What have we learned from the recent rash of stories about Priti Patel’s decision to investigate setting up migration and asylum processing facilities on some of the UK’s more remote Atlantic possessions, St Helena and Ascension Island?
On the face of it, not all that much. Australia’s immigration system has loomed large in the British imagination for ages, and apart from the totemic ‘points-based immigration system’ one of the central planks of that system is offshore processing – in Australia’s case on the Manus Islands in Papua New Guinea and the tiny state of Nauru.
From the Government’s perspective, such a system has its advantages. It makes it harder for people in the system (or especially, who have been rejected) to slip the net and disappear into the population. It might perhaps also avoid complications that arise from trying to turn people away who have actually made it to British soil. And it is also, apparently, pretty popular with the public.
Even better, from the perspective of trying to find ‘wedge issues’ on which to fight the culture war, the plan has outraged all the right people. One doubts ministers will be too upset at headlines of the Opposition accusing them of being too tough on immigration.
Another reason we haven’t learned much is that this isn’t going to be official policy. The Ascension Island plan, like the more outlandish stuff about ‘wave machines’, was only ever a suggestion being explored, rather than a concrete proposal. Even without objections in principle, those particular toeholds of the Empire are likely too far away to be practical (although the Daily Mail reports that nearer-hand offshore options, including some of the British Islands or even disused ferries and oil rigs, were also considered).
It is almost inevitable that any ‘blue-sky’ thinking session is going to produce ideas that are impractical, embarrassing, or both. Indeed, if it doesn’t then people probably haven’t been getting into the spirit of the exercise. What we have learned, therefore, is that someone in the Home Office has decided to leak this stuff to the press.
One can just about imagine the Overseas Territories proposal being leaked by someone trying to look tough on immigration, but the presence of the rest suggests it wasn’t someone with Patel’s best interests at heart. This won’t do anything to improve the already fraught relationship between the Government and its officials.