Under some extraordinary new government proposals, hundreds of Africans, Afghans and Iranians seeking asylum in Britain may soon be sent thousands of miles away to Moldova to be processed. Or they may be locked up indefinitely in floating detention centres at sea. Or they may even be sent to camps set up on the remote British islands of Ascension Island or St Helena, the island in the south Atlantic where Napoleon was sent into exile.
Asylum-seekers and economic migrants have been pouring into Britain in their hundreds in recent months, crossing the English Channel in flimsy boats and even trying to swim the 35 kilometre stretch. The government, responding to rising public anger, has now had enough. It now wants to stop all asylum-seekers reaching Britain so that they cannot slip away while their claims for asylum are examined. So it looked at the model used in Australia, where all asylum-seekers are held on an island far from the mainland of Australia. Why could Britain not do the same?
The reason is that there are no convenient islands where they could be held, except for a number of remote islands off the western coast of Scotland. These are unsuitable – cold, remote and without any shelter or accommodation. Instead, according to plans now being circulated, asylum-seekers could be sent to detention centres in foreign countries, including Moldova, Morocco or even Papua New Guinea, almost 8,000 miles from Britain. No formal talks have been opened with any of these countries on whether they would be willing to accept people wanting to go to Britain, and how they would be transported to these detention centres.
Another option being considered by officials in the Home Office, the interior ministry responsible for immigration and asylum, is to process people on Ascension or St Helena. These two islands, both British overseas territories, are among the most remote in the world. There is a large American airbase on Ascension and some intelligence monitoring stations but little else. It is hot, arid and with no native population. Also being considered is St Helena, some 700 miles to the south, which is one of the most remote territories in the world. An airport was built there only three years ago, with only one flight a week to South Africa. Napoleon spent six years there in exile from 1815 until his death in 1821, and the island was also used as a detention centre for 3,000 Boer prisoners of war during the 1900 Boer War in South Africa. Any proposal to bring thousands of refugees from distant countries to internment camps on the island would cause uproar among the 4,500 residents, and would be seen as colonial repression by Britain.
A more practical suggestion is to process asylum-seekers on disused ferries moored off the coast of Britain. Retired ferries would be bought and converted them into processing centres, with hundreds of men, women and children being held in these floating detention centres. The proposal will be presented to Boris Johnson, the prime minster, who has called for urgent measures to “prevent abuse of the system and criminality.” Many of the migrants crossing the channel pay huge amounts of money to people traffickers, but risk being drowned when they are put into small and unseaworthy boats or rubber dinghies.
A disused 40-year-old ferry can be bought from Italy for £6 million. It could house 1,400 people in 141 cabins. A disused cruise ship, at present moored in Barbados, would cost £116 million and could accommodate 2,147 people in 1,000 cabins. Converting the vessels would add significantly to the cost. But there is an immediate risk that these ships would become incubators for the coronavirus, in the same way that many cruise ships were affected by hundreds of cases that spread rapidly at the start of the pandemic.
The number of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats has risen sharply. By the end of August nearly 7,000 people had arrived in more than 500 small boats this year, more than twice the number for the whole of 2019. Britain has been trying to reach an agreement with France to stop them setting out to sea, but the French have demanded a large payment for the extra work needed in policing the coastline. A proposal to have the British Royal Navy patrol the Channel has been ridiculed as impractical and raises issues of sovereignty, human rights and how to deal with migrants who refuse all offers of help at sea.
Immigration has long been a very sensitive political issue in Britain. Millions of people from all over the world have arrived in the country from distant countries in the past 40 years, sharply increasing the population to more than 66 million today and making Britain one of the most crowded countries in all Europe. The arrival especially of Muslims and people from the Middle East and Africa has fuelled a racist backlash and has raised concerns that large numbers of migrants – many of them coming for economic reasons rather than seeking safety from oppression – will strain the health and education system, will alter the make-up of Britain’s towns and will fuel social tensions.
Britain, a popular destination for asylum seekers and economic migrants because of the English language and generous social benefits, has become increasingly hostile to all migration, and Boris Johnson is clearly hoping to take a firm stand on the issue to bolster his flagging popularity. The opposition Labour party, however, has exploited recent scandals involving the poor treatment of black migrants from the 1960s to accuse the Conservative government of pandering to racism. Pritti Patel, the Home Secretary – herself of Indian origin – has made tighter controls on immigration a key part of domestic policy. Last year 35,566 people applied for asylum in Britain, compared with the peak figure in 2002 of 84,000.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour party, called the proposal to intern asylum seekers in disused ferries “inhuman”. He said the government was “lurching form one ridiculous proposition to the next.” He said the real problem was that the Home Office took a very long time to process applications.
Setting up detention centres in Scotland would also be fiercely opposed by the Scottish government, which wants to pursue independence from Britain. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, said “any proposal to treat human beings like cattle in a holding pen will be met with the strongest possible opposition from me.”
Sending thousands of would-be migrants from Asia and Africa to a small country like Moldova would create a global sensation, and raises many questions. How would they get there? Who would pay for their detention? What would happen to those refused asylum in Britain? What guarantee would Britain have that the migrants were treated fairly and humanely by Moldovan guards? The proposal has been rejected as impractical and impossible to enforce by British officials, so no talks on setting up such a scheme are now likely.
While waiting for a decision to be made, asylum seekers are usually not allowed to work and are initially placed in hostel-type accommodation in Britain before longer-term housing is arranged. A large proportion managed to slip away, however, especially if they have a network of ethnic compatriots already here, and remain illegally in Britain for years. There are also long delays in deporting people refused asylum. That is why the government wants to stop anyone reaching British territory in the first place.