An inquiry will look into whether the government’s refusal to consider asylum claims from small boat migrants violates international law, as scrutiny of its attempts to stop English Channel crossings intensifies.
Since January 2021, applications from people who have passed through safe third countries such as France on their way to the UK have been declared “inadmissible”.
But Britain has not been able to transfer asylum seekers to other EU countries since Brexit and its attempts to send the same category of people to Rwanda have stalled amid legal challenges and a rising backlog.
Ministers have defended the two-tier system by arguing that asylum seekers should use “safe and legal routes”, but charities say the alternatives to Channel crossings are inadequate and inaccessible to the vast majority of refugees.
People must be present in the UK to claim asylum and there is no visa to travel to the country for that purpose.
Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has called for evidence on whether it is “compatible with the UK’s human rights obligations to deny asylum to those who do not use what the government calls ‘safe and legal routes’”, and if new routes should be created.
The new inquiry is also looking at the legality of the Rwanda deal and the treatment of asylum seekers once in the UK.
The committee will examine the laws around detention, conditions in processing centres, the use of hotel accommodation, electronic tagging and the ban on asylum seekers working while their applications are under consideration.
Chair Joanna Cherry KC said: “Fundamentally, is the way asylum seekers are treated appropriate and lawful, or is the UK government falling short of the human rights standards designed to protect them, and all of us?
“Given the terrible conditions we have witnessed at Manston and the new home secretary’s seeming delight at the prospect of further flights to Rwanda, this inquiry could not be more timely.”
The Migrant Voice charity said it knew of asylum seekers who are going without food, children without shoes, and hotel rooms filled with 10 or more people.
Director Nazek Ramadan added: “The announcement of this inquiry will force the government to face the fact that their hardline anti-migrant policies are not only ineffective and cruel, they also violate many people’s basic human rights.
“The disastrous scenes at Manston and in hotels across the UK are the direct result of political choices made by this and previous governments over the past 10 years.” The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said the JCHR’s inquiry “could not come at a more pressing time”.
Policy and advocacy manager Caitlin Boswell added: “From the unliveable conditions at Manston to Ms Braverman’s recent hateful rhetoric, many of us have been horrified by the way this government have demonised and degraded people seeking safety here.
“We hope our home secretary listens to the findings of this inquiry, as well as the people and groups who’ve long been calling for change.”
Manston, a former military base converted into what was intended as a short-term processing facility for small boat migrants, has been the subject of controversy for weeks after it emerged that asylum seekers were being held unlawfully in overcrowded conditions.
The facility was intended to have a maximum capacity of around 1,000 people, passing through in 24 hours, but hit 4,000 as some families were detained in tents for over a month.
Numbers rose further on 30 October, after a far-right terror attack targeting small boat migrants at the Western Jet Foil reception centre in Dover saw hundreds more people moved to Manston.
Responding to an urgent question in parliament on Monday, immigration minister Robert Jenrick said that numbers had fallen back to an “acceptable level” of 1,600 after intensified efforts to move asylum seekers into hotels.
Suella Braverman has been accused of ignoring official advice that Manston had become an unsafe and unlawful detention centre and failing to set up adequate onward accommodation, but MrJenrick told MPs she had “balanced her duties”.
“The law is clear that we should not be detaining individuals at a site like Manston for longer than 24 hours and that is the position we want to return to as fast as we can,” he added.
“There are competing legal duties upon us; another we need to pay heed to is the duty not to leave people destitute.”
Legal action is under way over the conditions at Manston, and the High Court is expected to decide two challenges over the Rwanda scheme in the coming weeks.
Documents published by the immigration watchdog recently showed the Home Office admitting that its use of hotels to house unaccompanied child asylum seekers was unlawful.
Almost 40,000 migrants have crossed the English Channel in small boats so far this year and a fresh surge is expected this month.
The government has hinged its hopes on measures it claims to be “deterrents”, such as the Rwanda deal and Royal Navy patrols, but numbers have continued to set new records.
France has prevented 43 per cent of crossing attempts so far this year but the UK wants that proportion to rise.
Downing Street said talks on a new deal with the French government were in their “final stages” following a meeting between Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron on Monday but provided no further details.