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UK refugee policy has so many holes it frustrates both sides of political spectrum

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This article is an on-site version of our Inside Politics newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday.

Good morning. There was a rather large hole in my logic in yesterday’s newsletter, which some of you very politely pointed out. Some thoughts on that hole and on UK refugee policy more broadly below.


Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com.


How it started . . . how it’s going

Yesterday, I wrote the following:

It is perfectly reasonable to say that if you have come to the UK without a visa from a country that is a Nato member and an EU accession candidate, as Albania is, then you will be returned there.

But as a few readers notified me, this has an unsound inference: neither Nato membership or being an EU accession candidate necessarily means you are a “safe country”.

Turkey is an EU accession candidate and Nato member. As if to illustrate that point, the country yesterday sentenced Ekrem İmamoğlu — Istanbul’s popular mayor and one of the frontrunners to take on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in next year’s election — to two years and seven months in prison, and barred him from electoral politics. His crime? He is alleged to have called the election board “idiots”, though the mayor has denied the claims.

And as Ayla Jean Yackley details in an engrossing piece, Erdoğan’s government stands accused of using court cases in a bid to suppress the opposition’s vote.

It was sloppy thinking on my part to claim that Nato membership, let alone something as frankly nebulous as being part of the EU accession process, is any kind of useful yardstick for whether a country is “safe”. While there is space for an approach like Rishi Sunak’s list of safe countries, Nato membership and candidacy for EU accession should not be used to meaningfully triage applications from people who have come to the UK via a small boat on the Channel.

What I should have said is that if you are in a country where you can easily access a UK embassy or consulate then it is a reasonable policy position that you ought to claim asylum from there. Of course, the problem there is that the British government no longer allows you to do this for the most part. It is reasonable to say that the 4,522 Albanians who sought asylum in the UK in 2021 could plausibly have sought asylum while still in Albania (a good report on the complexities of why Albanians might claim asylum in the UK here). This option, however, was not really available to the 9,800 Iranians, 6,141 Iraqis or 3,353 Syrians, the other nationalities that made up the largest shares of people seeking asylum in the UK last year.

But of course the UK government does not provide a route for most people to do so. Through a combination of accident and design, successive Conservative governments have constructed a series of refugee policies that are broadly hostile to refugees but have a number of huge holes in them. We have broad exemptions for people fleeing from the Taliban in Afghanistan, from conflict in Syria, repression in Hong Kong and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Each of these measures is individually popular but it contributes to the UK’s high net migration figure, which polls badly, and causes panic among individual Conservative MPs. But the tone and the generally punitive approach wins the party few friends among migration liberals while convincing opponents of high immigration that the Tory party is not the right choice for them either.

If you have a consistent refugee policy then you do, at least, get the political credit for it from somebody. If you have one that you have to make holes in, you don’t. It also makes it politically more fraught to adjust your refugee policy because every time you adjust your policy you are, inevitably, making a comment on another country’s politics.

Whether the government likes it or not, all roads lead back to having to provide safe and legal routes to seek asylum in the UK — the alternative is, still, more small boats.

Now try this

The Inside Politics team marked Christmas with lunch at manteca, a lovely east London restaurant that combines nose-to-tail cooking with fine Italian dining. Tim Hayward’s review is here.

If you want to have lunch with me at Turnips, another lovely restaurant, and to support the work of our financial literacy charity, Flic, you can bid here. If you think, not unreasonably, that having me in your inbox every morning is quite enough Stephen Bush to be going on with, you can also bid for a seven-course tasting menu with the FT’s editor Roula Khalaf, for steak with our economics editor Chris Giles and many more besides.

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