Asylum seekers arriving in the UK would be criminalized under the government's legal reforms | Photo: Picture-alliance/Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Asylum seekers arriving in the UK would be criminalized under the government's legal reforms | Photo: Picture-alliance/Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

The British government is promoting its plan to resettle 20,000 Afghan citizens in the UK. But it is insisting that people who arrive on its shores seeking protection are far from welcome.

The number of people crossing the English Channel from Europe to the UK in small boats has risen again sharply in the last few days, with dozens of migrants, including two small children, rescued on Tuesday off the coast of Kent in southern England.

There are still far fewer undocumented migrants entering the UK than other European countries, but the government continues to focus on stopping what it terms "illegal" arrivals. It has poured over £20,000 into social media campaigns aimed at asylum seekers in France and Belgium and even created a front organization with a website, telling people not to risk their life and waste hard-earned money. "There are safer options," it suggests.

Warm welcome or hostile environment?

Following the last evacuation of UK nationals and locals who had helped British forces in Afghanistan, the UK government announced a new plan to bring Afghan citizens in the UK, the ACRS (Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme). This scheme will provide visas to "Afghan nationals most in need who have been forced to flee Afghanistan" to go to Britain, where they will be granted asylum and be able to stay permanently. The government has dubbed the resettlement program "Operation Warm Welcome."

The details of the ACRS are still vague, including when it will start: the most recent government factsheet dated August 19 says more details will be released "in due course."

It is not possible to apply for resettlement – those who are eligible will be chosen with the help of aid organizations and the UN refugee agency UNHCR. According to the Home Office, priority will initially be given to vulnerable groups, such as girls and women. Five thousand people are to be resettled in the first year of the scheme, with up to 20,000 brought over the long term.

Many charities and asylum seeker advocates say the resettlement scheme is a good first step, but point out that it is at odds with asylum law reforms currently being debated by Parliament. If passed in its current form, the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill would criminalize all those – including Afghans – who arrive in the UK by small boat or lorry.

Channel crossing not illegal, yet

That law has not yet been passed and for now, it is not illegal to come to the UK by crossing the Channel, as long as you claim asylum when you arrive, which 98% of people do. Buried in a Home Office factsheet on resettlement are the words: "those who arrive to the UK via irregular routes are currently able to apply for asylum." Despite this, both the home secretary Priti Patel and the Home Office's newly-appointed Afghan resettlement minister, Victoria Atkins, have said that people who come across the channel by "illegal" means will not be welcomed in the UK even if they have fled from the Taliban.

The home secretary has also called it illegal for migrants to travel through safe countries where they could have claimed asylum instead of traveling to the UK (even though there is no legal obligation to claim asylum in the first safe country). And in outlining the ACRS, the government specified that it would be "for those in the region who are in need of assistance." According to information published by a team from Garden Court Chambers, a barristers' chambers in England, this may mean that people who are able to leave Afghanistan and reach a country the UK government considers safe, such as France, would not qualify for resettlement, but those who manage to travel to a country in the same region as Afghanistan, such as Pakistan, would be eligible.

While no one is really sure what will happen with Afghans who arrive under their own steam in the UK rather than being picked for resettlement, (Garden Court Chambers warns "you should be aware there is a chance the government will prosecute you if you enter the UK without permission"), many people have also raised concerns about a large backlog of asylum claims including more than 3,000 from Afghan asylum seekers. Far from fast-tracking these cases, the Home Office has put a block on all new asylum claims from Afghanistan ("pending a policy update") and asked judges in the immigration court to stop hearing Afghan asylum cases.

The government is also trying to negotiate bilateral agreements with France, Belgium and Netherlands, to get them to take back asylum seekers who have crossed the Channel to the UK. If these return deals are agreed, Afghans may also be at risk of being deported to EU countries.

Few options

According to the Home Office advice, there are a few other options available to Afghans who are seeking to come to the country but are not selected for resettlement. These are through the points-based immigration system which allows people to come to the UK to work or study; by applying for asylum; or through family reunification.

Refugee groups in the UK have called on the government to expand the resettlement program and to make family reunification procedures simpler and faster. They have also urged the government to grant special humanitarian visas. So far, no such plans have been announced.


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