Immigration law expert responds to Home Secretary's ‘invasion’ remark   

Heidi Pullig

On 31 October, Home Secretary Suella Braverman, while answering questions in parliament on the plight of some 4000 asylum-seekers held at Manston Airfield, referred to migrants crossing the Channel in small boats as ‘an invasion’.  

In response to this remark, Sheona York, Clinic Solicitor at Kent Law Clinic, asked: ‘If this is an “invasion”, are the sick people waiting in ambulances “malingerers”? Are people demanding GP appointments “hypochondriacs”? 

‘It is understandable of course that people living in Kent are concerned and apprehensive at the fact of thousands of desperate people cooped up without proper food, warm clothes, medical treatment, or any reasonable way of passing their time, and without properly-trained officials to look after them and keep control of a site “bigger than any prison”. 

‘However, it should be clear where the true responsibility lies. Asylum-seeking is not a new problem, and even 40,000 new claims in one year is not much above the average for the last 15 years or so. But the Home Office has never provided adequate staff resources to process asylum claims according to law and within a reasonable time. Backlogs reached tens of thousands in the early 1990’s. In 2006 the Home Office immigration function was declared “not fit for purpose”, and 450,000 unprocessed applications had to be dealt with under a special process- the Legacy. In 2013 Home Secretary Theresa May was forced to declare the bureaucracy “not good enough” and reorganise it again.  

‘In response to every public crisis, the Home Office deals with backlogs in asylum claims by tightening the legal criteria for granting asylum, reducing rights of appeal and other legal remedies, stigmatising applicants as “bogus”, or “criminal”, and attacking lawyers who represent them. A previous Home Secretary, Priti Patel, produced a “new plan for immigration” and then the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which cements these prejudices and legal outrages into law.   

‘Clearly, the “asylum crisis”, like the A&E crisis, needs both quick and longer term solutions. The A&E crisis might well need measures such as “Nightingale hospitals” in which to place patients due to be discharged but with no care plan in place, until social care can be properly funded. For the newly-arrived asylum-seekers there must be better places than Manston. We can be sure that if an earthquake devastated Dover, shelter would be quickly found for survivors. That thought experiment exposes the real problem: the asylum seekers are being treated as criminals. We can see what is immediately needed. First, a simplified decision-making system not prioritising disbelief: for example, if the applicant is from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, quickly grant them leave to remain. This would immediately reduce the bureaucratic burden and the acute burden of accommodating and supporting them. As it is, applicants are waiting more than a year for a decision.  

‘For the longer term, just as the A&E queues are exposing the crisis in social care, what is being exposed by the situation at Manston is, ultimately, the entire housing crisis. Decades of failure to build new social housing, and a private market controlled by the large developers, has left a situation in which there is precious little emergency housing. Working families are paying high market rents for properties in disrepair. Homeless families are having to be housed in unsuitable converted office accommodation. Refugees entering on “safe and legal routes” are accommodated in people’s private homes (Ukrainians), and in hotels (Afghans). Braverman may be right to say that it is difficult to accommodate 1000 people all arriving in one day. But it is government policies which have led to this crisis.’ 

Sheona York is a Clinic Solicitor at Kent Law Clinic, part of Kent Law School. She supervises students working on clients’ immigration and asylum cases. She also works closely with local NGOs and refugee charities and contributes to academic and public debate on immigration issues. Her recently published book ‘The Impact of UK Immigration Law’ (Palgrave Macmillan) provides a rigorous analysis of the administrative and legal failures of modern UK immigration control. It engages topical issues such as Brexit, Windrush and boat channel crossings and discusses the context around law