Reforms to Britain’s asylum system are “at odds” with the country’s human rights obligations and risk upending its tradition of “championing” refugee rights, parliamentarians have said.
A new report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights has warned the government against using “punitive measures” proposed in the Nationality and Borders Bill instead of processing migrant applications more quickly.
“Rather than coming up with new punitive measures and lambasting the difficulties in rejecting asylum applications, the Government should focus on dealing with the lengthy backlog of cases. This needs to be achieved by better processing and adequate resourcing,” said the committee’s deputy chairwoman and MP, Joanna Cherry, QC.
The report says legislating to create different categories of refugee based on how they reached the UK would be inconsistent with the Refugee Convention and a potentially discriminatory breach of human rights.
Instead of combatting people-smugglers, the Committee found the legislation would penalise asylum claimants for not utilising “safe and legal routes”, despite there being a “paucity of options” for refugees trying to enter the UK.
This and other proposed reforms, including permitting more asylum claims to be rejected without consideration and introducing the possibility of offshore processing of asylum claims, risk undermining the humanitarian principles on which refugee protection is founded.
“Instead, we have measures that would harm decision-making, through needlessly penalising the late submission of evidence, and even cause further delays due to the new consideration of whether asylum seekers should have applied to another country first,” said Ms Cherry.
The Scottish politician and lawyer said the bill would increase the likelihood of Britain “turning its back” on people in need and urged the Government to rethink current proposals.
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s flagship Nationality and Borders Bill went through a second debate reading in the House of Lords, the UK Parliament’s upper house, earlier this month.
There, it faced heavy criticism from peers including former home secretary David Blunkett, who called the reforms “delusional”.
Campaigners and activists have denounced the plans as being overly hostile towards the most vulnerable people.
The legislation seeks to curb English Channel crossings and change the way asylum claims are processed. The Bill gives Border Force officers powers to turn migrants away from the UK while at sea and makes it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK without permission.
The maximum sentence for those entering the country unlawfully would rise from six months’ imprisonment to four years.
Clause 9 of the Bill would allow the government to strip people of their British citizenship without warning, a move the Committee said “undermined the principle of fairness” and should be scrapped.
Government plans to lower the age threshold for giving the benefit of the doubt to migrants believed to be lying about their age may also result in more children being wrongly identified as adults, it said.
The Committee raised concerns about new powers to allow scientific methods, such as X-rays and dental analysis to be used to assess applicants’ age and said medical bodies had questioned the accuracy of such techniques for age verification.