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UNHCR: UK asylum bill would break international law, damaging refugees and global co-operation

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UNHCR: UK asylum bill would break international law, damaging refugees and global co-operation

23 September 2021

LONDON - As it stands, the UK Nationality and Borders Bill would penalise most refugees seeking asylum in the country via damaging and unjustified penalties, creating an asylum model that undermines established international refugee protection rules and practices, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said Wednesday.

At the heart of the Bill is the creation of a new, lower class of status to be assigned to the majority of refugees – those arriving spontaneously. The Bill would make it a criminal offence for an asylum-seeker who requires entry clearance to arrive in the UK without it; the maximum sentence would be four years’ imprisonment.

“Those arriving irregularly will be stigmatised as unworthy and unwelcome, kept in a precarious status for ten years, denied access to public funds unless destitute. Family reunion will be restricted,” said Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR’s UK Representative. “This is likely to damage mental health and hamper integration for those recognised as refugees. The costs – financial, personal and social -- will be high.”

As the Bill moves through Committee stage in the House of Commons, UNHCR urged lawmakers to re-assess parts that would create an unfair two-tier asylum system and cause unnecessary suffering to asylum-seekers. For most asylum-seekers, attempts to transfer to other safe third countries would be made. If that is impossible, access to asylum would be provided but with temporary status, regularly reviewed, with fewer rights and benefits and a constant threat of removal. A minority of refugees – primarily those being resettled – would have more security, and stronger rights and entitlements.

Ms. Pagliuchi-Lor will address the House of Commons Bill Committee on Thursday, outlining a UNHCR legal analysis of the Bill, a summary of which can be seen here.

“This Bill would undermine, not promote, the Government’s stated goal of improving protection for those at risk of persecution. It seems to be aimed at deterring refugees, but there’s no evidence that would be the result,” said Ms. Pagliuchi-Lor. “There’s scope for improving the efficiency of the asylum system. We want to support the UK with that and are heartened that the Home Office is working on it.”

The Bill is based on the premise that people should claim asylum in the “first safe country” they arrive in. But this principle is not found in the 1951 Refugee Convention and there is no such requirement under international law, where primary responsibility for protecting refugees is with the State in which an asylum-seeker arrives.

Requiring all refugees to claim in the first safe country reached would be unworkable and undermine global humanitarian and cooperative principles. Of the world’s 34.4 million refugees and asylum-seekers, 86% are in less wealthy countries. The policy would put even more pressure on such countries and undermine solutions. It might also encourage further refugee movements.

“There are no quick fixes to what is a global problem,” she added. “The humane solution lies in working with neighbours on refugee transfers -- and with countries of origin on returns of those who are not refugees and have no right to remain – and improving the UK system.”

“This differentiation of treatment has no basis in international law,” Ms. Pagliuchi-Lor added. “The Convention’s definition of a refugee doesn’t vary according to the route of travel, choice of country of asylum, or the timing of a claim. Are we saying that an Afghan refugee is less deserving in the UK than when in Iran or Pakistan?"

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