The home secretary, Priti Patel, has reportedly been exploring a range of outlandish plans for sending refugees who arrive on British shores to very faraway places.
The week began with a Whitehall leak that revealed officials had been asked to consider setting up an immigration centre on Ascension Island, over 4,000 miles away in the South Atlantic. When that idea was kiboshed, further leaks identified other territories being considered for extraterritorial processing, including Moldova, Morocco and Papua New Guinea.
Britain has a long and rather grubby history of sending people to faraway territories in order to solve political problems. The principle that out of sight is out of mind first underpinned the establishment of penal colonies where hundreds of thousands of criminals and other “undesirables” were banished throughout the British empire.
Other European states have followed suit, the most famous example of such a place being Devil’s Island, in French Guiana. More recently, in 2002, the United States started using Guantánamo Bay, a US naval base on the southern tip of Cuba, as a detention centre for handling hundreds of “unlawful combatants” that it refused to put on trial in the US.
In the past two decades governments have toyed with this extraterritorial solution to try to “look tough” in the face of small numbers of desperate people arriving in Britain. In so doing, asylum seekers – who share with you and me the legal right to seek refuge – are being treated as criminals.
It was a Labour government in 2003 that first came up with the idea of using offshore immigration processing centres. The context was a rise in asylum applications to the UK, which had seen a 20-fold increase over 15 years. Having already considered both harsh clampdowns and amnesties for deterring asylum seekers, the then home secretary, David Blunkett, enthusiastically supported by Tony Blair, floated a number of proposals for immigration centres outside the UK.
He suggested creating “regional protection zones”, which would be in, or next to, areas witnessing major flows of people. These zones would offer a safe haven to those fleeing persecution but keep them within touch of their home countries.
His second proposal was to create “transit centres” on the fringes of the European Union, which would hold all applicants heading west and handle applications for those seeking to enter the UK. The list of proposed sites for these centres has a rather familiar ring, and included nations on the major transit routes such as Turkey, Somalia and Morocco.
Blunkett’s ideas received the welcome backing of a number of thinktanks, including Demos. But, not to be outdone by New Labour, the Tories followed up a few months later with their own proposals.
The then shadow home secretary, Oliver Letwin, went to the Conservative party conference in October 2003 promising that all asylum seekers arriving in Britain would be immediately deported to a “far-offshore processing” island. Letwin told the conference in Blackpool: “We will replace the present asylum system, in its entirety, with a system of quotas for genuine refugees and the offshore processing of all claims, to deter all but genuine claims for protection from persecution.”
And he made clear that under this policy all asylum seekers who reached Britain would find the door closed firmly in their faces. “There will be no applications in the United Kingdom,” he said.
Asylum welfare groups reacted to the plan with horror ,and there followed an instant chorus of disapproval on human rights grounds. The Refugee Council said it was “unlawful, inhumane and ridiculous”. Its deputy chief executive, Margaret Lally, said: “The UK is committed under international law to providing a safe haven for those fleeing persecution.” Others compared the policy to plans more associated with wartime emergencies
But the Tory idea turned out to be half-baked when Letwin admitted that he did not “have the slightest idea” where the island would be.
However, it is the immigration policy of a former British colony that has given new life to the current home secretary’s offshoring designs. Asylum seekers stopped in boats in Australian waters are held in facilities on the offshore islands of Nauru and Manus Island under a policy called Operation Sovereign Borders. There is another one, on Christmas Island. The government seems to believe that if this can work for Australia, there is no reason to stop Britain doing the same.
But these notorious facilities have been a source of much controversy during their time of operation. There have been a number of riots and escapes, as well as accusations of human rights abuses from organisations including Amnesty International, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations.
The British government’s reliance on the Australian “solution” to a refugee crisis risks once again dangerously muddling refugees’ rights with those of people convicted of criminal offences. This is a slippery constitutional slope that could cast us adrift from well-established international law. Instead of adopting humane policies for the processing of asylum seekers, the government seems keen to create legal black holes for people who have the right to a fair hearing on British soil.
• Robert Verkaik is an author and journalist specialising in extremism and education