On Tuesday night, the European Court of Human Rights dramatically intervened at the last moment to prevent the first flight deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, pending a more substantial judgement on the legality of the policy. The government has said they will contest the judgement and plan a new flight. But it’s clear that the government’s flagship policy to tackle the problem of a surge in asylum seekers attempting to cross the channel is floundering.
The current paralysis exposes a deeper truth: the UK’s asylum system is broken. As a TBI report will shortly make clear, performance across a whole range of areas has deteriorated since the 2000s with large increases in the time it takes to process asylum claims, longer backlogs and fewer asylum seekers (whose claims have been rejected) being returned to safe countries.
As well as documenting the problems, our report will suggest workable solutions to the current impasse, both to deal with the ‘supply’ (of those seeking to attempt dangerous journeys) and ‘demand’ (including an underregulated labour market, which makes it relatively easy for undocumented workers to ‘disappear’ into the informal economy).
To inform our research, we commissioned some polling by J.L. Partners to seek the public’s views, which are particularly salient in light of last night’s events.
A majority of the public prioritise ‘fairness’ as a core principle in determining asylum policy
First we asked the public how they prioritise the various principles of fairness, deterrence and legality, when it comes to the asylum system, asking respondents to choose between the following three statements:
It is important to deter people from seeking asylum in the UK even those fleeing war or persecution
It is important to ensure the UK's asylum system is fair, even if that means allowing more people with legitimate claims to stay and live in the UK than we do at the moment
It is important to uphold the UK's international obligations to offer protection to those fleeing war and persecution
The polling shows a clear plurality of the public favour the principles of ‘fairness’ with 4 in 10 (39 per cent) choosing it over meeting international obligations (27 per cent) and deterring asylum seekers (24 per cent).
In a forced choice between fairness and deterrence as the most important feature of the asylum system, fairness attracts 65 per cent and deterrence 27 per cent of responses. Inevitably, these findings are impacted by voting choices. For example, current Conservative voters are split 48 per cent for deterrence and 44 per cent for fairness as the most important feature of the asylum system. Interestingly, Leave voters are very evenly split between fairness (45 per cent) and deterrence (47 per cent).
The public are sceptical of the government’s current policies to fix the problem, including the Rwanda plan
We sought to gauge the level of public support for the government’s current approach. In particular, the idea that it will be impossible for asylum seekers to claim asylum from abroad and the government’s flagship policy - deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Only 17% of people support the idea that it should be illegal to claim asylum from abroad (which is the government's current policy).
Similarly, the government’s policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda is only supported by 35% of the public with 45% opposing. Again these findings are split heavily across party lines. Amongst Conservative voters it gets 71% support and 11% opposing. With Leave voters 57% support and 23% opposed.
It is notable that a majority of the public believe the Rwanda scheme is unworkable (50 per cent), unlikely to succeed in deterring Channel crossings (52 per cent) and unprincipled (45 per cent). Amongst Leave voters 30 per cent think the scheme is unworkable and 40 per cent think it is unlikely to deter Channel crossings.
By contrast, the public are supportive of alternative workable solutions, such as opening up safe and viable routes for asylum applications and introducing a form of digital identification
When asked to rank their support for a series of policies, by far the most popular was the return of failed asylum seekers to other EU countries (77 per cent). Unfortunately, this is one of the areas of performance that has fallen off a cliff since 2010.
The public also demonstrated high levels of support (61 per cent) for the opening up of safe and viable routes as an alternative to dangerous boat journeys - enabling them to apply from abroad, for example, at British embassies.
Finally, a significant majority of the population were in favour of introducing a form of digital identification to make it harder for asylum seekers whose claims had been rejected to work and settle, with 55 per cent in favour and only 28 per cent opposed.
These findings demonstrate that there is a market for an approach on asylum that combines the principles of control and compassion, rather than forcing people to choose between one or the other; and that most of all, the public want policies which will work, rather than those which sound tough but subsequently unravel. Our report will set out what such a plan would look like in practice.
Download JL Partners' Polling Data