Immigration Law Roundup of 2015

2015 was a challenging year for immigration law. Appeal rights for almost everything apart from protection and human rights issues were discarded. Subjective and unaccountable tests made it harder for entrepreneurs to come to the UK to open businesses and the cap on Tier 2 workers was breached for the first time. Changes coming into force from February are likely to result in many families without immigration status potentially becoming forced into homelessness.

For all the changes in the law and the apparent hostility towards immigrants expressed in the press, the migrant crisis came as a harrowing reminder of the human cost of conflicts that we too often view as being far removed from our own borders. An unprecedented change in public attitudes came following a series of images of families in desperate need. This change resonated with an increasingly reactionary government who suddenly offered 20,000 places for refugees over five years, months after using dehumanising language when referring to asylum seekers traversing the EU.

The conflation between economic migration and asylum is not a new one. It is a contrived attempt by individuals to justify bad decisions by painting those who need our support as a drain on society. During austerity, it is far too easy to scapegoat others. It is not a case we need our government to try to make when it has been done more succinctly and in a similar level of detail by Roy 'Chubby' Brown. Still, it is one they persist in making.

In her vitriolic speech at the Conservative Party conference, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, stated 'The trouble is, the asylum system was abused for years. Under Labour it was just another way of getting here to work.' Her argument for this was purely numbers. It is true that there were more asylum claims per annum under Labour than the subsequent Coalition or Conservative governments. During 13 years of Labour there was British military intervention in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. It is perhaps not surprising that these events displaced people.

May says some fairly non-contentious things in her speech about the UK making more efforts to resettle those in need of asylum who cannot get to the UK and to provide aid to the worst affected areas. Then she begins to draw a very dangerous distinction,

'At the moment, the main way people claim asylum here is when they're already in Britain. That fails on three counts. First, it encourages vulnerable people to take dangerous and illegal journeys to get here, often by putting themselves at the mercy of gangs of human traffickers and people smugglers. Second, instead of helping those in greatest need, it rewards the wealthiest, the luckiest and the strongest.'

She is at least right. Aside from the limited resettlement programme of 750 people per year (Syrians aside), there is no way to claim asylum in the UK aside from already being here. The very wording of the most fundamental document of asylum law, the UN Convention of 1951, defines a refugee as someone 'outside the country of his nationality'.

'For the first time we'll distinguish between vulnerable people resettled from their region and those who claim asylum after abusing the visa system or having travelled to get here through safe countries.'

Her intention is that 'good' refugees, who come through resettlement programmes, should be allowed permanent status here. Those who deign to come to the UK via other methods (which is at present, 25,000 'bad' claimants who made in-country claims last year versus 750 'good' ones), should not be guaranteed residence after their time here as a refugee ends. If this was coming from a government who didn't call refugees a 'swarm' until they saw a picture of a drowned toddler, and even then want to limit resettlement to a comparatively tiny number of Syrians per year, it would be still be absurd. The idea of drawing distinctions between anyone who comes under the auspices of the Refugee Convention is a fool's errand. Whilst it may be a clearer argument to present to the electorate that we should remove vulnerable people from war-zones, the idea that they should get more leave than a Ugandan who comes to the UK and realises they are gay and will only return home to a life of persecution and harm is a false argument. Likewise, the Iranian student who only in the UK realises the horror of their government's regime and speaks out about it at protests, when these are heavily monitored by the Islamic Republic. Why should a Syrian who gets here on the back of a lorry be less worthy than one May decides to put on a plane?

Others have pointed out that what is being proposed sounds dangerously close to a quota. The very idea of returning refugees after a period of residence here is deeply troubling and will in many cases be a disproportionate interference with private and family life established whilst in the UK. The new methods by which these tactics will be undertaken is as yet unknown; a paper is yet to be published. Whatever these may be, they are guaranteed to be controversial and the subject of lengthy legal challenges. The battle for refugees could be a defining line of party politics this year and will doubtless be used a pawn on the long road to the EU referendum next year.