waiting for the decision. The long delays result in extraordinary costs for supporting asylum seekers who are unable to work. In September 2021, the cost of accommodating 64,000 applicants, including 13,000 in hotels, was £4.7mn a day.
The report notes that the number of asylum applicants has almost halved in the past ten years while the time taken to reach a case conclusion has doubled. It concludes that “while we agree with the Home Secretary that the asylum system is broken, we invite her to make it clear, given the long-term and growing pressures on the system, that it was not migrants crossing the Channel who broke it”.
The report states that addressing the broken system “caused by antiquated IT systems, high staff turnover, and too few staff” must be the Home Office’s highest priority.
The committee found no evidence that forcibly removing asylum applicants to Rwanda would reduce Channel crossings or that the involvement of the Royal Navy had any impact on the numbers. It stated that there needed to be much better cooperation with the UK’s European partners, and that the difference of legal opinion between France and the UK about the legality of stopping people getting on a boat and setting out to sea from inshore territorial waters had to be resolved.
It considered that announcing new policies, without first having established their likely efficacy or how they would be realised on the ground, was unhelpful and much more work needed to be undertaken on understanding why refugees make the perilous journey and how best this could be addressed.
The committee recommended:
- Providing assessment facilities in France, especially for children; and renewed discussions with the EU about responsibility for asylum seekers who travel through a European country before reaching the UK.
- International cooperation to deter and prosecute smugglers, and to tackle social media providers that enable people smugglers to operate on their networks.
- The Home Office stop making policy announcements without first having established plans that show how they will deliver intended objectives.
- The Home Office undertake an end-to-end review of the processes relating to children with a particular focus on the use of hotels, the risks of children disappearing, the support given to children, and the need for a named trusted adult.
- An overhaul of initial reception and transfer arrangements so that asylum seekers are not left alone without staff on duty, a means of communication, or face their initial needs being unmet.
The committee also said it wanted to see the evidence base and estimated costs for the Rwanda policy and how the safety of those transported will be secured.
The committee’s conclusion
The committee’s conclusion is a damning indictment of government failure over many years. It states:
“We recognise that this crisis has been building over many years. But this Government’s response, characterised first by inattention and then by poor decision-making, has exacerbated these problems and undermined public confidence in the asylum system and in the management of the border. The issue has not been helped by the perceived reluctance of the French Government to find a solution and work much more cooperatively with UK authorities in intercepting migrants before they reach British territorial waters.
“We urge the Government to show leadership through redoubling efforts to engage and co-operate with international partners. The provision of safe and legal routes to the UK should be a key part of the Government’s strategy to counter the criminal trade, and this has not yet received the attention it deserves. The Government risks undermining its own ambitions and the UK’s international standing if it cannot demonstrate that proposed policies such as pushbacks, now abandoned, and offshore processing, such as the Rwanda partnership now being legally challenged, are compatible with international law and conventions.”
The report is damning. The Home office is entirely responsible for the broken asylum system and has no workable plans to fix it.