A proposal discussed in the Home Office that asylum seekers could be processed on Ascension Island has come as a shock to inhabitants on the volcanic territory 4,000 miles from the UK.
The idea considered within Priti Patel’s department that asylum seekers could be transferred to the British overseas territory in the South Atlantic has been derided as “inhumane” by critics at home.
But it was also dismissed on Wednesday as an unfeasible, “logistical nightmare” by a member of the Ascension Island Council, Alan Nicholls.
He said he had only found out about the possibility when contacted by journalists and worried that security concerns from the presence of two military bases on the island could make it “prohibitive”.
“Looking at cost and logistics, we are some 4,000-plus miles away from the UK, I would have thought it would be extremely expensive and a bit of a logistical nightmare to get asylum seekers here to Ascension because of the fact we are very isolated and I don’t think the whole thing would be very feasible, to be quite truthful,” Mr Nicholls told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He also spoke of concerns among the locals on the island, with a population of less than 1,000, of forcing migrants there during the coronavirus pandemic.
“There could be quite an influx of individuals and at this state and time with pandemic lockdowns and everything else, I don’t think that anybody would be very receptive to that,” the councillor said.
The Financial Times reported that the Home Secretary had ordered officials to explore plans to build an asylum processing centre on the island.
But a Home Office source attempted to play it down, saying Ms Patel had asked staff to explore how other nations process claims, with Australia keeping asylum seekers in detention facilities on overseas islands.
The source said the Foreign Office was consulted, with Ascension and St Helena, which is in the same island group, being proposed before being dismissed as too far away.
Australian immigration policies have long been championed by Boris Johnson but Downing Street said policies from a “whole host” of countries had been considered.
“We are developing plans to reform our illegal migration and asylum policies so we can keep providing protection to those who need it while preventing abuse of the system and criminality which, as we have seen with the rise in gang-facilitated Channel crossings, is a problem,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
“As part of that work, we have been looking at what a whole host of other countries do to inform a plan for the UK. That work is ongoing.”
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “This ludicrous idea is inhumane, completely impractical and wildly expensive. So it seems entirely plausible this Tory Government came up with it.”
Refugee Action chief executive Stephen Hale added: “It’s deeply troubling that our Home Secretary even considered that this immoral and inhumane plan was a serious solution to a humanitarian crisis.”
A senior United Nations official told the Commons Home Affairs Committee she urged the Home Office not to adopt the idea.
Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UK representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said: “This is the Australian model and I think we have already seen that the Australian model has brought about incredible suffering on people who are guilty of no more than seeking asylum.
“It has also additionally, I think, cost, and continues to cost, an incredible amount of money, so it seems to be both extremely inappropriate in terms of the commitments that the country should have to human rights and to asylum, but also an incredibly impractical and expensive way of doing so.”
Ms Patel has vowed to stop migrants making the perilous journey across the English Channel in small boats amid record numbers of crossings.
The proposal further reflects the influence of Australia – which has controversially used offshore processing and detention centres for asylum seekers since the 1980s – on the UK’s immigration and asylum policy.
The Government has based its post-Brexit points-based immigration system on that developed in Australia.
Ms Patel recently met with former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, known for his tough stance on immigration, who was appointed by Mr Johnson as a trade adviser to the UK.