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UNHCR appeals to UK to uphold its international legal obligations

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UNHCR appeals to UK to uphold its international legal obligations

13 December 2022
UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency logo

For decades, the United Kingdom has stood in solidarity with refugees and the communities around the world impacted by crises. Today’s announcements mark a troubling step away from that commendable humanitarian tradition.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, shares the UK Government’s concerns regarding irregular arrivals across the Channel. Many of the measures announced today are practical and constructive, particularly an intention to strengthen dialogue and cooperate more closely with the UK’s European neighbours. UNHCR has long advocated for the UK to strengthen and streamline procedures to address the asylum backlog and fairly and efficiently manage new applications. UNHCR welcomes measures to decide asylum claims promptly while ensuring appropriate safeguards and protection, and will continue to work closely with the Home Office in support of these efforts. Similarly, the announcement to step up returns of those found not to be in need of international protection is essential to a well-functioning asylum system. 

UNHCR also does not oppose designating countries as “safe countries of origin” as a procedural tool, provided that this follows a clear, transparent and accountable process. However, the designation must not lead to blanket rejections of applications for asylum purely on the basis of country of origin. An assessment of the merits of the individual claim is still required, which ensures all procedural safeguards including appeal rights.

However, providing protection and sanctuary to people fleeing war and persecution remains the cornerstone of the international refugee system. In limiting access to asylum to those arriving through ‘safe, legal routes’, today’s proposals go against the basic principles of international solidarity and responsibility-sharing upon which the 1951 Refugee Convention was founded. That framework endures as a lifesaving collective commitment between states.

“The announced proposal to first detain, and then either return asylum-seekers to their home countries, or transfer them to a third country would amount to a denial of access to the UK asylum system for those who arrive irregularly,” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs. “That approach would close down access to asylum in the UK for all but a few. This would likely result in refugees having no means to establish their status and place them at risk of forced return to unsafe countries, in breach of the Refugee Convention. It would also undermine the global refugee system at large and would be a violation of International Refugee Law.”

The adoption of such a policy by other countries would increase the already disproportionate responsibility held by low- and middle-income states, which are hosting the vast majority of refugees and asylum-seekers worldwide. UNHCR has repeatedly conveyed its deep concern regarding the Rwanda arrangement, which breaches international law and shifts the UK’s responsibilities onto a country already striving to manage existing responsibilities to a large refugee population from neighbouring countries.

UNHCR welcomes the plan to increase refugee resettlement to the UK. But resettlement cannot replace the international obligation to extend protection to asylum-seekers arriving in the UK and applying for protection directly.

UNHCR will continue to engage in discussions with the UK, which remains a valuable and long-standing partner to UNHCR, in order to find practical ways forward in line with UK’s international commitments.

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