Humanitarian groups and charities have reacted with fury to revelations that No 10 officials explored sending asylum seekers to offshore detention centres in Moldova, Morocco and south Atlantic islands, branding the move “morally bankrupt”.
A source close to the Home Office told the Guardian that the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, had become “obsessed with the Channel crossings” in the weeks before documents on the implications of the idea were produced in mid-September.
“He’s annoyed that it’s always in the press and he thinks it goes down really badly with the red wall voters, which it does,” the source said. “And he wants to deal with it. And he thinks these quite extreme ways would be totally fine with red wall voters, which it probably is.”
The documents seen by the Guardian suggest the government has for weeks been working on “detailed plans” that include cost estimates of building asylum detention camps on the south Atlantic islands of Ascension and St Helena, as well as Moldova, Morocco and Papua New Guinea.
Humanitarian groups and refugee charities condemned the proposals. The Amnesty International UK director, Kate Allen, said: “It is a dismal reflection upon Home Office ministers that this idea to effectively exile people seeking asylum to far-flung and isolated places has been given any consideration at all. This would be entirely immoral and inhumane.”
The chief executive of Refugee Action, Stephen Hale, said: “The government’s speculative plans to round up human beings and confine them to prison boats or camps on remote islands are inhumane and morally bankrupt … Britain is better than this. We need a fair and effective asylum system, based on compassion, safety, and the rule of law.”
Andy Hewett, head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, said: “The Australian model has shown that offshore detention leads to catastrophic outcomes, including high levels of self-harm and mental illness. It’s an immoral and inhumane policy.”
Minnie Rahman, public affairs and campaigns manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), said the proposals were “cruel and farcical”, adding: “These proposals are so ridiculous, they’re almost laughable.”
However, some Conservative MPs expressed support for the idea. Andrew Bridgen, the Tory MP for North West Leicestershire, said he had been a long-term supporter of offshore centres to hold asylum seekers.
He said: “This is a terrific idea and would be popular. I hope we use unused ferries and unused cruise ships. I have been suggesting this for a while. It would mean that the people who come here could not abscond and could be quickly assessed and considered for removal at speed.
“This could dissuade them from putting their lives in the hands of the ruthless people-traffickers.”
George Freeman, the Tory MP for Mid Norfolk, said: “With 50 million asylum seekers in the world, and forecasts of 1 billion global migrants as a result of climate change, the government is right to look at what a responsible, fair and sustainable asylum policy would be, to avoid the appalling scenes of refugees and victims of human trafficking flooding to claim asylum in the UK.”
A senior Whitehall source played down the possibility of an offshore centre ever being established, but said the idea had to be taken seriously because, as assumed, it comes with the backing of Johnson’s chief of staff.
“This is still at the ‘Dom’s brain fart’ stage. No one in government has as yet identified a place for an offshore centre; there have been no talks with other governments. But everyone has to kick the tyres, because it came from him,” the source said.
A Conservative source said the idea of offshore holding centres for migrants was raised by Oliver Letwin when the Conservatives were in opposition and under the leadership of David Cameron. “David and George [Osborne] rightly told him to have a cold shower,” the source said.
The documents reveal that trials had taken place of a blockade in the Channel similar to Australia’s controversial “turn back the boats” tactic. Seven thousand migrants have arrived in the UK in small boats across the Channel so far this year, according to PA Media analysis – more than three times the number of arrivals by this route in the whole of 2019.