All at sea: An open letter to Sajid Javid

Dear Sajid Javid,

You have been home secretary for nine months. You inherited an asylum system that systematically fails vulnerable people, costs the taxpayer more than it should, and minimises the potential for refugees to integrate and contribute to the UK. I'm delighted you're now focusing on asylum policy, but the systemic failures of current arrangements are on land, not in the Channel. We need an ambitious and reforming home secretary to get to grips with it. I'm writing in the hope it is you.

I'm sorry you had to come back early from holiday but I'm not sure why you decided to declare the trickle of desperate people crossing the Channel as a "major incident". I know 230 people made this crossing over the past three months, but 401 were rescued by the Spanish coastguard on the first two days of January 2019. The total number of people arriving in the UK in 2017 was just over 30,000. It was 99,000 in France, 129,000 in Italy, and 222,000 in Germany.

There is no UK refugee crisis. But I know you are aware that there truly is a global refugee crisis. Over 65 million people have been forced to flee their homes as a result of war, terror or persecution. It's heartbreaking to think how much they have been through. Every country must step up and play their part in helping refugees reach safety and rebuild their lives.

So while you're thinking about how the UK treats asylum seekers there are four decisions you could make that would truly change things for the better.

First, show you mean what you say about ensuring refugees need not make dangerous journeys. Establish new safe and legal routes for refugees to reach the UK. Make a new commitment to welcoming refugees through resettlement programmes. The 2015 pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrians has virtually been achieved. We expected (and really needed) a decision on this in 2018. What happened? Over 200 local authorities have chosen to welcome refugees, and are currently unable to make new commitments. You really must make a rapid commitment to a new programme. It should be accompanied by a commitment to enable families to reunite, including those in France, so they don't have to risk their lives. 

Secondly, the asylum system needs a fundamental rethink. The current system can take up to fifteen years to make decisions on individual cases, and then gets a quarter of these decisions wrong. Living in abject poverty for years with no end in sight leads to chronic physical and mental health problems and is a terrible waste of the talents of those trapped in the system. You could announce new goals for speed and accuracy of decisions and a commitment to ensure that the system is designed to meet the needs of the vulnerable people whose lives depend on it. It's just the kind of systemic reform that the Home Office must make if the lessons of Windrush are to be heeded.

Third, lift the ban on people seeking asylum working. This is yet another policy that would be good for people seeking asylum and for Britain and the taxpayer. The status quo is insane. Britain should come into line with other countries, and enable people to work if no decision has been made on their claim in six months. (Many countries have gone further. In Canada and Sweden, people are given the right to work as soon as they claim asylum) There is an incredible coalition of 140 organisations supporting this change, from the CBI and TUC to the Church of England and Salvation Army. It was heartening to hear you announce in December you are reviewing this policy. Change can't come soon enough.

Fourth, remove the ridiculous obstacles to refugees integrating in the UK. I know this is something you feel strongly about. It was great to see the clear commitments to refugee integration you helped secure in the integration green paper and immigration white paper. But words on a page don't change lives. Refugees are often desperate to learn English, and deeply frustrated by the lack of available classes. You and others around the Cabinet table must provide the funding to let refugees learn, as well as programmes to help refugees learn how to find work in the UK.

These four policies would be a victory for common sense. They would provide a new direction for UK asylum and refugee policy that could command broad public support. You'd end the trauma and injustice the current system often inflicts on people who have already endured war and persecution. You could highlight the benefit to the taxpayer, from quicker decisions and higher rates of employment. It's an asylum programme worthy of an ambitious and reforming home secretary like you. Don't miss the boat.

Stephen Hale
Chief executive, Refugee Action

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.