There is nothing new under the sun. The idea of opening an asylum processing centre on the British overseas territory of Ascension Island has been knocking around for 20 years, but reports in today’s papers suggest it is suddenly all the rage again. Ministers are scrambling to find a ‘plan B’ in case the Supreme Court confirms the Appeal Court’s controversial view that the long-delayed Rwanda policy is unlawful.
Way back in 2005, the Conservatives made a commitment in their manifesto that ‘asylum seekers’ applications will be processed outside Britain’. In the run up to that year’s election, Mark Reckless, then a researcher at Conservative Central Office, conducted a scoping exercise to identify a site for overseas processing. Ascension Island came out top of his list. But it turned out that the answer to Michael Howard’s question to the electorate ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ was ‘no’. The Tories lost the election, and the policy was later ditched by David Cameron.
The Ascension Island plan was revived three years ago by Priti Patel when she was a home secretary looking for a way to stem the flow of small boats. But the Treasury blocked it on cost grounds, ruling that the required investment in the island’s power supply and new desalination facilities would prove exorbitant.
That these financial worries have gone away is a measure of the priority the government has had to give to the small boats issue. It’s under massive pressure from those who voted Tory in 2019 but are not presently inclined to do so again. A month ago, on these very pages, I called for the Ascension plan to be revived to form the core of a new ‘Port Refuge’ policy that would offer indefinite shelter to illegal migrants well away from the UK, and would help find them permanent resettlement elsewhere.