UK ups the ante with plans to move asylum seekers to ex-military bases

The UK government raised the stakes on Wednesday in its battle to curtail cross-Channel migration, promising to limit the costly use of hotels to house asylum seekers and begin moving them to military bases and — potentially — barges instead.

In the latest announcement linked to the contentious “illegal migration bill” in parliament, immigration minister Robert Jenrick used strong rhetoric to outline ministers’ intent when it comes to toughening up the asylum system and cracking down on people smugglers.

“I see these people and the work that they do every day,” Jenrick said of trafficking gangs. “They are some of the most evil, pernicious people in society. You have to match them. You cannot behave in a way that’s weak and naive.”

The risk for the government is that for all the tough talk and damage incurred to Britain’s reputation for respecting human rights, the problem — a priority for prime minister Rishi Sunak — continues to worsen, and the number of arrivals keeps growing.

Some 3,770 people have arrived by small boat this year, despite bad weather, according to the Ministry of Defence, on top of a record of more than 45,000 in 2022.

Jenrick indicated that by moving asylum seekers from hotels, where they are currently housed at a cost of more than £6mn a day, to repurposed military bases, the government hopes to make Britain a less appealing destination.

The country could not risk, he said, becoming a magnet for “millions of people” who were “displaced and seeking better economic prospects”.

There is near universal agreement among political parties and local authorities that the use of hotels to house around 150,000 asylum seekers, many awaiting decisions on their claims, is unsustainable.

Robert Jenrick makes a statement to MPs, in the House of Commons in London, on March 29, 2023 © UK Parliament/AFP/Getty Images

The practice of using hotels is also politically charged, with Conservative backbencher MPs among those complaining the policy has adversely affected tourism and inflamed local tensions.

The £2.3bn the policy cost last year, according to Jenrick, has eaten away at an already scaled-back overseas aid budget.

There remains deep scepticism, however, among migration experts, charities, and immigration lawyers that the continuing crackdown will achieve its stated aim of deterring people smugglers and repelling clandestine migrants.

“Setting aside people from Albania, there are loads of other people who come from a long way who are in desperate circumstances and who have gambled everything and money,” said Sir David Normington, former permanent secretary at the Home Office.

“They might just continue to gamble, get in boats and come across if they see people are not being dealt with quickly and not being deported.”

The new legislation promises to bar clandestine migrants from claiming asylum altogether, in breach of the UK’s international obligations according to the UN refugee agency, and remove them to their countries of origin or safe third countries.

Britain has a returns agreement with Albania, and last year struck a deal with Rwanda for the removal of asylum seekers. But because of continuing legal challenges Sunak this week played down expectations about how quickly the deal with Kigali will get off the ground.

It has few other existing options for removing clandestine migrants.

“The government is taking a big gamble. If they still come in substantial numbers and are not processed quickly enough, the numbers [needing accommodation] will keep growing very quickly,” Normington said.

The Home Office said that two military bases in Lincolnshire and Essex were each due to accommodate about 200 people initially, with capacity gradually increasing to 1,700 and 2,000, respectively. Catterick Garrison in Sunak’s Yorkshire constituency will also be used down the line, it said, and a former prison in Bexhill, East Sussex.

But the space available goes nowhere near matching the scale of demand for accommodation.

Aerial view of Catterick Garrison
The Home Office said Catterick Garrison in Rishi Sunak’s North Yorkshire constituency will also be used down the line © APS(UK)/Alamy

The Refugee Council, a charity, found that if irregular migration to Britain continued at current levels, and the backlog of asylum cases remained unaddressed, more than 190,000 people — “could be detained or forced into destitution” in the first three years of the crackdown. Most of these arrivals would be refugees, they added.

The potential cost of detaining and accommodating people who could not be removed to other countries would reach £9bn, it said, even assuming 30,000 people were removed to Rwanda.

“These announcements . . . won’t address the challenges of the system the government itself admits is failing due to its own mismanagement,” Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said.

Use of former military facilities is also drawing opposition from MPs whose constituencies are affected. Local councils in both Essex and Lincolnshire are seeking injunctions to block the Home Office from using them.

“This thoroughly bad decision . . . is not based on good governance but the politics of trying to do something,” the Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh said of plans to use the former air base in his Lincolnshire constituency.

Briefings in advance of Wednesday’s announcement had suggested the government would also use industrial barges to house asylum seekers. Jenrick admitted in the Commons that there were as yet no barges.

But the scale of the challenge facing Britain, meant it had to “suffuse our entire system with deterrence,” he said.

The question, said Jed Pennington, a human rights and immigration lawyer is: What happens then, if the boats keep coming? “In terms of removing rights and legal protections there isn’t really anywhere to go after this,” he said.

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