Tony Blair considered sending asylum seekers to a camp on the Isle of Mull, documents reveal

‘We must not allow the ECHR to stop us dealing with [illegal migration],’ Sir Tony Blair said

Archie Mitchell
Friday 29 December 2023 00:01
Braverman says only solution to immigration 'problem' is to withdraw from ECHR

Tony Blair considered sending asylum seekers to a camp on the Isle of Mull to drive down the number entering the UK, according to official papers which have been newly released by The National Archives under the 20-year rule.

The plan, put forward by the former PM’s top aide, was part of a “nuclear option” for tackling the asylum issue, which would have seen some illegal migrants put straight back on the plane they arrived on with little or no right of appeal.

Drawn up just months before the US-UK invasion of Iraq, the scheme also called for the creation of a series of regional “safe havens” in countries such as Turkey and South Africa, where refugees who could not be returned to their own country could be sent.

Sir Tony Blair had plans for asylum seekers that look familiar 20 years later

Although in the event the scheme was not taken up, it echoes the debate still taking place more than 20 years later around Rishi Sunak’s plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

And it comes just weeks after controversial Tory deputy chairman Lee Anderson suggested sending asylum seekers to the Orkney Islands, adding that they would be “perfect” for people fleeing persecution.

Sir Tony also wanted to overrule the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to deport asylum seekers arriving in Britain, the papers showed.

He said the UK “must not allow the ECHR to stop us” sending migrants back to their home countries, even if they were at risk of persecution.

The ex-PM was increasingly frustrated at the growing number of asylum claims, which reached a monthly high of 8,800 in October 2002.

“We must search out even more radical measures,” Sir Tony scrawled in a handwritten note.

And after Home Office lawyers warned that the measures would fall foul of the Geneva Convention on refugees, an exasperated Sir Tony scrawled “just return them”. He added: “This is precisely the point. We must not allow the ECHR to stop us dealing with it.”

Elsewhere in the files, it was revealed that Sir Tony backed a plan to use returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece as a “bargaining chip” to boost support for London’s bid to host the Olympic Games.

Sir Tony wanted to use the Elgin Marbles as a ‘bargaining chip’ with Greece

As the host city in 2004, Athens was set to be consulted extensively by the International Olympic Committee on the suitability of the host city to be selected for 2012.

Lord Owen, the former SDP leader and foreign secretary, suggested “a quid pro quo” – reaching an agreement on the sculptures, controversially taken from the 2,500-year-old Parthenon in exchange for Greece backing Britain’s Olympic bid.

Sir Tony said that Lord Owen “has clout” and should negotiate with the Greeks.

However, there is no evidence that he was eventually contacted by No 10 and the proposals did not materialise.

On asylum, the papers showed Sir Tony’s Labour administration considered setting up a holding camp on the Isle of Mull in an attempt to drive down the numbers.

Jonathan Powell presented former PM Tony Blair with a ‘nuclear option’ for curbing illegal migration

Following a brainstorming session with senior officials and advisers, the prime minister’s chief of staff Mr Powell produced a paper entitled Asylum: The Nuclear Option, in which he questioned whether the UK needed an asylum system at all.

“As an island, people who come here by sea have by definition already passed through a safe country. And very few of those who apply at airports are genuine refugees,” he wrote.

“So in fact what we should be looking at is a very simple system that immediately returns people who arrive here illegally. Uttering the word ‘asylum’ should not allow people to opt out of this system and give them the right to remain here for months or years while their cases are heard.

“Ideally we should not have an asylum hearing at all, simply a decision by an immigration officer to return someone followed by a one-tier fast appeal against that decision if that is necessary.”

Mr Powell said that it should form part of “a big bang solution that would send a shock through the system”.

In particular, he pointed to the “great success” the Australians had had by housing all asylum seekers in one place, with many asking to be returned to their own country.

He said that officials in the office of the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, had suggested setting up a camp on the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides where people could be detained until they could be removed.

“I doubt that is going to work because of the nimby factor, but we have commissioned work to look at tagging, detention etc to help deter people and ensure we are able to return them as soon as their appeals have been heard,” Mr Powell wrote.

Other officials suggested claimants could be sent to the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles away in the south Atlantic.

Mr Powell said they were also looking at establishing a series of “safe havens” in Turkey, South Africa and Kenya, where asylum seekers from Iraq, Zimbabwe and Somalia could be sent.

The Foreign Office said it believed Turkey, in particular, could be persuaded to set up such a centre “quite rapidly” in return for financial assistance, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees would back such an approach.

Mr Powell said they should also legislate “incompatibly” with Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights to allow the removal of people at risk of persecution, even though it would be challenged by the court in Strasbourg.

“We would like to extend this to return any illegal immigrant regardless of the risk that they might suffer inhuman or degrading treatment,” he advised.

“We would almost certainly lose this case when it got to Strasbourg. But we would have two to three years in the meantime when we could send a strong message into the system about our new tough stance.

“And we would make clear that if we lost in Strasbourg we would denounce the ECHR and immediately re-ratify with a reservation on Article 3.”

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