Media Release

Advocates’ failure to grasp public concerns over asylum has given Home Office upper hand over reforms

Migrant rights charities and activists have failed to address public concerns that many people claiming asylum in the UK are not genuine refugees, a think-tank report says today.

The report from the Social Market Foundation argues that by failing to engage with public suspicions that many asylum claims are false, refugee rights groups have allowed the Government to pursue an agenda that exploits those doubts.

The SMF, a cross-party think-tank, argues that refugee rights groups and the Home Office have much to gain by seeking more common ground on immigration policy, developing a regime that more effectively removes unauthorised migrants from the UK while taking a more welcoming approach to more people in genuine need.

The SMF urges the two sides to resume their previous co-operation over an “assisted voluntary return” system where migrants who are in Britain without permission are given financial and other support to return to their home countries and rebuild their lives there.

The report follows the Home Office’s New Plan for Immigration, which promises to push the boundaries of United Nations rules on refugees to allow quicker expulsions of some migrants. The New Plan has been strongly criticised by many groups in the migrant rights sector. A consultation on the Plan closes on Thursday 06 May.

The SMF report is critical of a number of aspects of the Home Office plans, but urges migrant rights groups to understand and engage with the fact that many of the New Plan’s messages are likely to resonate with parts of the UK electorate worried about “bogus” asylum claims.

“The messaging of the New Plan is designed to exploit public perceptions and opinions on asylum which the sector has over many years failed to address, or often even engage with,” the SMF said.

The report cites Ipsos MORI polling (See notes) showing that 78% of voters believe that people should be able to take refuge in Britain to escape war or persecution. But the same polling shows that 51% (versus only 38% who take the opposing view) believe that most people claiming asylum in Britain are not genuine refugees and are in fact making false claims.

“The majority of the British public are disbelieving of the fact that most asylum seekers are in fact refugees. This is a problem for the refugee rights sector, but one that is compounded by the fact that advocates for the sector generally ignore it,” the SMF said.

Instead of challenging those doubts about asylum claims, refugee rights groups have sought sympathy for genuine refugees by highlighting emotive stories of their persecution and suffering, the SMF said, but questioned the effectiveness of that strategy for changing people’s minds.

“Telling stories about those who are refugees runs the risk of not moving the needle at all. You can read a moving story about an asylum seeker who has fled for their life and still hold the view that the majority of asylum seekers are not fleeing for their life.”, the SMF said.

The report also urges migrant rights groups to accept the need for an immigration regime that can more effectively remove unauthorised and undesirable migrants, as the basis for a regime that can command greater public confidence and support for those making asylum claims. Failing to do so allows ministers to amplify suspicions and conflate failed asylum claimants with foreign criminals.

The report cites the example of Albania, the second largest source of asylum claims to Britain. Some of those claims are genuine, while others are economic migrants, and some who have gained access to Britain have engaged in organised crime here.

Instead of taking a confrontational, binary approach to asylum and removals, refugee rights groups and the Home Office should resume co-operation on voluntary returns. For four years from 2011-2015, the Home Office contracted Refugee Action to run its Assisted Voluntary Return programme and levels of such returns rose.

The Home Office then reclaimed direct control over the programme from 2015 and these returns have since materially fallen, as have the numbers of enforced returns. In the New Plan the Government admits that it has a significant problem effecting returns.

Jonathan Thomas, the SMF’s migration researcher, said:

“By failing to engage with either the public’s scepticism of asylum seekers, or the problem of what to do about failed asylum seekers, the refugee rights sector has completely ceded the ground in this area to the Government. The New Plan for Immigration is the result of that retreat.

“If the Home Office chose to re-engage with the sector over AVR, the existing practical knowledge and experience within the UK could be leveraged to achieve not just increased returns, but also improved welfare of those returning, and increased public confidence in the system.”



  • For media enquiries, please contact Linus Pardoe, SMF Impact Officer, 07402 576995


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