Leading article

The case for an asylum amnesty

18 September 2021

9:00 AM

18 September 2021

9:00 AM

Many feared mass unemployment as a fallout from Covid-19. Instead, we have ended up with the opposite problem: a labour shortage. The lack of lorry drivers has led to some items missing from supermarkets. Pubs, restaurants and many other businesses are struggling to re-open as completely as they would like for want of adequate staff. As Matthew Lynn says in his article, the labour shortage has already had a positive effect on workers’ wages. The situation also presents a rare opportunity for long-overdue reforms elsewhere — particularly when it comes to processing asylum seekers.

For years, there was public concern that there were far more immigrants coming to work in Britain than ministers ever expected. Politicians from all parties preferred to dismiss the concern as nostalgia or xenophobia rather than address rational fears that salaries were being forced down or that public services were being squeezed. This was a fateful misdiagnosis. An economic model based on an endless supply of cheap labour from the European Union has been the curse of the British economy for the last two decades — a curse that voters wanted to lift in the 2016 referendum. It was never part of the official Brexit campaign — in which Boris Johnson played a prime role — to close down migration, only that it be brought under control. Britain is one of the world’s most welcoming countries for migrants, but voters also want the system to be fair.

If checks and controls are applied on the borders, this allows for more leniency for those who are already here, specifically, the large population of asylum applicants who are fully and needlessly dependent on the taxpayer. At the end of June there were nearly 60,000 outstanding asylum applications, a number which has almost trebled in the past three years. Of those, 42,000 cases have been outstanding for at least six months. There is no excuse for leaving so many people in limbo for so long.

At present, if any of these applicants try to find work to cover their own living costs, they can be (and often are) raided by the police and sent back to their life of state-mandated unemployment. This is a tragic waste of taxpayers’ money. It’s also a waste of potential labour. Those motivated enough to cross the world to start a new life in Britain — to start at the very bottom — are being stopped from working at a time when their contribution to the economy is needed.

The ban on asylum seekers finding employment is meant to deter economic migrants, yet there is no real evidence that it does. A far better guard against -economic migration would be to speed up the process for asylum application, with speedier, high-profile deportations for those who fail to meet the criteria. The message to asylum seekers should be that if they have no genuine case to stay in Britain, then their claim will fail, and the fees paid to people–smugglers will have been wasted. But those whose case is strong — such as the many Afghans to whom we have promised sanctuary — will be processed quickly and will soon be able to work.

The current immigration system is a mess. Officials have struggled in some instances to rumble illegal workers in their own -offices at the Home Office, yet the system will turn upon someone who has lived in Britainfor decades, who have supported themselves and raised a family, but whose papers are not quite in order. The Windrush scandal — along with that disgraceful phrase ‘hostile environment’ — shamed Britain. And now the country is left looking foolish as a result of the Border Agency’s de facto cross–Channel taxi service for illegal migrants.

The Windrush scandal could have been avoided if the government had followed a policy which this magazine has advocated for the past two decades: an amnesty for migrants who may not have formal status but have been living here peacefully for many years. When there is such a backlog for officials to work through, why spend time on historic cases which go back decades? It is ridiculous that officials pursue migrants who have been in the country for so long that they have adult children.

Boris Johnson was once a keen advocate of such a policy. He supported it when he was editor of this magazine, then mayor of London, then foreign secretary, and, most recently, as a candidate for Conservative leader in 2019. Why have we heard no more about a migrant amnesty since he became Prime Minister? Perhaps he sensed that it was not going down as well in the hustings as some of his other policies. But that should not deter him. There might never be a better chance to reset the immigration system. There is a huge demand for workers, a collapse in migration numbers and, thanks to Brexit, a new points-based system.

The current asylum system encourages state dependency, and the policing of migration is too hard on the wrong people. These are matters over which the government can and should take more control.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments