It has been more than four years since Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU), a vote which has largely been explained by a rise in concern regarding the issue of immigration.
As Britain introduces its new immigration system, we are now seeing what these changes will really mean.
The Australian “points-based” immigration system was a key policy of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 and echoed by Boris Johnson during his bid to become Prime Minister.
On its departure from the EU, the British government laid out its plans for this system, which will come into effect on January 1. But the points-based system is not the only way that Britain could be following in Australia’s footsteps when it comes to immigration.
Documents leaked to the Financial Times recently revealed a number of ideas the Home Office had been considering to deter asylum seekers.
A few of the controversial “blue sky ideas” included asylum processing centres on board disused ferries, ocean blockades, and giant wave machines to push small boats back to the French Coast.
However, the idea that drew the most attention was to build an immigration processing centre almost 6500 kilometres off the coast, on a volcanic island. The “Ascension Island plan” may have seemed far-fetched to British citizens, but in Australia it is already the reality.
Offshore immigration detention centres were introduced as part of the Australian asylum system, more than a decade ago, when detention centres were developed on the islands of Manus and Nauru. First opening in 2001, the centres were closed in 2008, but reopened in 2012.
The controversy behind Australia’s offshore detention islands
The existence of Australia’s offshore detention islands is just one of the reasons that the Home Office’s proposal received extensive criticism. These centres have been the subject of controversy for many years, coming under criticism from the United Nations and Amnesty International, as well as being subject to various reports that have highlighted routine human rights abuses at the facilities.
A 2018 Refugee Council of Australia report outlined the horrifying experiences of detainees on Nauru, particularly women and children. The report highlighted that children as young as 7 and 12 years of age were experiencing repeated incidents of self harm and some children had become catatonic. Referring to Nauru as “Australia’s man-made refugee crisis”, the report detailed some of the impacts on the detainees’ mental and physical health.
It stated that more than 80% of the people held on the island had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma and depression.
One passage in the report is particularly distressing: “We have heard of children swallowing razor blades and stones, trying to overdose, hanging themselves, attempting to jump from high places and dousing themselves in petrol. Children are hallucinating, withdrawing socially, repeatedly expressing a wish to die, unable to speak or speaking in a flat tone, and live in constant fear. Many bang their heads and bodies regularly and repeatedly against walls in their distress.
“The former director of mental health services on Nauru, Dr Peter Young, has said that offshore detention amounts to torture.”
Despite these issues, there were no mental health services available to children on the island, and official reports found that responses to child abuse were inadequate in nearly 70% of cases, while 20% of incidents could not even be reviewed because of lack of data.
Despite the centre belatedly developing a child protection system in 2016, UN children’s organisation, UNICEF, has concluded offshore processing cannot be in the best interests of a child.
Due to widespread public outcry about the conditions of children on Nauru, a resettlement deal was agreed with the United States in 2016, and the last children left Nauru in 2019.
Thousands of refugees have been detained on Manus and Nauru, but the number of detainees has reduced dramatically since 2018. Many of the refugees have been relocated to onshore and community detention in Australia and more than 500 have been resettled as part of the deal with the US. There are still about 400 refugees and asylum seekers stranded in Papua New Guinea (following the closure of the Manus Island detention centre) and on Nauru.
What does the British immigration and asylum system really need?
The British government has pushed to reduce the number of asylum seekers entering, following a summer of increased arrivals.
In a recent speech at the Conservative Party conference, Home Secretary Priti Patel proposed an overhaul of the current process, claiming the asylum system was “fundamentally broken”.
However, the issue is not the number of asylum seekers entering Britain, but the treatment they face from a country with an international duty to protect them.
The significant evidence of human rights abuses within offshore detention centres in Australia paints a clear picture of the impact they could also have on asylum seekers coming to Britain.
Detention centres currently based within Britain have been the subject of controversy for many years. A 2017 BBC Panorama documentary revealed the physical and mental abuse of detainees at Brook House Immigration detention centre. The centre's management was taken over by Serco (which operates detention centres in Australia), however, reports are still emerging of abuse and self-harm.
Offshore detention centres will only worsen these issues, according to the evidence.
The failings of offshore detention go beyond the issue of inhumane treatment. It is also a failed and cruel strategy to deter arrivals. Even at the height of its offshore detention regime, Australia was still seeing record numbers of arrivals. Unknown numbers of asylum seekers were also perishing at sea.
The Home Office’s current stance is to reduce arrivals, so even leaving out the human rights impacts, considering this idea was illogical.
The traditional points-based immigration system that Britain is heading towards could also have other detrimental impacts. The system ostensibly measures a person’s “worth”, using a set of simplistic assessments. These types of systems have been shown to lead to racial and gender biases, by benefitting mostly male and white applicants. They also fail to assess an individual beyond their age, education and experience and overlook the many ways that immigrants (who wouldn’t be eligible for a visa under the new system) could benefit the country. Reports already suggest that many key workers in the care sector would not be eligible for a British work visa under the new rules.
The overhaul Patel suggests, and the movement towards an Australian-style system, aims to deter asylum seekers, rather than protect them. It vilifies people who have often experienced torture in their home countries, detaining them like criminals, rather than treating them as people simply desperate for a better life.
A points-based system could alienate millions of immigrants that have been vital to the country, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In considering these draconian measures, the government also continues to ignore the real problems with the asylum system.
The majority of asylum seekers who enter Britain are now waiting more than six months for a decision about their claim. During this time, they are unable to work and given little financial support, meaning that many are left destitute.
Unaccompanied child refugees in Britain continue to be denied the right to reunite with their parents. Deterrence measures will not stop asylum seekers, they will only remove safe pathways and endanger the lives of people desperate for a better life.
[Reanna Smith writes for an immigration advice service in Britain.]