After UK asylum bill debate, UNHCR urges MPs to avoid punishing asylum-seekers

UNHCR has urged lawmakers to amend the parts of the Bill that would unfairly punish many refugees.

UNHCR is urging lawmakers to amend the most damaging aspects of the Nationality and Borders Bill to ensure refugees are not punished by this legislation.

UNHCR is urging lawmakers to amend the most damaging aspects of the Nationality and Borders Bill to ensure refugees are not punished by this legislation.  © A.Johnstone

The Nationality and Borders Bill passed its Second Reading on Tuesday by 366 to 265 votes, following two days of debate in the House of Commons. It will bring into law a range of proposals by the Home Office to overhaul refugee processing.

Over 100 MPs spoke in the debate, with many citing UNHCR’s concerns about the Bill’s compatibility with international law and UK international responsibilities. It will now undergo further scrutiny in committee stage, from the autumn.

“We were saddened that the Bill has passed this stage in this form,” said Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR UK’s Representative. “This Bill would create a discriminatory two-tier asylum system violating the 1951 Refugee Convention and target bona fide refugees. The right to seek asylum is universal and doesn’t depend on the mode of arrival. Under the Refugee Convention, states must grant asylum-seekers access to their territory and refugees access to their rights.”

At the centre of the Bill and the wider New Plan for Immigration is a new asylum system that penalises those entering the UK without permission with inferior support and fewer rights compared to refugees admitted via the small number of legal routes available. Spontaneous arrivals, or those having passed through countries deemed safe, and where it is considered they could have claimed asylum, will be liable to criminal sanction or attempts to transfer them to other safe third countries.

Criminalising asylum-seekers is unacceptable

“UNHCR will be working to ensure that the proposed criminalisation of ‘illegal entry’ will not target refugees,” Ms. Pagliuchi-Lor said. “We will seek assurances from Government on this critical matter while the Bill progresses.”

While international law does not offer unlimited rights to choose where to apply for asylum, it does allow people to seek protection in specific countries, and does not require asylum-seekers to make claims in the first safe country they reach, a point emphasized during the debate by former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May MP.

“Agreements between European countries, which have comparable standards of asylum, to better share responsibility are fine,” said Ms. Pagliuchi-Lor. “The bottom line, however, is that refugees should not be denied access to the rights in the Convention just because a country thinks that asylum should be sought elsewhere.”

UNHCR also urged UK lawmakers in the strongest terms to reject parts of the legislation that shift its international refugee protection obligations through offshore or external asylum processing. Such policies have proved dehumanizing, expensive and failed to resolve the underlying causes of movement and displacement. Seeking to incentivize less well-resourced countries to host asylum seekers conflicts with the goals of international burden sharing, recently supported by the UK in the Global Compact on Refugees.

UNHCR shares the UK goals of greater asylum processing efficiency and combating smuggling. It is currently working with the Home Office to develop ways to increase efficiency and fairness in asylum procedures and reducing the large and growing claims backlogs. Its suggestions to the Home Office can be found here. “We’re ready to offer all the assistance we can to the UK in this area,” said the UNHCR Representative.

Concerningly, the Bill also proposes a new test for refugee status, which represents a potentially problematic move away from leading UK jurisprudence that maintains a lower standard of proof, UNHCR believes.

Resettlement is tiny and numbers unclear

Resettlement formed an important part of the debate on both sides. UNHCR welcomed the UK’s continued commitment to resettlement and providing better integration support to resettled families. Resettlement is nevertheless only open to a tiny minority of eligible refugees, and the notion that refugees can choose to travel regularly, or that those who travel irregularly are wealthier and inherently less deserving than others reflects a misunderstanding of refugee movements. The Government has yet to provide details of the size of its resettlement programme, which hampers stakeholders from planning for arrivals.

“The commitment to resettlement, welcome as it is, doesn’t absolve the UK of its obligations towards those arriving spontaneously,” said Ms. Pagliuchi-Lor.

Under the Bill, the Government retains the right to treat refugees differently in relation to family reunion rights based on their mode of arrival. UNHCR is concerned that this might limit family reunion prospects for many refugees, which would be inconsistent with the Convention. The 29,000 refugee family reunion arrivals reported in the past five years are likely to mainly be the family members of refugees who arrived spontaneously, since resettled refugees normally travel as whole family groups.

“States clearly have the legitimate right to manage their borders, but it must be in accordance with international law, and they must respect human rights,” said Ms. Pagliuchi-Lor. “Effective border management is not incompatible with upholding the rights of asylum seekers.”