A few weeks ago, we saw two very different faces of British Conservatism at the Tory party conference. Theresa May went on stage and spat poison about asylum seekers and immigrants. It was brutal, ugly stuff, which seemed to go too far even for many right-wing newspapers. A day later, David Cameron came on stage and was all sweetness and light. He name dropped more liberal Cabinet ministers, pointedly ignored May and set out a commendable vision of an open, compassionate, multiracial Britain.
Speeches are not important in themselves. They only work as a signpost for future policy. So it's worth looking at which of these two visions seems to be winning. And there are hints in the small print of recent changes to immigration rules that it's May who is implementing her vision. As the immigration lawyer and analyst Colin Yeo has spotted, the rules imply that May is carrying out her threat to limit the amount of time refugees can stay in the UK (Yeo's blog on the subject is here).
During her speech, May said:
"We'll introduce strengthened 'safe return reviews' – so when a refugee's temporary stay of protection in the UK comes to an end, or if there is a clear improvement in the conditions of their own country, we will review their need for protection. If their reason for asylum no longer stands and it is now safe for them to return, we will seek to return them to their home country rather than offer settlement here in Britain."
This would be a very substantial and far-reaching change. As things stand, being granted refugee status in Britain means you're effectively given a home for life. Those who have their asylum claim accepted are granted a five year period of leave to remain, after which they typically qualify for settlement. A year later, they can apply for citizenship. There is a mechanism for a ministerial review of refugee cases but it has never been used.
The new rules appear to be edging away from this system. They go to considerable effort to "clarify the circumstances in which a grant of asylum and any associated leave may be revoked". They single out a European Council directive from 2004 which states that someone can have their refugee status taken away if "the circumstances in connection with which he or she has been recognised as a refugee have ceased to exist".
There is then some housekeeping about how this might be done. The rules state that you'd need to make sure investigations don't put the refugee's family in danger if they still live in the region, for instance. They're the kinds of practical details you'd consider if you were planning on implementing a system.
It's unclear what kind of a system they're considering. Would the Home Office just be looking at general country guidance and returning people in response? Or would they be reviewing each refugee's case after four years? The latter option seems more likely, given the concern around how to go about an investigation, but it would be an extraordinary workload to take on and would open up the Home Office to endless litigation.
There have been signs this was the direction of travel for some time. The government seems to be constantly on the look out for ways to return people fleeing war and persecution and in fact has operated a de-facto child return system for years. Most kids who come to the UK and claim asylum are rejected and instead granted given leave to remain as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child. At 18, that status ends and they have to regulate their stay - but many are rejected.
Earlier this year, about 600 young Afghans were returned after having been brought up here since the start of the war. All they know is Britain. Their home, their schooling, their friends, their boyfriends and girlfriends – all these things are here in the UK. But when they turned 18 we sent them to a foreign warzone, with little to no UK government assistance on the other side.
It gives some indication of how the Home Office is likely to proceed. The fact they return people to Afghanistan, whose own refugee minister says is not safe, or Somalia, which is an ungovernable hellhole, suggests their appraisals of what is and is not safe leave much to be desired.
The rules then state quite clearly the general principle behind what is likely to happen:
"We need to be clear that temporary protection does not automatically lead to permanent settlement in the UK."
This is the heart of the matter. Refugee status will no longer be about granting people British residency and encouraging them to start again in a safe country. It is now being reformulated as a temporary protection which ends as soon as circumstances change.
That's perfectly acceptable under the Refugee Convention. And as the rules are clear to point out, it's acceptable under European law. But what does it really entail? It needlessly puts an ominous threat over the day-to-day lives of those who have been through the most appalling treatment as they try to start again in Britain. They know how incompetent, uncaring and bureaucratically insane the immigration system is. The fear that they could be sent back to their home country at any moment on the signing off of an official's pen will haunt them.
And what does it really achieve? Around 25,000 people claimed asylum in the UK last year and just under half of them were accepted. It's a drop in the immigration ocean. They will typically be working members of their community, earning money and paying tax to the Treasury. The real financial loss comes from the complex task of investigating them, then fighting off the litigation which will follow a decision to revoke their status, and then having to detain and deport them if they do not agree to go home willingly.
There's also something socially revealing about the idea. In 1999 Labour made refugee settlement automatic (only to reverse the decision a few years later). When it did so, it said it was trying to make sure refugees integrated into the community. And that's what offering permanent protection does – it says to people that they should put down roots, become active members of their community, find work, build a life. But turning it into a constantly evaluated protection window says something altogether different. It says: This is a favour. Don't get too comfortable. At any moment we could once again cart you back to your home country.
To be clear - we don't know what policy will follow from these legal clarifications and vague statements of principle. But it's obvious that it corresponds to the promise May made in her conference speech. Away from all the lights and media coverage of the conference floor, it's May's harsh, mean streak of Conservatism which is slowly creeping its way into the statute book. Cameron's "compassionate" and "multiracial" vision is nowhere to be seen.