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  • Sheu Hirst

Improving the Governance of the UK Asylum System: A look at the Commission on the Integration of Refugees March 2024 report.

SUMMARY 


The Commission on the Integration of Refugees published their findings from their call for evidence on the effect of the UK asylum system on the integration of refugees and asylum seekers. This analysis focuses on the report’s investigation into how to improve the governance of the UK asylum system. Although different groups of respondents prioritised different areas of governance, it is evident that there is a consensus that regards these as intertwined; such that addressing one area of governance requires and impacts the possibilities of addressing another. This analysis seeks to examine the responses and evaluate the solutions offered in the report. 


 

BACKGROUND TO THE REPORT 


The Commission on the Integration of Refugees was funded by the Woolf Institute, and was the product of their call for evidence on the effect of the UK asylum system on the integration for refugees and asylum seekers. Between November 2022 and April 2023 the Commission received evidence from more than 1,250 organisations and individuals regarding what would be required to improve the integration experiences of refugees and asylum seekers and to identify practical solutions with which to fix the broken system. The responses came from a diverse pool of individuals and organisations including refugees and asylum seekers; policymakers and politicians; local government and civil servants; third sector workers; academics; and faith and community leaders. Dr Ed Kessler and Dr Christopher Cooper-Davies designed and disseminated the Call for Evidence, and Prof Jenny Phillimore and Dr Emanuelle Degli Esposti oversaw the analysis and writing process. 



POLICY FAILURES AND INFLAMMATORY RHETORIC 


On the topic of the role of the national government in the asylum system, respondents expressed concern, frustration and scepticism about the government’s approach. Apprehension over recent government plans such as using barracks and remote facilities for asylum accommodation was noted - these plans were described as “inhumane” and “potentially traumatising”. Disapproval of the Illegal Migration Act and the Nationality and Borders Act was also expressed given that they are perceived to be undermining integration efforts. These pieces of legislation have drawn widespread criticism, particularly from third sector organisations, for their detrimental effect on the asylum system. One respondent declared that the Illegal Migration Act “would amount to an asylum ban”. Indeed, such a claim is credible because UK asylum law still stubbornly maintains that to claim asylum one must physically be in the UK, offering no safe and legal routes to the UK for asylum seekers. Compounded with this incongruous legislation has been the rise in harmful rhetoric and misinformation from government ministers to MPs and political commentators. 


Respondents emphasised that harmful rhetoric and misinformation must be combatted and a more clear reality of refugees and the barriers they face be articulated. One respondent argued: “To improve integration, the government must begin by stopping its demonisation and criminalisation of asylum seekers. It must be honest with the public about the conflicts and persecution that people are fleeing, and it must commit to building a system that is based on believing people’s testimonies.” Government policy and rhetoric have construed the asylum system as “broken” without considering how it has served to complicate issues facing the system and asylum seekers. For example, the government’s performance in tackling the small boats problem has been regarded as “calamitous”. Home secretaries, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman opted for headline grabbing announcements and inflammatory rhetoric instead of the quiet diplomacy and competent administration that the situation demanded. It is therefore no surprise that many respondents expressed frustration and scepticism about the government’s approach. 



A COHERENT AND COORDINATED GOVERNMENT STRATEGY 


Within the report there was significant emphasis on the need for a comprehensive national integration strategy although opinions differed on how this should materialise. Some suggested that the strategy should be delivered by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) whereas others suggested that an independent body coordinate activities at different levels, including voluntary, local, and devolved actors. These suggestions can be credited for being on the right path; however, one could question whether the solution to poor governance is more governance. Instead, existing strategies should be reformed and expanded. In February 2023 the government confirmed that the enhanced integrated package would be delivered through the refugee employability programme. The programme was announced the following September and was designed to complement existing support that is delivered across mainstream services and the voluntary sector by providing tailored employment support such as skills courses, additional English language provision and integration support with accessing health and local services. However, the programme is limited to England and had an eligibility criteria that prioritised arrivals after the implementation of the Nationality and Borders Act and arrivals via the resettlement schemes or family reunion. If the government wants to maximise the ability of local authorities to improve integration efforts as outlined in the Integrated communities action plan for England, it could begin with a comprehensive national strategy with a similar targeted focus as the employability programme but with less stringent eligibility. 


Central to all government functions is effective communication which respondents in the report outlined as a hindrance to integration efforts because of a “communication gap between local authorities and central government entities”. This is a common critique heard across local authorities and third sector organisations but sufficient progress is yet to be made. The report suggests that shared objectives must be identified along with clear lines of responsibility among ‘stakeholders’ established. A new guiding framework from the government would help facilitate more efficient management and service delivery; however, the government should also acknowledge that far more efficient communication and information sharing with the Home Office is necessary. The Home Office has demonstrated it has the functional and authoritative capabilities to gather information in the creation of the ‘hostile environment’, thus it can do the same for integration efforts by facilitating better coordination with local authorities.  


Some respondents proposed that international agreements for a fair and coordinated approach to refugee reception be established, unfortunately, this response is not is not sufficiently detailed. The absence of international asylum and refugee coordination and accompanying frameworks represent a major hindrance for the efficient management of immigration pressures. If the government is serious about its quest to fix the system then it must realise that to effectively manage and regulate the flows of asylum seekers, coordination with its immediate neighbours must be improved. Some progress seems to have been made under the new Sunak government seeking to expand on the small boats pact from previous governments but it is still not a priority. Instead, the government has doubled down on its inoperative Rwanda Plan. The need for return agreements with safe countries is no doubt necessary yet current government policy maintains that people coming from safe countries of origin or who have a connection to a safe country are inadmissible for asylum. As a result of the failure to negotiate new agreements following Brexit, rather embarrassingly, the government has no return agreements (barring Albania) any safe countries. It is lamentable that such failures were allowed to materialise and continue to persist this far on. Future government policy should prioritise establishing international agreements that coordinates the approach to asylum among the UK and its continental neighbours, including return agreements and information sharing. 



REFORMING THE ASYLUM SYSTEM 


Another key area of the asylum system in dire need of reform is undoubtedly the limited availability of safe and legal routes to seek asylum. Respondents emphasised that the absence of available routes pushes individuals towards dangerous and illegal paths. The government has maintained that their policies are aimed at breaking the smuggling networks in which many individuals seeking to come to the UK turn to; the Rwanda Plan is argued by the current government as on course to break the business model of such networks. Perhaps surprisingly, the government appears not to have understood that asylum seekers make a totally different assessment of risk, having either escaped oppression or conflict in their home countries. Undertaking an irregular and dangerous journey for many is a risk worth taking to get to the UK. Therefore, it is unlikely that asylum seekers will be deterred by the theoretical threat the government has doubled down on or if it comes to pass, the practice of deporting a few hundred at best. 


Creating safe and legal routes would undermine the smugglers’ business model and would certainly be more humane. Existing safe routes already exist for those fleeing the war in Ukraine, for those from Hong Kong with British National Overseas status and for Afghans who worked with the British pre-Taliban, (although this last route seems not to be working). Once again, the government could expand these schemes so they are available for a greater number of people seeking asylum. Nevertheless, if safe routes are to be expanded, sceptics would demand questions surrounding eligibility, logistics, and capacity be fully answered. It is a shame the report did not explore this notion at great length. Some may fear that more safe routes would simply encourage even larger numbers of asylum seekers with some potentially abusing the system. It is doubtful any government would have the political will to tackle this and take such a risk, nevertheless, such a strategy would at least enable the government to manage and regulate the flows of incoming asylum seekers in contrast to the uncertain and chaotic situation currently facing the system. 


There was a prevailing consensus among respondents that viewed the current system as uncertain and inhumane, criticising the asylum system itself and the lack of information available to asylum seekers. Moreover, the asylum backlog has been one of the most pressing issues facing the system, and by extension the Home Office. Inevitably, respondents called attention to the extended waiting times and the resulting backlog of cases, with their adverse financial implications amidst limited state support. Unfortunately, the report does not offer much on how this may be addressed; but one could assume respondents may favour a single simplified resource outlining all relevant information would be a starting point. Inspiration may be taken from the American CBP One mobile app, which gives asylum seekers direct access to enter their information as a pre-screening step before an appointment. A similar resource could certainly be utilised in the UK for the thousands of asylum seekers already in the country and in the midst of an application. Currently, the Home Office lists the various resources and information on its website but it is difficult to navigate for asylum seekers. Consequently, third sector organisations dedicate substantial amounts of working time assisting asylum seekers locate and navigate information, resources and complete applications. A simplified resource that is simple to use and allows for better navigation of the asylum system would support asylum seekers in accessing and completing required resources in a timely manner. Concerns may be raised about the effectiveness of such a system because it is often assumed that asylum seekers have limited access to internet and mobile services which although true to an extent but should be challenged. The existing system increasingly relies on online services for scheduling interviews, coordinating services, submitting and tracking applications and so on. Therefore, ensuring that the service becomes more user friendly and efficient is essential. 



CONCLUSION 


The report certainly dives into important issues facing the asylum system and asylum seeker integration efforts and should be credited for gaining a consensus in these key areas among stakeholders. At times the report would have benefited from more detailed explorations of solutions by encouraging respondents to explain their answers at greater depth. Similarly, differences in opinion could have also been outlined more clearly so readers may understand which areas require greater consensus building. Nevertheless, the report provides a useful resource for engaging with the opinions of a diverse pool of stakeholders in relation to asylum integration. The full report is definitely a resource worth analysing and readers should be encouraged to draw their own conclusions.   


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