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Priti Patel’s plan to cut the cost of dealing with asylum seekers only ramps up spending

According to a group of refugee charities, the home secretary's Nationality and Borders Bill will almost double the cost

Home Secretary Priti Patel - Credit: PA

If the underlying rationale for Priti Patel’s penchant for a metaphorical Keep Out sign at Britain’s borders is the perceived cost of poor and needy foreigners, the government she represents has an odd way of going about this.

Even a cursive look at the expensive lengths the government has gone to create Fortress Britain blows this out of the water. Brexit, anyone? Now Patel is trying to push through her plans to overhaul Britain’s asylum system with the Nationality and Borders Bill – which, according to a group of refugee charities, will almost double the cost of dealing with asylum seekers.

This includes £1.44 billion a year to set up an offshore processing system to detain asylum seekers abroad and a further £717.6 million annually to set up out of town accommodation in the UK to keep them out of communities. Another £432 million a year is to imprison those who arrive “irregularly”, for instance after crossing the Channel in boats — this would pretty much mean everyone, since there aren’t really any “regular” routes for them to come and ask for refugee protection in the UK.

“This is an astonishing amount of additional public money for the unworkable and cruel proposals in the Bill – enough to pay for more than 80,000 NHS nurses a year,” said Sabir Zazai, CEO of the Scottish Refugee Council and himself a refugee. Zazai is the spokesperson of Together With Refugees, which drew up the report. “Having fled their homes in fear and struggled to find safety, these measures would leave women, children and men facing further hardship in prison, isolated in another country indefinitely, separated from family and facing insecurity and indecision.”

The Home Office disputes the figures, including the £2.7 billion overall price-tag attached to five key strands of the new proposed policy – up from £1.4 billion in 2019-2020. But it’s not surprising for such proposals to come with huge costs to the taxpayer.

While researching for my piece on global migration in this week’s The New European – To Have and Have Not – it became very clear that the kind of hardline asylum policies often championed by governments that also advocate economic streamlining tend to be expensive and wasteful.

Australia, which has become an inspiration for countries wanting to look tough on migration of all sorts, has been paying almost 3.4 million Australian dollars, the equivalent of £1.79 million, per person to hold someone in Pacific Ocean detention centres in Nauru or Papua New Guinea. That’s nearly 770 times the cost of having them wait for the outcome of their claim in the community.

Offshoring has repeatedly been described as brutal – the Nauru and PNG centres have been likened to America’s harsh Guantanamo facility. Medicins Sans Frontieres found greater trauma in children there than it did while working with torture victims. One five-year-old had attempted suicide. Australia has been referred six times to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity over its stance.

Yet the policy, which has inspired Priti Patel and even supposedly more liberal politicians in countries such as Denmark, was nothing more than an extravagant failure. In the first year it was implemented, 2012, more asylum seekers arrived by boat. It was shut down in 2014, and the 200-odd asylum seekers currently still in offshore detention (and costing Canberra a pretty penny) are holdovers from the original policy – people who sought protection and are held with no exit in sight.

As Australian academic Madeline Gleeson told the Home Office Select Committee: “This policy should never have been introduced in Australia. Australia’s mistakes should not be repeated elsewhere.”

Other attempts to limit asylum through narrowly focused programmes also come with a financial and human cost. When I spoke to Refugee Action’s Louise Calvey, she bemoaned the inefficiency and expense that came with a lack of joined-up policy.

The UK’s refusal to have an ongoing system encompassing refugees from across the world and instead focusing on short-term, country-specific schemes has created a constant stop-go scenario – the Syrian programme was set up and wound down before the long-awaited Afghan scheme came online, meaning that expertise and logistical resources such as housing were lost in the cracks.

“The Afghans have been in tourist hotels since August. The costs are eyewatering, and it’s a terrible environment to raise a family in,” Calvey said. “We are working to build up the housing pipeline again but there’s a massive backlog. There’s no transferring of learning, (the government is) not looking at the bigger picture – they’re just firefighting with public opinion.”

An even more wasteful process took place when Donald Trump dismantled the resettlement programme when he was US president.

It is much quicker and cheaper to have a comprehensive, clear, humane and efficient asylum system. A majority of those who come to the UK are granted asylum anyway – why waste time and money sticking everyone in detention centres and fighting justified claims? Let them go into the community and find ways to support themselves and focus instead on working out how to deal with the rest.

Current legislation proposals are not the answer. In fact, the only way the Nationality and Borders Bill could possibly be an answer is if the original question is about how to build a framework for performative cruelty.

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