However, it is broken, above all, for those who come to this country seeking refuge, and too often it breaks them.
The Government’s new plan for immigration encapsulates the approach of Ministers, framing asylum seekers as the problem rather than addressing the problems they face, dehumanising those who seek the refuge provided under international law and the treaties to which we are proud signatories, and talking about them as illegal migrants.
The move towards detention on arrival in the Government’s new plan is deeply worrying, particularly after the experience of Napier and Penally barracks.
Reception centres where asylum seekers will be sent as they enter the UK look dangerously like becoming detention by another name.
We have seen with immigration removal centres how facilities established for one function quickly develop another: long-term detention.
Moving towards detaining on arrival would shut down community links and create isolation. Those who seek asylum, with all the trauma associated with the persecution or conflict from which they are fleeing, which is often added to by the journey they have had to make, have that trauma exacerbated by detention.
I co-chaired the 2015 cross-party inquiry into immigration detention, when detainees told us that it is “worse than prison”, because prisoners count down the days to their release, while those in detention count them up with no certainty about their future. Experts told us that those who were detained for over 30 days, as so many were – many for months, some for years – had significantly higher mental health problems.
There is a solution, and the Government have piloted alternatives to detention. I have met with previous Ministers who are genuinely committed to those alternatives, recognising that detention is inhumane, inefficient and expensive, but I understand that, instead of being expanded, these programmes are being wound down, with Action Access already finished in March.
This morning I heard from the Snowdrop Project in Sheffield, a brilliant charity providing long-term support to survivors of human trafficking. It talked about the delays and indecision in the system, which traumatise survivors of trafficking.
One victim supported by the project was exploited in the UK in domestic servitude until she managed to escape. She claimed asylum and was recognised as a victim of trafficking in the national referral mechanism. She was not granted the discretionary leave to remain, to which she was entitled as a recognised victim, despite multiple requests.
The Home Office delayed making a decision on her case for some years, despite legal and political representation highlighting the impact of that delay on her mental health. After four years, her asylum application was refused, but the case was appealed successfully and finally, after five years, she was granted protection in the UK.
Those years of uncertainty had a profound impact on her mental health. She suffers from severe anxiety, depression and PTSD, and receives support for suicidal intentions.
Someone who had been accepted as a victim of human trafficking should have been given leave to remain on that basis and that experience should have been avoided. The Snowdrop Project is right that it is not acceptable to keep someone’s life on hold for five years.
Like many colleagues, I regularly hear from those who are living in limbo, awaiting the outcome of a Home Office decision. They are all victims of what the Home Secretary described as a “broken system”.
In conclusion, I hope Ministers will spell out what the Government plan to do to ensure that the Home Office ends the limbo inside and outside detention that is so damaging to the mental health of asylum seekers.
Paul Blomfield is Labour MP for Sheffield Central and spoke in a Parliamentary debate on asylum seekers – this is an edited version.
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