Did David Blunkett propose sending asylum seekers abroad in 2004?

22 April 2022
What was claimed

On the government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, David Blunkett proposed the policy first in 2004.

Our verdict

Proposals for would-be asylum seekers to the EU to be processed in centres outside the EU were pitched to member states by then-Home Secretary David Blunkett in 2003. But those plans were quite different to the government’s new plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

I was slightly taken aback for the Government to be criticised over the policy that we have devised to end the deaths at sea in the Channel as a result of cruel criminal gangs[…]Do you know who proposed that policy first of all, in 2004? It was David Blunkett, who said, yes it was, it was a 21st century solution to the problems of illegal asylum-seeking and immigration.

We’ve been asked by a reader to look into a claim made by Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions that the former Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett, first proposed a policy similar to the current government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The government has recently announced that those entering the UK illegally could be sent to Rwanda while their asylum claims were processed and, if successful, would be supported in setting up life in Rwanda, rather than returning to the UK.

But it’s not totally clear which Labour government plan Mr Johnson was referring to.

In 2003, Lord Blunkett reportedly presented to the European Commission a plan to send asylum seekers to processing centres outside the EU, either before they got to the country they wanted to seek asylum in, or once they had arrived in the EU. 

And in 2004, the Home Office was reportedly in talks with Tanzania to send failed Somali asylum seekers from Britain to Tanzania, and for some asylum seekers to be housed there while their applications were processed in the UK. 

Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair said at the time: “I honestly cannot understand the objection to seeing whether it is possible, if people are going to make asylum claims and begin their asylum journey close to the country of origin, to try to process some of those claims there.”

While all three plans involve processing asylum seekers outside of the UK, a significant difference is that both Labour plans would have successful applicants relocated to the UK, while the government’s plan would have them stay in Rwanda. 

We compare the plans below.

As for the Prime Minister’s claim that Lord Blunkett called this “a 21st-century solution to the problems of illegal asylum seeking and immigration”, this may come from a comment he made in 2003.

Following a meeting with EU member states about the plan in 2003, the Times reported that Lord Blunkett had said: “We had a serious discussion of the challenges we all face in finding a 21st century solution to asylum issues.”

Full Fact asked Lord Blunkett what he thought of the Prime Minister’s comparisons after this week’s PMQs. 

He said that he’d also “looked at a system for processing appeals for failed asylum seekers in other safe countries but rejected it as impractical”.

He also pointed to the Gateway programme in partnership with the UN that resettled vulnerable refugees in the UK, which was launched in 2004.

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What happened to the Labour plans?

The 2003 plan was eventually ditched by the UK. In a 2004 report on human rights, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it was no longer pursuing transit processing centres.

It added: “There was little support [amongst EU member states, third countries and international organisations] for our proposals for transit processing centres which would involve governments sending asylum seekers to centres in third countries in order to have their asylum claims processed.”

The Tanzania plan was also never implemented, after it was reportedly rejected by the Tanzanian government.

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