Caroline Nokes MP speaks candidly to the Southampton Amnesty group
Immigration, refugees and asylum seekers are a toxic subject in the UK and the situation seems to be getting worse not better. This week, the home secretary, Priti Patel announced fresh measures to address the ‘problem’ which many have argued are both unnecessary and unworkable. Immigrants in all forms are seen as a problem despite the many studies showing that they are net benefit to the country. Many aspects of our society would almost cease to function without their contributions: the NHS would have to scale down drastically; horticulture and agriculture would suffer, food preparation would almost come to a standstill.
Other countries have problems that dwarf ours – Turkey, Jordan and Greece for example have millions between them. The number of asylum cases has diminished since 2002, but the government, stoked up by a fairly relentless right wing media campaign of stories real and imagined, has acted in a relentless hostile fashion. The Home Office has become a byword for inefficiency, harsh decisions and aggressive actions of which the Windrush scandal is just one example.
Caroline Nokes MP left the Home Office, vowing never to speak of immigration again. But after a year her anger at the direction immigration was taking drove her to take action which she set out in a recent article in the Independent Newspaper. A number of AI members from the Romsey and Southampton Groups had read this article and as a result invited Caroline to a joint virtual meeting. At the meeting on the 4th March, Caroline gave a frank exposition of her views of the Home Office’s current approach, a summary of which is outlined below. This article has been read by Caroline and its accuracy confirmed.
Home Office’s Attitude/Approach to immigration
This is very dependent on the attitude/approach of the Home Secretary. Caroline felt that when Sajid Javid and Amber Rudd had been Home Secretary they were determined to learn the lessons of Windrush and give the Home Office a more “human face”. More recently, the HO appears not to have made progress on this initiative, and asylum claims in particular seen as “work in progress” not people. She expressed her concerns about the lack of resources given to the asylum system and that staff were junior.
Decisions about whether or not to grant refugee status take far too long. The target is 6 months, but the reality is closer to several years. The system does not work well and is poorly served by ineffective lawyers. She had recently heard young applicants complain about the interpreters available to them, as the issue is not just about language but also “style”. In Caroline’s view, the system at the moment is too black and white. No account seems to be taken at this stage that it is possible further documentation may become available. The only way to consider additional information is via appeals, which prolongs the process. A system needs to be developed which takes into account the difficulty of getting all the documents together, the trauma that the asylum seeker may be going through and the need for keeping to a six-month limit as far as possible.
Right to work
In her view the right to work would not need to change if the determinations met the points raised above. She felt that this would be preferable to allowing asylum seekers to work which would cause complications with the benefits system.
She did not think ex-army barracks were a good option, but were better than the “pop-up” camp being proposed at Barton Stacey*. The Barton Stacey proposal for 500 asylum seekers in cabins has shown a complete disregard for planning rules. There would be no facilities, all resources would have to brought in, including water, and waste would have to be removed by tankers. All power would need to be provided by noisy generators. There are no specific health facilities, it is close to a very busy dual carriageway and close to an army range with the sound of gun fire! There has been no discussion with local experts such as the Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group.
A motivation for the HO proposing such camps appears to be about making an unattractive destination for asylum seekers. However, Caroline pointed out that this would be unlikely to happen as there are three factors which makes the UK an attractive destination for asylum seekers i.e. the language, family ties and the fact that the UK still has a positive reputation internationally.
Caroline was asked how she saw the future as far as this area was concerned. She said she was concerned at the narrative around migration/asylum, which certainly in sections of the tabloid media contained a vein of racism. For example, Nigel Farage had claimed recently that a boat full of immigrants had arrived in the UK all of them Covid 19 positive. This was not true! It was clear Ministers believed the country was on their side when they talked tough about changing the asylum system.
She was very clear that she did not feel the Dubs amendment would pass if it was brought back.
The HO has promised to bring forward a new asylum bill. The HO appears to have two main reasons why they want to do this. Firstly they believe the current system is broken and in particular there are too many appeals. Secondly, since we left the EU the Dublin agreement no longer applies to the UK. Caroline believes it is indeed broken because determinations take far too long.
What can be done to ensure a more humane asylum system
The first point Caroline made was that asylum applications in this country were very small approximately 40,000 per year compared to say Germany with upwards of 100,000 per annum. We need to lobby our MPs write to local press and show that not everyone buys into the negative narrative.
Caroline referred to one positive move that was taking place in Westminster under the Chairmanship of the Bishop of Durham called RAMP. It is a cross party project. We must learn the lessons of Windrush and change the negative narrative.
*Barton Stacey is a village north of Winchester and not far from Andover in the UK.
We are grateful to the Southampton Amnesty group for sending us this text.