The chair of the Commons home affairs select committee, Yvette Cooper, has demanded an “urgent correction and explanation” from Priti Patel after EU member states contradicted the home secretary’s suggestion they were negotiating separate deals on asylum seekers with the UK.
Patel told the committee on July 21 that she was in “active discussions with EU member states on bilateral arrangements” for the return of asylum seekers who had arrived in the UK. She specifically mentioned the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France.
The issue is critical because the UK’s policy is that migrants should be forced to seek asylum in any “safe” third countries through which they have passed to reach the UK.
Since the start of this year, the Home Office has routinely refused to consider asylum claims from people that it believes passed through any “safe” country.
Post-Brexit, the UK has no arrangement with the EU or any of its member state to return asylum seekers, which leaves anyone whose claims are considered ineligible by the UK in limbo.
Official figures show that in the first quarter of this year the Home Office ruled 1,503 applicants for asylum were ineligible because they came via a safe country but none were successfully returned.
While some aspects of asylum policy, such as the handling of family reunification applications, are left to EU member states, the European Commission has long regarded overall asylum policy as its responsibility. Patel has nevertheless repeatedly said she would pursue bilateral deals with individual states.
When pressed on this issue by the committee, Patel said she would not give a “running commentary” on progress on returns agreements but said the UK was in discussions with “a whole range of countries around the world”.
The home secretary said it was “important to recognise” that the UK was in “active discussions with EU member states on bilateral arrangements,” adding: “I have spent a great deal of time with the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Last night I was speaking to my French counterpart as well.”
But the Netherlands’ ministry of justice and security told the Financial Times it was not engaged in the process of making bilateral agreements with the UK for the return of “irregular migrants”. It said: “We want to make such agreements within the European framework.”
The ministry added that it was nevertheless engaged in a “constructive dialogue” with the UK about how to end irregular migration.
Bruno van der Pluijm, Belgium’s ambassador in London, confirmed his government was also discussing ways to combat people smuggling with the UK.
But he said: “When it comes to return agreements . . . I can also confirm that there are no such talks taking place with Belgium.”
Germany’s interior ministry said its fundamental position was that it did not comment on the content or progress of any talks it undertook.
It added that in any discussions with third countries outside the EU it was always careful to “respect the boundary” between the responsibilities of a member state and those of the EU.
A French diplomat indicated there was no change to the country’s view that migrant return issues were a matter for the European Commission, not member states.
Cooper, a Labour MP, said the committee expected to receive “accurate information” from all witnesses, “especially government ministers”.
She added: “The home secretary implied that the department is in active discussion with the Netherlands, as well as other EU member states, on bilateral returns agreements. If this is not the case, then we expect urgent correction and explanation.”
The Home Office insisted Patel’s words had been misconstrued.
“We reject this implication entirely,” it said. “The home secretary made clear we do not provide a running commentary on returns agreements and highlighted how we are engaging with international partners to deal with illegal migration.”