In March, Priti Patel, the British home secretary, announced people seeking protection as refugees in the United Kingdom will—for the first time—have their claims assessed based on how they arrived in the country. The government will seek to remove asylum-seekers who entered the U.K. after first passing through “safe countries.”
Migrants who enter in ways deemed illegal and cannot be removed will receive a new temporary protection status rather than an automatic right to settle and will be regularly reassessed for removal from the U.K. People entering illegally will also be further punished with limited family reunion rights and limited access to benefits. Under the new plan, migrants who come to the country through a safe and legal resettlement route—such as the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme—will, conversely, attain indefinite leave to remain immediately.
It has been deemed the biggest overhaul of an immigration system in decades. Yet the changes—which essentially create a two-tier system where those who are able to access safe and legal resettlement routes are rewarded and those who can’t are punished—ignore what might become the biggest driver of future migration: climate change.
While data on migrants who go missing en route to their destinations is systematically tracked by organizations, such as the International Organization for Migration, less information is available about what happens to asylum-seekers when they arrive. Over the years, numerous unaccompanied minors seeking refuge in the U.K. have disappeared. Statistics on missing asylum-seekers are based largely on anecdotal evidence and have varied from the hundreds to the thousands. Evidence consistently points, however, to a need for the United Kingdom’s Home Office to improve waiting times linked with processing and resettlement decisions to help reduce vulnerable asylum seekers—often unaccompanied children—being exploited by gangs and traffickers.
Waiting times are likely to increase following Brexit given that previous arrangements, such as the Dublin Regulation, no longer apply to the U.K. In the past, this rule allowed the U.K. to return some asylum-seekers to EU member states without considering their asylum claims. The regulations also allowed a legal route for reuniting separated asylum-seekers with family members in the U.K. New plans to replace such mechanisms, including shipping asylum-seekers to new areas for processing such as the Isle of Man, Gibraltar, and the Scottish islands, have been denied by the government. Yet a lack of return agreements to transit countries makes any new regulations difficult to enforce and risks increasing the uncertainty migrants face while they await the results of their asylum claims.
It is important for the U.K. to get its immigration system right, and it has struggled with this in the past. In 2018, the Windrush scandal saw the British government apologize for mistaken deportations, detentions, and deportation threats made to Commonwealth citizens’ children, who, despite living and working in the U.K. for decades, were told they were there illegally because of a lack of official paperwork.
Following Beijing’s imposition of a punitive national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020, the British government more recently introduced a visa to allow those from Hong Kong with British National Overseas (BNO) status to live and work in the U.K. for five years and eventually apply for citizenship. Yet the scheme, which doesn’t apply to those born after 1997, has been criticized for excluding many young people involved in protests against the national security law. They will instead be forced to seek asylum, which is a less certain process and involves the lengthy waiting times that come with it.
The immigration system’s recent overhaul would have been a good opportunity for collaborative thinking about the impact that future issues, such as climate change, will have on migration. After all, the U.K. will co-host the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference with Italy. Once again, the government missed an opportunity. The difference between asylum-seeking and migration processes is likely to grow when, like other developed countries, the U.K. prepares for a shift in large-scale human migration facilitated by resource scarcity and extreme weather events.
The current system of international law is not equipped to protect the new category of climate migrants who have been largely invisible in migration and climate debates for many years. With greater climate hazards occurring as a consequence of climate change—including, but not limited to, rising sea levels, wildfires, ocean acidification, desertification, loss of biodiversity, and reduced agricultural yields—many regions have become, and are becoming, largely unlivable.
Climate migrants already exist, with those in Pacific island states like Kiribati and Tuvalu being displaced due to rising sea levels and farmers in West Africa being forced to leave their land because of droughts and flooding. At present, no multilateral strategy or legal framework exists to account for climate change as a driver of migration.
There has been much debate on whether to include climate migrants by granting them the status of refugees under the definition provided by the 1951 Refugee Convention or to create a new convention to protect climate migrants. Yet as severe climate change displaces more people, the problem will be increasingly difficult for the international community to ignore.
Like other countries, the U.K. could benefit from adopting a change in perspective from what it has become accustomed to—asylum-seeking because of political conflicts—to a model of large-scale human migration due to resource scarcity and climate disasters.
After all, climate change and conflict are not mutually exclusive. The climate, migration, and security nexus has been cited as key to explaining the effectiveness of financial recruiting strategies by groups like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, and Morocco, separated by the Sahara Desert, are linked by existing international migration routes to Europe. Within the region, seasonal labor migration is widespread, particularly in areas vulnerable to rainfall fluctuations. The destabilizing effects of climate change therefore connect to security and conflict-reduction efforts within this region as well.
Although climate migrants who flee unstable conditions resemble refugees, international legislation does not recognize them as such. Unlike individuals fleeing war or persecution who may eventually seek to return to their home countries when it is deemed safe to do so, climate migrants may have nowhere left to return to. Islands within Micronesia, for example, have shrunk in size and had their water and food security greatly threatened. While it is difficult to attribute climate change as the sole factor for migration, the individuals fleeing such circumstances go where they can rather than where they should.
The U.K. should have the foresight to ensure climate migrants are defined as asylum-seekers and not economic migrants. At the moment, policy has not yet caught up with reality. Furthermore, instead of focusing just on the end point of the asylum-seeking process, the U.K., along with the rest of the international community, could benefit from focusing on what’s pushing people to migrate.
This could include, for example, bolstering climate resilience in countries where people are being displaced by the impacts of climate change. Climate resilience projects in countries should be prioritized to reduce migration pressures, including multilateral and international arrangements to support irrigation infrastructure, regional water cooperation, and improving livelihoods through better targeted development aid. For example, better funding of sea wall development in Kiribati is needed to reduce the impact of rising sea levels and thus reduce the need for people to migrate in the first place.
Finally, there is the issue of work. As it stands, there is a ban on working for almost everyone in the asylum system while they wait months, and often years, for a decision on their asylum claims.
Instead, all asylum-seekers who have been waiting more than six months for their claim to be processed should be allowed to work. This would strengthen their chances of being able to integrate into their new communities, allow people seeking asylum to provide for themselves and their families, and help challenge forced labor and exploitation.
Such sensible policies would allow the U.K government to go beyond its goal of reducing the number of asylum-seekers arriving spontaneously and act early on the even more pressing issue of climate migration.
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