21 December, 2023 - By Antonia Benfield

The Asylum System in 2023: Radical and Regressive Changes

Antonia Benfield, barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and West London Welcome Trustee, reflects on the various changes in the UK asylum system over the past year, the increased punitivity our community members have had to navigate, and what we can expect from 2024.

As 2023 draws to a close, we are reflecting on the year just gone and the likely challenges our community members at West London Welcome face in 2024.

It is fair to say that 2023 has been tumultuous with a raft of legal challenges and policy changes. Behind each of these are our members, individuals who have fled torture, trafficking and persecution, who keenly feel what are radical and regressive changes to the UK asylum system and the increasingly punitive approach to people seeking asylum. The following are the lows of 2023 and some thoughts on what 2024 may bring.

 

Clearing the asylum backlog

2023 has seen the implementation of the Prime Minister’s commitment in late 2022 to clear the asylum backlog by the end of this year. We have seen asylum decisions being made at pace, with tens of thousands of asylum decisions being made in 2023. In the last quarter of the year, 29,000 asylum decisions were made, with 23,000 grants of asylum. Though this is usually good news for newly granted refugees, we have seen complete chaos in the approach to refugees being able to access support and accommodation upon being recognised as refugees with insufficient time for benefits and housing applications to be made, which has led to that burden falling on charities such as West London Welcome. While West London Welcome has been able to support all of its newly granted refugee members to ensure that none are street homeless, this has not been the pattern nationally with many new refugees being on the streets with no support in place.

 

Asylum appeals backlog

While a significant number of members have been granted refugee status in 2023, a proportion (6,000 in the third quarter of 2023) were refused. The vast majority receiving refusals will likely appeal and it is alarming that the Immigration Tribunal reports that they presently have 31,000 appeals outstanding and that the average time to determine a protection appeal is 82 weeks. This is likely to represent a significant issue in 2024 as charities seek to support what is a significant minority, who will be stuck in a protracted appeals system.

 

Lack of legal aid lawyers

Linked to the appeals backlog is the fact that 51% of asylum applicants in England and Wales are unable to access legal aid legal representation to support them in their asylum claims. In 2023, 34 offices providing legal aid immigration advice either closed or ceased legal aid work. There remains hugely uneven distribution of legal aid access across the UK and little by way of steps apparently being taken by the Government to redress this. By way of example, in the area of the Bibby Stockholm Barge where an Albanian asylum-seeking man recently tragically took his life, there was no legal aid lawyer within 1.5 hours away able to locally represent clients on the barge.

 

Contingency accommodation

2023 has seen steps by the Government to expand contingency accommodation, not only to the Bibby Stockholm but also to other RAF and contingency accommodation sites. West London Welcome has seen in relation to members who were housed at Napier Barracks and Manston Immigration Centre, the huge detriment on their physical and mental health in being accommodated in such sites, and the apparent steps to expand contingency sites and systematically close hotel accommodation is a significant cause of concern.

 

Asylum support levels

While West London Welcome welcomes the closure of hotel accommodation for asylum-seeking people as an unsuitable and unsustainable accommodation provision – we believe people should be provided proper housing in communities – for those who remain in such accommodation beyond January 2024, they will face a reduction in financial support provision from £9.58 to £8.86 per week. This further erodes the autonomy of our members and their ability to meet their essential living needs, including travel to meet their legal representatives, going to medical appointments, or buying painkillers and other essentials. It speaks volumes that we at West London Welcome have to pay travel expenses to asylum-seeking people attending our centre by train or bus, since they have so little money they cannot afford the fare.

 

Rwanda litigation

A reflection on 2023 would not be complete without considering the horrific impact that the Rwanda plan has had on our members. Routinely we hear members terrified that their claims will be refused, and they will be sent to an East African country where they have no connection and fear their life and liberty will be at threat. The proceedings in the court have of course been long-running but after the Supreme Court’s judgement in November that Rwanda is not safe and that it would be unlawful to remove refugees there, we have seen a shocking doubling-down by the Government to try to ensure that they are able to put in practice this cruel and inhuman policy.

In December, we saw the Government table draft legislation in the form of a treaty and Bill to seek to override the Supreme Court’s decision and designate Rwanda as a safe country to which refugees can be sent. Many commentators have explained why this is contrary to international law; why it seeks to perpetuate a legal fiction of Rwanda being safe; and why it is a fundamental affront to the constitutional separation of powers of judicial scrutiny. As much as we hope Parliament will reject the Government’s dangerous plans, which potentially threaten the safety of hundreds of UK asylum-seeking people as well as the UK’s standing on the international human rights stage, we come back to the individual impact on our members which is profound in the feeling that they are in a country that no longer seeks to respect international law and treats them as a human commodity, to be exchanged for millions, in a political stunt that appears to be being set up for an election battle on immigration in 2024.

 

Whereas much has been achieved in 2023, the year to come is clearly going to be a challenging one for all who support refugee rights. We will be taking a short break to recharge and be back in 2024 to continue to fight the aggressive and regressive policies that the Government advances.