Emad Al Swealmeen, who blew himself up in a taxi outside the Liverpool Women’s Hospital, is not believed to have been identified by security services as a terror suspect. Nevertheless, he should not have been in Britain. He lied about where he had come from, which ought to have been a red flag, enough in and of itself to warrant his return to his home country. Indeed, his application for asylum was rejected in 2014, but he was never removed.
Instead, he reinvented himself as a Christian convert, gaining himself time and grounds for appeal and last Sunday, on Remembrance Day, he attempted to commit what could easily have been a devastating attack. Only a closed road, the fact that the bomb partially detonated and the bravery of the taxi driver prevented a dramatic death toll.
Why does it take so long to remove failed asylum seekers from Britain? At present, there are around 40,000 people in this country who are ‘subject to removal action’, meaning their asylum claims have been rejected. Some will be flown back immediately, but more often than not the Home Office’s attempts to deport them are frustrated by long delays, numerous appeals and administrative incompetence.
Britain’s asylum system was one of the many casualties of lockdown. As the government machine slowly ceased working, claims stopped being processed and waiting times soared. Before the pandemic, the list was shamefully long: some 29,000 were waiting more than six months to have their case heard. This figure has now almost doubled to 54,000.
Even in cases where there is an obvious risk to national security it can take years before someone is removed from this country. Look at the bungled deportation of the radical cleric Abu Qatada. If the government does not address the issue of terrorists posing as refugees they risk creating enmity between genuine refugees and the public.
Britain has had no cause, historically, to think of asylum seekers as criminals or terrorists. The British government is now run by the offspring of refugees. The father of Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, sought asylum from Nazi persecution. The parents of the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, fled Idi Amin’s purge of Uganda’s Asians. The Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, arrived here as a child refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. They all went on to achieve what Michael Howard (another child of refugees) referred to as the British dream.
The rise of Islamist extremism has changed the picture. We know very well that there are Isis and al-Qaeda operatives who have exploited the asylum system, posing as refugees in order to gain access to Britain. The asylum system has to cope with that reality.
There is a great desire on the part of the British public to help those genuinely in fear for their lives, but this generous spirit will fail if we foster terrorists. Consent for the system rests on the system being managed well. It is imperative that bogus claims are dealt with quickly and firmly — and the likes of Al Swealmeen are not allowed to stay in the country for years, trying out various excuses and grounds for appeal.
Asylum seekers have been known to stretch the appeal process out for so long that they can eventually claim to have settled and have a right to a family life. If the system is so easy to game, it will be gamed.
Leaving the European Union ought to have made this process faster and fairer. It should have made it easier to root out those with a baseless claim. Instead, we have ended up with a complex and Byzantine system that makes Britain a magnet for corruption. Every day, people-traffickers move dozens of migrants across to the UK. So far this year, 15 have lost their lives making the journey over the Channel. One of the main attractions for people-smugglers is the dysfunctionality of the UK asylum appeals process. They can truthfully tell desperate men and women that those who make it ashore are unlikely to be deported. As one minister admitted this week, only five illegal migrants who came to Britain on small boats were returned this year. Our reputation for being a soft-touch country costs lives.
Too many children are caught up in this process as well. According to the Refugee Council, the number of children waiting more than a year to be processed has risen from 563 to 6,887 over the past decade alone. The number of asylum seekers fell sharply during lockdown, offering an ideal chance to clear the backlog. Instead, it grew to record lengths.
Many of these refugees and migrants will be keen to work and contribute to British society. But the shambolic state of the British asylum system means that they are stuck in an interminable wait while those who seek to game the system profit from its inadequacy.
In any large group of people there will be good and evil. But as we consider the lessons learned from this attempted atrocity we must ask why someone so unsuited to staying in Britain was allowed to spend so much time hidden in the system. Thorough reform is needed.