During 2020 the United Kingdom (UK) government passed legislation and began to reveal its plans for its Immigration system to be brought in at the end of the EU transition period. Some guidance has been changed simply to remove reference to EU law and processes, but some are more substantial. Substantial changes, such as the limited use of Eurodac data, are included in the relevant sections but many such changes simply removed reference to EU law.
Reform of the asylum procedure
- Reform of the asylum procedure: Significant reforms to the asylum system were announced in March 2021. Initially published as a consultation document, the New Plan for Immigration proposed widespread reforms, amongst which the controversial ‘differentiated treatment – proposals to apply differential support and protection to refugees depending upon their node of arrival. Spontaneous refugees whose arrival wasn’t authorised prior to travel, could be prosecuted, processed outside of the UK and granted differential lengths of leave and entitlements upon recognition. The plans were heavily criticised, including by the UNHCR, and Refugee Council. The Refugee Council also published an impact analysis with broad costings of the New Plan.
- The Nationality and Borders Bill, first published in July 2021, contained many of the measures outlined in the New Plan. Later the same month the government published the summary of responsesto the New Plan, concluding that despite the majority of responses being opposed to the plans, it was pressing ahead with reforms. Its own Equality Impact Assessment also cast doubt on the efficacy of the proposal, particularly deterrent measures introduced in the bill. The Bill itself has received much criticism including that it is incompatible with international law through further observations from UNHCR, and a legal opinion secured by the NGO Freedom from Torture.
- Progress of the Nationality and Borders Bill : The Bill continues its progress through parliament, needing to pass several stages in both the House of Commons (where it began) and the House of Lords. During the passage of the Bill in the House of Commons in autumn 2021 the House of Commons library summarised the provisions, and the bill was also examined by the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. At the time of writing the bill was still progressing though parliament and envisaged to become an Act (though Royal Assent) by late March/early April. Implementation of different elements will take place at different points in time; some immediately after Royal Assent, some two months post Royal Assent and some to be specified though secondary legislation.
- Focus on channel crossings: Much attention was given by the media, politicians and government during 2021 on the phenomenon of small boat crossings mainly from northern France to the port of Dover. Various initiatives were introduced by government, it was the subject of parliamentary commentary and questions including an ongoing inquiry by the Home Affairs Select Committee. Research reports from NGO looked into the context and policy response to people traveling from northern France, as well as analysing the protection status of the main nationalities making the journey. Attention was also paid to the conditions in which people were held on arrival, including by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons (as the facility is a short term holding facility).
- Deterrence: The Home Office made regular announcements about its plans to deter people from leaving the coast of France including regularly announcing new funding for the French authorities. In November 2021 it was reported that 27 people lost their lives attempting the crossing in a small boat, which led to increased discussion in parliament and the media about what the appropriate response should be, including a joint public statement by many public figures and NGOs. Many have made the link between the government’s limited ability to prevent people attempting the journey and the reforms; the Home Office has done this explicitly including in the release of a short film via its twitter channel. Most of the government activity on Channel crossings is measures to deter people rather than pushbacks. One such measure is the decision to prosecute individuals for illegal entry/facilitating illegal entry. Several of these prosecutions have now been quashed as there was no evidence that the individuals were attempting a clandestine entry, indeed most had declared themselves to the authorities prior to or immediately upon, landing on UK territory. Despite this, the government continues to refer to ‘illegal migration’ and promotes the reforms as being aimed at facilitators and smugglers rather than individuals seeking asylum.
- Media reports: The media reports regularly from the port of Dover, often sending reporters out on vessels to film channel crossings, publishing pictures of people newly arriving on UK territory alongside reporting of numbers, sometimes on a daily basis.
The crisis in Afghanistan
- UK response to the crisis in Afghanistan: Shortly after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan the UK government undertook an evacuation exercise for its citizens, some of their family members, Afghan citizens who had been working with the UK military and other people identified as at particular risk. The wider government response to those evacuated was named operation Warm Welcome and a Minister for Afghan Refugees appointed. An initial policy statement gave an outline of the plans for those who were not UK citizens; namely that evacuees would fall under two cohorts; those who had assisted UK military would join an expanded existing scheme (ARAP); others would qualify under a specific resettlement scheme for Afghans. The latter scheme finally opened in January 2022, with the first cohort being those evacuated and not eligible to come to the UK under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP). Since September 2021 those brought to the UK under ARAP are granted Indefinite Leave to Remain. Eligibility rules for the ARAP were also changed in December 2021 to limit relocation to ‘those who furthered the UK’s military and national security objectives.’
The crisis in Ukraine
- UK response to the crisis in Ukraine as of 3 March 2022: The situation is rapidly changing as in other countries, as pressure increased to provide support for people fleeing Ukraine. In February the UK government announced a limited scheme for family members of British citizens who usually live in the UK, with their close family members, relaxing requirements relating to fees and documentation. Leave for Ukrainians living in the UK was extended. Following criticism further measures were announced, allowing extended family members to apply. On 2 March 2022, the Home Secretary announced a scheme for community sponsorship, naming it a humanitarian visa scheme. Details have yet to be outlined but it has no numbers cap and may resemble the Community Sponsorship scheme forming part of the resettlement provision.
- Impact of COVID-19 on the asylum procedure: Access to registration and the asylum procedure remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic including the national lockdowns. In April 2020 six Home Office premises were made available for people to claim asylum without having to travel to the national centre. At the time of writing these remained open but only on a temporary basis. Substantive interviews were paused between mid-March and the end of June 2020. When they resumed they mainly take place via video link; the asylum seeker is invited to the usual Home Office premises but the interviewing officer may be working from home or in a different office. Some face-to-face interviews have resumed.
- Reception capacity: The accommodation estate suffered severe pressure, in part as a result of the decision not to evict anyone when they received a decision on their claim. The accommodation providers procured contingency accommodation: some hotels were repurposed for use as Initial Accommodation and several former military barracks were rapidly repurposed, which has resulted in media attention. The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration released in March 2021 some key findings following the team’s visit to both sites formerly used as military barracks. It reported issues in management and leadership, mental health problems among residents, an impoverished, run-down and unsuitable environment for long-term accommodation. Cleanliness at both sites was variable at best and cleaning was made difficult by the age of the buildings. Some areas were filthy.
- ‘Section 95’ support: People entitled to ‘section 95’ support were not always moved to more independent accommodation. Late in 2020 the government agreed to pay a small amount of cash to such people when they were living in full board accommodation.
Detention of asylum seekers
- Decreased detention: Given the prevalence of Covid-19 cases in detention and the lack of opportunity for the Home Office to remove people from the UK there were calls throughout the year to release everyone from immigration detention. Whilst this call was not heeded, i.e. there was no change in law and policy, the use of detention fell during 2020. Guidance was issued to Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) and Short-Term Holding Facilities (STHF) for how to manage detention during Covid-19 including responding to outbreaks, preventative measures including cohorting and controlling of visits.