Hotel accommodation is expensive and inefficient as a system for managing migration flows to the UK. Alternative facilities might be somewhat cheaper – the Home Office puts the cost of hotel rooms at £6m a day – but that is not the only reason why Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, on Wednesday announced a plan to house migrants on barges and military bases .
There is a special political urgency conjured by the word hotel, which has associations of leisure and luxury. That misconception was cynically amplified on Wednesday by the justice secretary, Dominic Raab, when he spoke of migrants being put up in “plush hotels at taxpayers’ expense”.
The reality is cramped, insecure, penurious limbo, awaiting permission to begin a new life while dreading deportation to the old one. It might be less austere and degrading than a boat or barracks, but extra discomfort is an explicit purpose of the move. The rationale, beyond the marginal cost saving, is deterrence.
Making conditions unpleasant for new arrivals is supposed to reduce their numbers by making Britain unattractive as a destination. There is no evidence that this works. People fleeing war and destitution put their faith in the UK as a place of opportunity with basic standards of humane treatment. The global pattern is migration from repressive regimes to free ones.
To stop Britain being a magnet for migrants, the government’s plan, taken to its logical conclusion, would require destroying the economy and abandoning democracy. That is not the policy (or not its intention). Instead, the Conservatives imagine there is a way to degrade the system that deals with new arrivals without discarding the values that make the country an attractive place to live for everyone else. They are mistaken.
There are migrants in hotels because the Home Office has neglected the task of assessing asylum claims. At the end of last year, there were 166,261 unprocessed cases. The number of people waiting for a decision has increased by 408% since 2017. Instead of resourcing a functional policy, the government has insisted that ever more draconian controls will stop the movement of people.
The illegal immigration bill currently in parliament is the latest and most vicious iteration of that approach. Proposals to automatically invalidate the claims of anyone who arrives by an illegal route, in the absence of legal ones, will increase the numbers in limbo. It will thus generate more, and more open-ended, demand for accommodation – internment, in other words. This policy, a breach of the UK’s obligations to refugees under international law, is also advertised as a deterrent to small-boat crossings. It too will fail. The most common countries of origin last year were Albania, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. Asylum is granted to more than 80% of those fleeing failed or repressive states.
From their perspective, Britain would have to be a war zone or a dictatorship to lose its status as a potential place for sanctuary. Here is the core of the problem. Ministers cannot develop a workable policy for refugees when their (unfounded) assumption is that most claims are in bad faith and their political imperative is signaling hostility and pandering to prejudice. But one day the realization will have to dawn in the Home Office that the way to a more efficient asylum policy starts with the premise that asylum seekers are human beings, and that Britain is a country that respects their plight and their rights.