Sir David Davis writes on why he opposes government plans for offshore processing of asylum applications


As published in The Daily Telegraph:

Recent weeks have seen thousands of migrants crossing the Channel hoping to start a new life in Britain.

This year alone, over 25,000 people have made this dangerous journey. This week, we saw those dangers result in the tragic deaths of more than 30 people in the Channel.

It should be no surprise that Britain is seen as the golden ticket; we are economically prosperous, politically stable, and most importantly, a country with a long history of freedoms.

In recent centuries, we have continually built a country with a proud tradition of protecting and respecting individual freedoms; a quality that those fleeing oppressive dictatorships and religious extremism rightly consider a beacon in the darkness.

Part of that freedom was expressed in the 2016 referendum when we voted to take back control of our borders and immigration policy.

It is perfectly reasonable that as a sovereign nation, we want complete control of our border system to attract those who contribute to our society.

Whether physicists or plumbers, carers or chief executives, we want the best and the brightest in Britain.

However, as observers across the political spectrum have noted, the current asylum system is broken.

It rewards smuggling gangs who prey upon the desperate and punishes those with genuine needs through bureaucratic complexity.

We must find a system that destroys the criminal network underpinning this crisis, that vigorously pursues enhanced cooperation with the French and other European parties, and distinguishes properly between economic migrants and those fleeing persecution. The Home Secretary looks to be entirely committed to these approaches.

Unfortunately, many proposed solutions to the problem sacrifice long-term values for short-term expediency.

We have heard calls for “identity cards”, removal of “appeal rights”, and “offshore processing” as the silver bullet to a complex situation.

These are wholly inappropriate, draconian, and profoundly un-conservative responses that would sacrifice the very freedoms we should be trying to defend.

Sadly, the Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill seeks to adopt some of these unworkable ideas.

Take, for example, the idea of offshore detention centres. Clause 28, Schedule 3 of the Bill grants the Home Office the legal powers that would enable the creation of an offshore processing system.

We’ve been here before.

Back when I became Shadow Home Secretary in 2003, it was party policy to implement offshoring, known then as ‘Fantasy Island’.

I found it to be impractical, inhumane, and illogical. Consequently, it was removed as policy.

Today, the Government looks toward the programme introduced by the Australian government in 2013; its scope would allow children, modern slavery victims, and torture survivors to be housed offshore.

While the Australian system may appeal to some, the reality is that it led to some terrible consequences.

It was largely ineffective at stopping the boats and caused well-documented death and human misery. Detention offshore was indefinite, while suicide and sexual and physical abuse was common. Not to mention that children self-harmed at an extraordinary rate.

Five years ago, newspapers reported extensively on over 2,000 cases of abuse in the Australian offshore system.

Whether assaults, sexual abuse, or self-harm attempts, more than half of those reports involved children. That was despite children being less than one-fifth of all those detained.

If this were to happen on our watch, it would rightly prey on our conscience for many years.

In addition, the University of New South Wales found that the Australian Government’s own estimates concluded that the system cost near eight billion Australian Dollars, or £4.3 billion over seven years.

Directly applying the cost of the Australian offshoring system to the 25,000 migrants who have crossed the Channel this year alone would leave the British taxpayer with an estimated £34.5 billion bill. That is 25 times higher than our current system, costing £1.4bn annually, or £11,819 per person.

Even if an equivalent British system didn’t match pro-rata the Australian system, every estimate shows it would be much more expensive than the current system.

However, it is not just the deeply flawed economics; this measure may also mean that genuine political refugees such as Afghan interpreters may also face this terrible ordeal.

Back in August, the House of Commons was unanimous that despite the military disaster in Afghanistan, we would not forget those who risked everything to help our service personnel or those who are now fleeing terror and persecution.

This proposed system risks doing just that and completely abandoning those we owe a duty of care to.

That would be a complete betrayal of our moral responsibilities. Then there are the practical questions of location.

Albania is rumoured as a possible location. Despite press speculation, the Albanian Foreign Minister, Olta Xhaçka, described the report as “embarrassing” and “fake news”.

Another suggestion was Gibraltar, but again that government strongly rejected the reports saying there was “no truth” in the rumours.

A final alternative put forward was Ghana. Like Albania and Gibraltar, the Ghanaian Ministry of Foreign Affairs refuted the suggestion, declaring “Ghana has no such intentions.” Where next, Belarus?

The offshore system would be an economic and moral failure that lacks any coherent policy foundation; it is that simple.

That is why I have tabled an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill that stops this ill-conceived idea from taking shape.

This crisis requires an effective response. We should be learning from Australia’s successes like their points system, rather than their failures.

The Australians themselves have accepted the flaws in offshore processing. They have scrapped their processing centre in Papua New Guinea and have not sent any new asylum seekers to Nauru since 2014.

Instead, they now push back the small boats into international waters. Their methods are rather harsh – leaving migrants in the middle of an ocean to be picked up by other countries.

Unlike Australia, we do not have to leave potentially unseaworthy vessels in the middle of an ocean.

Done right, the proximity of France to the UK, and advanced surveillance technology, allows us to spot in advance any attempts to cross the channel and gives us the origin of the small boats. We have to work with the French to return those boats to their point of origin and prevent dangerous and deadly crossings.

After the tragic events of the last few days, it is hard to imagine that every country involved in this will not strain every sinew to prevent this from happening again.

No one should pretend this is an easy fix, but it is much, much better and far more humane than some of the proposals currently before Parliament.

Too many advocates of these schemes falsely equate harsh treatment with good government. This is not good policy and is not even good politics.

The events of the last few days should remind us that public opinion on immigration can change overnight, as we saw with the tragic death of Alan Kurdi.

I would not want to see reports of deaths and mistreatment in some offshore facility beyond the reach of our laws come back to haunt us in the coming years.

I believe that this Government can deliver a coherent and effective response to this crisis, but it has to be one which embraces, rather than sacrifices our hard-won liberties.