‘Britain should not copy Australia’s morally abominable asylum ideas’

Britain should not copy Australia’s “morally abominable” off-shore asylum system under any circumstances with “ludicrous and inhumane” ideas like sending migrants to Ascension Island, a human rights lawyer has said.

Sonya Sceats, who is also the chief executive of charity Freedom from Torture, said she was “totally horrified” by a series of leaks which suggested the British Government was considering ideas based on the approach her home country Australia takes towards asylum seekers.

These are said to include processing asylum seekers on Ascension Island – some 4,000 miles from the UK – or turning disused ferries out at sea into processing centres.

A leaked document also suggested the Government launched a secret consultation on building floating walls to block migrants from crossing the English Channel.

Ms Sceats told the PA news agency: “This is Britain and we can do better than that.

“I was, as an Australian, totally horrified to see us looking to Australia’s morally abominable off-shore asylum system as a template for this country.”

Asylum applications
Asylum applications

Her comments came after the Home Office’s most senior civil servant, permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft, repeatedly refused to deny claims the Government had “seriously” considered suggestions on using Ascension Island when questioned by MPs.

Ms Sceats, who grew up in Australia and worked as a human rights lawyer specialising in asylum, said: “These ideas are just ludicrous and preposterous and deeply inhumane.”

She claimed Australia’s off-shore system led to deaths, child abuse scandals, was “preposterously expensive” and has “trashed Australia’s reputation as a fair-go country”, adding: “For Britain to be looking to these kinds of solutions is the wrong way forward.

“Britain mustn’t go down this path under any circumstances and there are so many sensible solutions.”

Speaking 20 years after the Human Rights Act came into force in the UK, she accused the Government of “dreaming up some of the most inhumane asylum ideas that we have ever heard in this country” and called for ministers and officials to instead consider other “sensible and humane policy solutions which were staring the Government directly in the face”.

Ms Sceats urged the Government to consider co-operating with France so claims can be lodged before asylum seekers attempt to cross the Channel to the UK, and highlighted programmes already in place, like the resettlement scheme.

The Comfrey Project is a safe and welcoming community space for refugees and asylum seekers who find themselves worlds away from home, family and friends after their journey to safety.

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— Freedom from Torture (@FreefromTorture) October 2, 2020

But this has been suspended since March because of the coronavirus pandemic despite calls for it to start operating again.

The difficulty in housing asylum seekers while they wait for their claim to be processed, and sharing this responsibility around the country, is the problem rather than the numbers of people arriving, Ms Sceats said, adding that the charity has found many communities keen to help.

Describing Australia as a “terrible example of where whipping up fears about border control has poisoned the politics of a country for a generation”, she claimed the British Government were using similar tactics now and said the impacts of this are already being felt.

Citing concerns over reports of far-right groups targeting hotels where asylum seekers were being housed during the crisis, she claimed the Government was “saying nothing to condemn this”.

She also suggested the British Government may be manufacturing a crisis about migrants in the Channel when “in fact, the number of asylum seekers in this country is plummeting at the moment”, to “prompt hysteria” in an attempt to divert headlines “away from their disastrous Covid response, from looming battles over Brexit, in order to give them a little bit of political cover”.

“But they are scapegoating asylum seekers and it is totally unacceptable,” she added.