UK asylum reforms bill would break international law, says UN

High Commissioner for Refugees fears an 'unfair, two-tier asylum system'

British immigration enforcement officers help migrants from a lifeboat in Dungeness, Kent, on September 13. PA
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The UK’s plans for asylum reform would break international law, the UN’s refugee agency says.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the 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”.

The agency has urged the government to reassess parts of the bill, currently going through Parliament, that would create an “unfair, two-tier asylum system and cause unnecessary suffering to asylum-seekers”.

The legislation, called the “anti-refugee Bill” by campaigners critical of the plans, intends to make it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK unlawfully, with the maximum sentence rising from six months’ imprisonment to four years.

It means that, for the first time, how someone enters the UK – legally or “illegally” – will affect how their asylum claim progresses, and their status in the UK if the claim succeeds.

Convicted people smugglers could also be jailed for life, up from the current maximum of 14 years, under the proposals.

The stricter rules are part of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s pledge to fix the UK’s “broken asylum system” and were praised by the government as “fundamental reforms” as part of its “fair but firm” new plan for immigration.

“This bill would undermine, not promote, the government’s stated goal of improving protection for those at risk of persecution," said Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UNHCR’s UK representative.

“It seems to be aimed at deterring refugees but there’s no evidence that would be the result.

“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.”

An official Home Office assessment of the proposed reforms found there was “limited” evidence that they would cut the number of people taking the risk of crossing the English Channel in flimsy boats.

“Deploying these measures does advance the legitimate aim of encouraging asylum seekers to claim in the first safe country they reach, and not undertaking dangerous journeys facilitated by smugglers to get to the UK, though evidence supporting the effectiveness of this approach is limited,” the assessment said.

On Wednesday, the Home Office’s most senior official, permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft, rejected suggestions from MPs that elements of the bill would go against the Refugee Convention and could criminalise Afghans fleeing the Taliban.

There were “safe and legal routes” for Afghans seeking sanctuary in the UK and the plans would not be in the legislation if they were not “compatible with international obligations”, Mr Rycroft told the Commons home affairs committee.

Ms Pagliuchi-Lor will set out the UNHCR’s legal analysis of the bill when she addresses the Commons bill committee on Thursday.

Updated: September 22, 2021, 11:01 PM