Home Office officials admitted on Thursday they did not know whether the UK would still be able to return asylum-seekers to EU countries where they had previously lived or sought asylum after Britain’s Brexit transition period expires at the end of the year.
The officials’ remarks, made to MPs on the home affairs committee, come as the number of migrants making the hazardous crossing of the Channel in small boats from France has risen sharply this summer. Unofficial estimates show 400 migrants made the crossing on September 2 — a record for a single day.
Under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, participating countries can send back people claiming asylum on their territory to another member state if there is proof the claimant either previously claimed asylum in that state or lived there for five months or more.
However, the regulation will no longer apply to the UK when it completes its post-Brexit transition period on December 31. So far no replacement rule has been agreed with the EU as a whole or with any individual country. The regulation lightens the burden on the UK’s immigration system because many migrants arrive in the UK via EU countries that end up being obliged to take them back.
Tyson Hepple, the Home Office’s director for immigration enforcement, told Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs committee, that the UK would no longer be “bound by” the Dublin Regulation rules after December 31. But he said he would have to write to the committee later to outline how that would affect the UK’s ability to return migrants to the EU.
“Clearly, we’re watching the negotiations with interest,” Mr Hepple said.
Ms Cooper said she was “slightly surprised” that Mr Hepple had no answer to her question. He replied: “I don’t know. I’ll have to let you know.”
Abi Tierney, director-general of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) at the Home Office, also told Ms Cooper that she had no answer. “I don’t — sorry,” she told the MPs.
Dan O’Mahoney, appointed last month as Clandestine Channel Threat Commander to end migrant crossings, told Ms Cooper that the UK wanted to negotiate new bilateral deals to ensure returns of migrants could continue. But he conceded that talks were yet to start.
“We want to start the conversation as soon as possible,” Mr O’Mahoney said.
The committee heard that 11 migrants, including some whose removal was halted last week because of protests from immigration lawyers, were flown to Spain on Thursday morning. The flight took place despite a last-minute appeal from lawyers that ended at 2am.
Figures presented to the committee showed how losing the ability to return migrants to the EU countries they landed in on arrival in Europe could affect the UK immigration system.
Ms Tierney said UKVI had considered about half the record 5,000 claims lodged by people arriving on small boats so far this year. The department had rejected 10 per cent of those claims and accepted that 20 per cent of the claimants had shown they were fleeing genuine danger or persecution.
However, the body had refused the remainder — which she put at 71 per cent — on the grounds that an EU member state should consider them. The UK was now seeking to return those migrants to the countries it regarded as responsible, Ms Tierney told the committee.
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