UK Illegal Migration Bill ‘extinguishes’ most refugees’ rights, UN says

Refugee agency says controversial bill is an effective 'asylum ban'

Migrants are taken ashore at Dungeness, Kent, south-east England on March 23. PA
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The British government’s Illegal Migration Bill “effectively extinguishes the right to seek asylum for all but a very few refugees”, the UN refugee agency’s representative to the UK warned on Sunday.

MPs will have two days to scrutinise the controversial Bill, aimed at tackling Channel crossings, when it returns to the House of Commons on Monday for its committee stage.

The proposed legislation is “in breach of international law” and “the UK’s obligations under the International Refugee Convention", the UNHCR's Vicky Tennant told Sky News.

But the Home Office said it was “satisfied that this legislation is within the bounds of international law and is compatible with the Refugee Convention”.

“Well, we’re very concerned that this sets a global precedent," Ms Tennant said. "It effectively extinguishes the right, as you’ve said.

“We know that those coming across the Channel broadly reflect the nationalities of countries affected by crisis, by persecution globally.

“So we’re talking about countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Albania — several of these, as I’ve said, countries that are producing high numbers of refugees.

“We think the focus of attention really needs to be on the asylum system, on asylum processing, getting that working properly so people are able to present their claims.

“If they’re not, refugees' decisions can be made quickly. They can be returned to their own countries, and if they are refugees, then they’re able to embark on that integration journey.

“We think that’s in everyone’s interests, not just the refugees' interest, but also the interests of the British public.”

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The Bill aims to stop people claiming asylum in the UK if they arrive through unauthorised means, but the UNHCR has called it an effective “asylum ban”.

Pressed on what action the UNHCR might take if a country is found to be in breach of international law, Ms Tennant said “there is no sanction as such”, but claimed breaches have “an impact globally”.

“You know, we have to remember that the vast majority of refugees are hosted in countries neighbouring their own," Ms Tennant said.

“So more than 69 to 70 per cent are in countries neighbouring their own.

“Now, if you’re a country like Turkey, hosting more than three million refugees, or Bangladesh hosting just short of a million refugees, with all the impact that has on your economy, on your infrastructure, on your services.

“And then you look at a country like the UK much further away, much less impacted, many fewer refugees, that sends a really unfortunate signal.

“So we believe that if this goes ahead, if other countries were to follow suit, it really would have a very significant impact on refugee protection globally.”

Home Office guidance states that “the Illegal Migration Bill will change the law so that those who arrive in the UK illegally will not be able to stay here, and will instead be detained and then promptly removed, either to their home country or a safe third country”, such as Rwanda.

A Home Office representative said: “The UK has a proud history of providing protection for those who genuinely need it through safe and legal routes offering safety and protection to almost half a million men, women and children since 2015.

“More routes to safety for vulnerable people across the globe will be created but the rise in illegal migration must be stopped first.

“People who come to the UK illegally will be liable for detention and prompt removal.

“The asylum system is being reformed at the same time. Shorter interviews, simpler guidance and more decision makers will help clear the asylum backlog by the end of the year.”

Updated: March 26, 2023, 8:23 PM