by Dr Thomas Tyerman, Lecturer in International Politics at Sheffield Hallam University. His book Everyday Border Struggles: Segregation and Solidarity in the UK and Calais will be published in June 2021 in the Routledge Interventions series.
The New Plan for Immigration (NPI) published in March 2021 lays out a ‘comprehensive reform of our asylum system’ in order to ‘address the challenge of illegal immigration’ (1-2). It seeks to do this by restricting access to asylum rights and refugee status on the basis of ‘whether you entered the UK legally or illegally’ (4), via either ‘defined legal routes’ or ‘parallel illegal routes, facilitated by criminals smuggling people into the UK’ (2). Anyone who claims asylum outside of official ‘resettlement schemes’, which operate abroad and are often outsourced to NGOs or the UNHCR, will only be eligible for a ‘temporary status’ (18) without full refugee entitlements such as family reunion or recourse to public funds (20). Furthermore, anyone identified as having travelled through a ‘safe third country’ (for example, France) will have their claimed deemed ‘inadmissible’ and be subject to expedited removal. This distinction is as much ‘moral’ as it is ‘legal’, with resettlement framed as providing ‘protection to the most vulnerable’ while claiming asylum in the UK is ‘deeply unfair as it advantages those with the means to pay traffickers over vulnerable people who cannot’ (2) and can be ‘gamed by economic migrants’ (4). At the same time, the plan introduces harsher sentences for ‘illegal entry’ and ‘facilitation’ and measures to fast-track the decision, appeals, and removal process to act as a deterrence against asylum seekers coming to the UK.
As numerous civil society actors have criticised, the NPI introduces a ‘two-tier’ system that violates international refugee law concerning non-refoulement and non-discrimination by denying asylum seekers in UK territory access to fair legal procedures and discriminating against them for breaching immigration rules (widely recognised as characteristic and necessitated for many refugees). Others have pointed out the new ‘firm’ policies are currently impossible to implement since the UK has no agreements in place with third countries needed to remove ‘inadmissible’ asylum seekers. The likely result is an intensification of the UK’s domestic hostile environment and a growing population of people living in protracted limbo with no prospect of removal, no avenue to regularise their status, and no access to work or public funds, leading to destitution and homeless.
Not only are these proposals cruel, impracticable, and likely illegal, they are also based on a false distinction between vulnerable, genuine, refugees waiting for resettlement in camps abroad and people attempting to cross via irregular means to the UK. Reading the NPI I was reminded of an encounter I had in Calais in 2014. Working alongside migrant solidarity groups, I got to know a Sudanese man in his 60s living in a tiny shack made from pallets, cardboard and tarpaulin. He had no money and few possessions apart from the clothes he wore and a UNHCR document declaring him to be a recognised refugee. He had previously been in Choucha Camp in Tunisia, opened by the UNHCR in response to refugees fleeing war in Libya in 2011. In 2013, the UNHCR pulled out leaving hundreds of recognised refugees without resettlement or ongoing support amid hostility from the Tunisian authorities. Unable to return to Libya or remain in Tunisia he crossed to Europe where he encountered further hostility and violence, first from the Italians and now the French police. Every night he tried to cross the border in the back of a lorry, but the physical stress of running and jumping, and the constant fear of beatings by the police, were exhausting. He was terrified of claiming asylum in France, fearing he would be dispersed to a remote part of the country where he would be unable to communicate with anyone and unable to learn French because of his onsetting dementia. We tried calling the UNHCR in Paris, they said they was nothing they could do. The UK was his only option but remained beyond reach.
This encounter shows how moralistic divisions between genuine refugees needing protection and privileged ‘illegal immigrants’ in Calais are themselves bogus. Not only are they based on problematic assumptions of forced/unforced migration and innocent victimhood/criminal agency, but these people can be one and the same. Resettlement schemes regularly fail to protect ‘the most vulnerable’, which is why people risk their lives and travel thousands of miles to seek asylum. Indeed, this failure is central to how resettlement schemes function to capture and contain refugee movements far from the UK’s territory while allowing entry only to a select few. They are primarily a tool of border externalisation and securitisation.
Here, humanitarian calls for more ‘safe and legal routes’ for asylum seekers do not challenge this fundamental discriminatory logic of state power or the moralistic framing of legal/illegal migration. As such, they risk contributing to policies that force people to make dangerous crossings and rely on smugglers, and then criminalise them for doing so. We need to be more vocal in publicly supporting the freedom to move and claim asylum internationally, even if these ideas seem impossible to articulate in current political discourse.
 See Tyerman, T. (2021) Everyday Border Struggles: Segregation and Solidarity in the UK and Calais [Routledge]: https://www.routledge.com/Everyday-Border-Struggles-Segregation-and-Solidarity-in-the-UK-and-Calais/Tyerman/p/book/9780367559281
 Tazzioli, M. & Garelli, G. (2014) ‘The crisis as a border. Choucha refugee camp and its «people of no concern»’ Etnografia e ricerca qualitativa, Rivista quadrimestrale 1: 15-26, doi: 10.3240/76245
 Tyerman. T. & Van Isacker, T. (2020) ‘Border securitisation in the Channel’ https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/10/border