Blair government's 'nuclear option’ to tag asylum seekers and put them on Isle of Mull

Newly released archives show aide to former prime minister in 2003 suggested 'Big Bang' policy to deal with illegal migrants

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair wrote in 2003 that he was seeking 'radical measures' to reduce asylum claims. PA Wire
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Former British prime minister Tony Blair’s government was proposing to tag asylum seekers and detain them on the Isle of Mull in Scotland in what it called “the nuclear option”, newly released archives have revealed.

The government documents, released by the National Archives office in Kew, south-west London, show how 20 years ago Mr Blair was also wrestling to find a solution to deal with the asylum situation and looking at extreme options.

This comes as the current government is seeking to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, while last month deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Lee Anderson suggested they could be housed on the Scottish Orkney Islands.

He claimed the archipelago would be “perfect” for people fleeing persecution.

The 2003 plan, put forward by one of Mr Blair's closest aides Jonathan Powell, was part of a “big bang solution” for tackling the asylum issue. This would have seen 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.

The proposals reflect Mr Blair’s frustration that “ever-tougher controls” in northern France had not had an impact on the number of asylum claims – which reached a new monthly high of 8,800 in October 2002.

Blair wanted 'radical measures' to tackle asylum issue

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

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.

“Ideally, we shouldn’t have an asylum system hearing at all. Simply a decision by an immigration officer to return someone followed by a one tier fast appeal against the decision if necessary. But even if we had such a perfect system, we would still face the practical problem of proving who individuals are and where they came from,” he wrote.

He suggested looking at 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.

The Scottish First Minister, Humza Yousaf, on Friday the condemned plans considered by Mr Blair’s government as “disparaging and divisive”.

Mr Yousaf said they showed that both Labour and the Conservatives were using immigration as a “really dirty word”.

He told journalists in Glasgow: “It is disappointing that both Labour and the Conservatives, as these files have shown, have engaged in a race to the bottom when it comes to the issue of immigration.

“We should have a humane asylum system, a migration system that helps us to fill the vacancies that we have in this country because they [migrants] contribute more than they give.”

Mr Yousaf also claimed the comments about the Isle of Mull were “disparaging” to islanders, with the proposals treating rural Scotland as a dumping ground.

“It’s also very disparaging to Scotland – and to those on the Isle of Mull or elsewhere – to suggest that, ‘well, let’s just fling people in the far reaches of the country and forget about them, and leave them there’,” he said.

And he raised concerns that an incoming Labour government might look to adapt the plans.

Mr Yousaf said the party's leader Keir Starmer had failed to deliver a “wholesale rejection” of the Prime Minister’s Rwanda plans amid suggestions that Labour’s alternative plans would include “tweaks” such as processing asylum applications overseas.

“People on the ground, the public, take their lead from political leadership and if the political leadership is talking about migration as a dirty word, fanning the flames of that tension around migration, then it’s hardly surprising it becomes a divisive issue as opposed to actually looking at the issue from a common sense perspective,” Mr Yousaf added.

Other officials had suggested claimants could be sent to the Falkland Islands – almost 13,000km away in the South Atlantic.

According to the newly-released archives, Mr Powell said they were also looking at establishing a series of “safe havens” in Turkey, South African 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.

“There would be no grounds for appeal if asylum seekers were sent back to such centres in safe countries and we could ship them straight back from arrival centres,” Mr Powell wrote.

Blair government planned to 'denounce' ECHR

Mr Powell said they should also legislate “incompatibly” with Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights to allow the removal people despite the 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 human 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.”

Home Office lawyers warned that the measures would fall foul of the Geneva Convention on refugees.

Mr Blair described the asylum system as “mad” and scrawled “just return them”, adding: “This is precisely the point. We must not allow the ECHR to stop us dealing with it.”

Blair backed return of Elgin Marbles

In other files released, documents showed Mr Blair responded enthusiastically to a proposal to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece in an attempt to boost support for London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

His advisers believed the Marbles – also known as the Parthenon Sculptures – could be a “powerful bargaining chip”.

However, they warned any attempt to reach a sharing agreement with Athens could face stiff resistance due to the “blinkered intransigence” of the British Museum, where they had been housed since 1832.

The return of the Marbles, taken from the 2,500-year-old Parthenon in Athens by the Scottish peer Lord Elgin, has been a long-standing demand of the Greeks.

With the approach of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the campaign was entering “a more energetic phase” with the Greeks hoping to make them the central exhibit in a new Acropolis museum, which they planned to open to coincide with the start of the games.

In a letter to a senior Cabinet Office official, Lord Owen, the former SDP leader and foreign secretary, said he had discussed the idea with the Greek culture minister who confirmed that as the host city, Athens would be consulted extensively by the International Olympic Committee on the suitability of the next host city to be selected for 2012.

“It would not be difficult to get the Greeks to put their support behind a London bid for 2012 as a quid pro quo (for agreement on the Marbles), given that Paris is competing and the Greeks might normally go for the French,” he wrote.

He warned that if nothing was done, the Greeks would seek to “manipulate” the issue when their games took place.

“The Marbles could be a powerful bargaining chip in IOC vote building for a 2012 Olympic bid. The publicity attached to this move could secure the Greek nomination and help garner a wide range of other IOC votes,” Sarah Hunter, an adviser on culture, media and sport, wrote.

She warned however that only the museum’s trustees had the power to make such an agreement and they were likely to be strongly opposed to the idea.

“There is much suspicion within the (British Museum) about the Greeks’ motives: the trustees and the director remain firmly of the view that, once the Marbles are back on Greek soil, the government will pay any price to retain them there, leaving the British Museum with a hole at the centre of their collection,” she wrote.

“The British Museum – and the wider museums and galleries community – fear this will set a precedent that might result in more, equally significant losses in the future.”

Nevertheless, Mr Blair liked the idea, suggesting Lord Owen should be entrusted with the negotiations with the Greeks.

“He has clout and could probably help with the BM while distancing it a little from government,” he wrote in a handwritten note.

Updated: December 29, 2023, 4:35 PM