Photo: Óglaigh na hÉireann (CC BY 2.0)

Don Flynn says Priti Patel’s ‘firm but fair’ mantra aims to deprive refugees of more of their rights

It’s an old tune, but that hasn’t stopped Home Secretary Priti Patel from humming it once again. Her ‘New Plan for Immigration’ is all about stripping refugees of the few rights they have been able to cling on to.

Patel’s introduction of her plans for UK asylum policy involved a return to the ‘firm but fair’ riff that hasn’t been aired for many a long year.

The couplet has been a staple of party manifestos and white papers since the 1980s and is generally meant to convey the idea that the authorities will be amendable to dispensing a basic level of justice in their procedures and rulings, but will also act decisively when it comes to making the rules of the game stick.

Seems straightforward enough, but the truth is reality has never worked with this ‘firm but fair’ schema. The delivery of justice has been hard to bed into immigration regulations because their basic purpose is to hold at bay the large numbers of people who are on the move precisely because they haven’t been able to find justice in either their home countries or anywhere else in the world.

Resettlement no alternative

The excellent Free Movement legal website is the best place to go for a dissection of the details of Patel’s plan. The central claim – that resettlement programmes offer a viable alternative to refugees turning up at the border and applying for safe haven there – does not measure up to the volume of need for effective protection by states with the capacity to provide it. The United Nations believes there are 26 million refugees in the world today, most living in the appalling squalor of camps providing inadequate levels of support, in regions immediately adjacent to the violence from which people are fleeing. Resettlement schemes are designed to siphon off the smallest fraction of people living in these conditions, leaving the rest to seek out ways to survive by means which fall outside these routes.

An individual who arrives outside the resettlement route is deemed by the authorities to be ‘illegal’ even if their status as a person who is at risk of persecution is not disputed. The New Plan proposed aims to beef up Home Office powers to exclude people from consideration for refugee status and return them to the last country they travelled through.

The immediate problem is that, having excluded itself from the EU’s Dublin Convention which allowed for these returns to take place as a normal matter of course, the UK finds itself without any means to insist its neighbours take these people back. Caught in this limbo, the person concerned will be given a ‘temporary protection’ status which will permit a stay for no longer than 30 months, without recourse to public fund benefits. We have to expect that the numbers trying to get by under this regime will expand over time, adding to the already large numbers of immigrants subsisting in the grey zones of semi-legal status but steadily being channelled into the fully illegalised category as their 30-month limit runs out.

Limiting anti-slavery protection

Alarm has also been registered by organisations concerned with the trafficking and slavery side of the policy agenda. Accounts of abuse and exploitation are depressingly common among people pushed to the margins of society, and it can be expected that these will become even more frequent as criminals take advantage of the larger numbers of rightless refugees which the New Plan will be generating. As things currently stand, people who have been trafficked and exploited can get some redress by going through the National Referral Mechanism which leads to recognition as a victim of modern day slavery.

The New Plan is intended to close down this option for victims of trafficking and slavery who have criminal convictions of 12 months or more. This exclusion will be hard on people whose struggle to survive frequently enmeshes in unlawful activity as they become dependent on the income-earning opportunities which are doled out by more serious criminals – these also being the sort of people who will take further advantage of vulnerable people by sealing them into a comprehensive state of effective slavery. Patel’s plans in this area are likely to get a high approval rating from sections of society far less salubrious than anything connected to the mere fact of being a refugee.

Offshoring? Not just yet

There is a great deal more in the proposals which is likely to be preoccupying migrant rights activists and lawyers for some time to come. One thing which isn’t discussed in any detail is the much-hawked idea of offshoring asylum applicants to remote islands in an imitation of Australia’s policy. Patel is no doubt finding herself hampered by the lack of much poorer nations just off its own coastline who can be bullied into participation into the scheme. While the door seems closed for the moment, this is a space that will have to be watched in the event that something does come to realisation.

Labour’s response to the New Plan? Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds set out a competent set of criticisms to Patel’s proposals after she laid them out to the Commons. “Lack of compassion, lack of competence”… “harder to access help in the UK, helping criminal gangs escape justice” – all the right words but always vulnerable to the riposte that the New Plan proposes nothing that Labour governments hadn’t toyed with at one time or another.

Until it comes to terms with the record of its own efforts to present immigration policy as a matter of ‘firm but fair’, Labour’s criticisms of government policy will lack substance and vision. Framing immigration policy as a means to deliver justice to people condemned to live in poverty and in constant fear of violence still does not figure in the thinking of anyone around the leadership of the party.

1 COMMENT

  1. A good piece Don. Sadly I am not sure we can expect any robust opposition from the current leadership or frontbench despite the fact that the Government’s proposals are in clear breach of the 1951 UN refugee convention.

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