Suella Braverman has been widely criticised after labelling the rising numbers of asylum seekers entering southern England via small boats from the English Channel as an “invasion”.
It comes as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French president Emmanuel Macron meet at the COP27 summit in Egypt on Monday to discuss the issue, with the two sides apparently closing in on another deal aimed at preventing people from risking the crossing.
The Home Office has been questioned on its long term plan for asylum seekers after 4,000 were crammed into a temporary facility in Kent last week.
While announcing an extension of a pilot scheme to reduce processing times for asylum claims, Ms Braverman: “It is not right that the British people are picking up a £2 billion bill every year because the asylum system has been broken by an unprecedented wave of illegal migration.”
She told the House of Commons last week: “Some 40,000 people have arrived on the south coast this year alone. Many of them facilitated by criminal gangs, some of them actual members of criminal gangs. So, let’s stop pretending that they are all refugees in distress.”
But Associate Professor Helen O’Nions, a human rights and immigration researcher at Nottingham Law School, said many people arriving in the UK seeking asylum have an international legal right to do so.
She said: “Those Channel crossings are difficult to manage, but the people coming through on that route are being misrepresented as illegal, illegitimate and abusing the system, where as many of them have spent a long time figuring out how they can get to the UK in a lawful way and those options aren’t there.”
To refer to them as illegal migrants is misleading and causes a dangerous perception, she added.
“It is misleading to talk of legal routes to enter as they are only available to a tiny proportion of people (about 10 per cent) from specific nationalities,” she said.
“My concern about the language. It’s allowing this narrative that everyone is a migrant, and no one is an asylum seeker or refugee.
“They’re all lumped together in this idea — that the public largely now has — that they’re all coming together for our wonderful benefit system or to get work in the UK.”
But Professor O’Nions said about 93 per cent who arrive from Channel crossing then seek asylum and do not have employment rights. Many are Syrian, Sudanese, and 90 per cent or more will be granted refugee status, she said.
The majority have a legitimate fear or persecution, and “that’s a difficult test to meet”, she added.
Professor O’Nions is calling for the Government to revert its budget for the “disastrous” Rwanda scheme to providing “quick and accurate” decisions on asylum applications.
During Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said just four per cent of applications have been processed.
The Labour leader told the Commons: “And [the Prime Minister] talks about numbers — they’re only taking half the number of asylum decisions that they used to. That’s why the system is broken.”
An eight-week trial in Leeds — which saw double the average number of claims processed — will be extended to deal with 100,000 people awaiting a decision across the UK, the Home Office has announced.
But Professor O’Nion said too many migrants are waiting a year or more for a substantive interview.
She said Ms Braverman is adding to the perception that the number of Channel crossings is out of control, when in fact there aren’t as many crossings as the peak in 2002, when more than 84,000 were recorded.
“A tiny percentage of migrants in the UK are entering this way. The number of asylum applications is nowhere near as high as in France, Spain and Germany,” Professor O’Nion said.
“The numbers are not anything we should be hugely panicking about.”
She added that the UK should be working with European partners about a Europe-wide response to refugees and asylum seekers.
“The situation in France is bad. They take three times more asylum seekers than the UK and there are significant system backlogs with vulnerable people, including small children, left in make-shift campsites for months on end,” she said.
“The post-Brexit situation has undermined our relationship with the French authorities and prevented meaningful action to identify and prosecute smugglers and traffickers.
“A decade of the hostile environment — including the denial of the right to work — the decision to leave the EU, and the poorly executed implementation of schemes such as the Afghan resettlement scheme which left many desperate families confined to tiny hotel rooms for months, are the cause of the current problems with capacity.”
Downing Street has said the French role in tackling small boats crossing the English Channel was “vitally important” and will be discussed at COP27
A spokesman said: “They have stopped 29,000 illegal crossings since the start of the year, that’s double what it was the year before that, and we have a joint intelligence cell which has made more than 500 arrests and dismantled 55 organised crime groups since 2020.”