An Effective Protection Regime for the Twenty-first Century

Speech to IPPR, 6 February 2001

By the Home Secretary, Rt Hon Jack Straw MP

1. It is a great pleasure to be here to talk in a rational calm way about asylum policy and thank you to the organisers for giving me the chance to listen and respond to debate. As Sarah [Spencer] has, already mentioned, I sat in Westminster Central Hall ten days ago with the Prime Minister, the Prince of Wales and hundreds of others to mark the first UK Holocaust Memorial Day.

On the fifty-sixth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it gave us cause to remember Europe's efforts in the war's aftermath to make sure that such suffering never took place again.

2. The post-war efforts culminated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including a right to seek political asylum. The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees gave that right legal expression.

3. In this, the Convention's fiftieth anniversary year, we celebrate the right to asylum. The UK has a proud history of offering shelter to those fleeing persecution which goes back many decades, if not centuries before the 1951 Convention. We, the whole of the EU, USA and Canada, and many other countries around the world, are committed to maintaining that tradition and to meeting our obligations under the Convention.

4. Yet the Convention is no longer working as its framers intended.

5. The environment in which it is applied today is one that has changed almost out of all recognition from that which obtained in 1951. The numbers of asylum seekers have vastly increased.

6. As a result, the current system is failing many refugees, whilst at the same time putting huge pressure on receiving nations - not just Western states, but also developing countries which host the largest numbers of the world's displaced persons.

7. In our view therefore, the time has come for the Convention's signatories to re-examine its operation, with a view to making it work as it was intended - to relieve the suffering of genuine refugees.

The problem

8. The Convention was designed for an era when international flows of people were on a very much smaller scale than they are today. Intercontinental travel was rare, difficult and expensive.

9. Fifty years on, the world has been transformed. New technology, global communications and cheap international travel have all contributed to a world where rapid, long-distance migration is a realistic option - and a widespread aspiration.

10. This is creating new pressures on every part of our immigration system - not least that part which deals with claims for asylum. In particular, thousands of would-be migrants are taking advantage of one aspect of the Convention -namely, that it places an obligation on States to consider any application for asylum made on their territory, however ill-founded.

11. And the statistics speak for themselves. Whilst the potential for large-scale economic migration has expanded, so too the number of people affected by political upheaval has risen.

12. Up until 1988, the UK received around 4,000 asylum applications a year, mostly from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the Iron Curtain, the imploding of the economies of Eastern Europe, and civil and cross border wars in the Balkans, Iraq and Iran, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere, numbers of asylum seekers in the UK, as in the rest of Europe, rose ten fold in the space of three years.

However, investment in staff and IT in the Home Office lagged very badly behind this surge for a decade. In 2000, 76,000 applications were made and the majority of initial decisions taken during the year resulted in refusals of both asylum and of exceptional leave. About 80% of appeals are unsuccessful. Other EU countries have also seen large increases in asylum applicants, many of whom do not qualify for any form of protection. The result of this EU wide trend is that as our numbers have increased, so have those in the rest of Europe. There are 1.4 applications per 1000 of population compared with Belgium, which has a rate of almost three times that. Ireland, The Netherlands and Switzerland each received at least 2 applications per 1000 last year, whilst Austria and Denmark took 1.9 and 1.6 respectively.

13. And, since the Convention places no obligation on states to facilitate access to their territory for those in need of protection, many well founded refugees as well as those with no serious claim resort to people-smuggling and other methods of illegal entry in order to access the protection that they need.

14. Taken together, these two trends - of increasing economic migration, and increasing numbers of displaced persons - mean that we are faced with a situation where too much effort and resources are being expended on dealing with unfounded claims for asylum, and not enough effort on helping those in need of protection.

A way forward?

15. So the question before us is how can we make the international protection regime work better?

16. First, let me repeat that the UK - and all other signatory States - must meet their basic obligations under the 1951 Convention. That obviously includes giving sanctuary to Convention refugees who arrive at our shores.

17. But our obligations go beyond that.

18. Refugees have a right to expect that their claims will be assessed quickly and fairly; and that they will be helped to integrate themselves into our society.

19. But refugees and the public also have a right to expect that there will be a quick and effective process in place for identifying those who make unfounded claims for asylum.

20. We have achieved a good deal in the last 12 months in striving to reach these goals. The backlog is down. Decisions are up. Applications are being processed more swiftly. We are taking positive action to help recognised refugees feel that they belong in their new home. All of us I hope recognise and appreciate the contribution which many refugees over the decades and centuries have made and are making to our society, through their work and their culture.

21. We have worked hard to improve on our domestic processes over the last three and a half years. But we have also helped to lead a much more active European Union wide agenda, for what is a shared European problem. At the European Union Heads of State meeting in Tampere toward the end of 1999, the Member States committed themselves to building a Common European Asylum System.

22. The UK is at the forefront in driving forward European action in this area. Later this week, Barbara Roche and I will be in Stockholm for a meeting of the EU justice and home affairs ministers, where we will be focussing on asylum and immigration matters.

23. And on Friday, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I will be meeting our French opposite numbers in Cahors in France at the Franco-British Summit. We will use this meeting to press the case for enhanced co-operation between us to combat the problem of illegal immigration from France to the UK, including problems associated with the Eurostar service.

24. All this shows how we are working actively with our European partners to find solutions to the challenges we face.

25. Important however as our domestic procedures are and important as consistent standards in EU Member States are, they are not enough by themselves to resolve the difficulties which we face. To do that we need to take a step back and look at the wider picture.

26. That is what I began to do in a speech which I made in Lisbon last June. In that speech I set out some ideas for creating a more rational and effective protection regime. Today I want to develop my thinking a little further.

27. It seems to me that the international community must, collectively, do at least three things better than it is doing now:

28. First, we must help the countries concerned to make conditions in the regions of origin better;

29. Second, we must make it easier for genuine refugees to access the protection regimes of Europe and other Western States, for example by making their journeys less hazardous;

30. Third, we must ensure that those who are not refugees are actively dissuaded from seeking to benefit unjustly from the terms of the 1951 Convention.

31. Let me take each of these briefly in turn.

First, Conditions in regions of origin

32. The great majority of the world's refugees are forced to live in areas neighbouring their homelands. It follows that the main focus of the international community's protection efforts should be on these areas.

33. Most refugees want nothing more than to return safely to their own country. They have the best chance of doing that if they are able to stay in safety and dignity in a place as close as possible to home, until such time as it is safe to go back.

34. This was the principle behind the concerted EU effort to help refugees from the Kosovan conflicts. There was a lot of discussion amongst Ministers in the EU about how to help them. Some people said we should move vast numbers to Western Europe, but a lot of Ministers, including Clare Short, said this was not the best way to ensure their safety and fastest possible return to their home. So the majority of displaced people were looked after across the border in Macedonia. Those in particularneed were given temporary protection in the UK and other EU member states as apart of the Kosovo Humanitarian Evacuation Programme. Co-ordinated joint action between EU Member States, UNHCR and other agencies meant that many evacuees did not have to flee hundreds of miles to find safety.

35. Yet current spending patterns do not seem to reflect the priority of protection in the regions. On one estimate, about $10 billion is spent annually by developed countries in assessing claims for refugee status, most of which are then rejected. But those same countries give only one tenth of that sum, $1 billion a year, to UNHCR, the main provider of protection to the millions of displaced persons in the regions of origin.

36. Money is not a panacea, and I am not saying that more money spent in these areas would provide a miracle cure. But I am saying that the balance of effort is wrong and that the disparity between what developed countries spend in processing claims, most of which fall to be rejected, and what we spend dealing with problems in the regions of origin, demonstrates the need to rethink how we respond.

37. The international community now needs to get together and consider what might be done to redress this imbalance. This is not something the UK can do alone. It is not even something which the EU can do by itself. Instead it requires both the funders and the funded to come together to discuss a way forward.

38. Action in the regions of origin will reduce the pressure on refugees to travel further afield in search of protection.

39. But I do not pretend that all such movements can be brought to an end. There remains the question of how refugees can reach safety in the developed world if help cannot be provided more locally.

This bring me on to my second point.

A Resettlement programme?

40. Some may say that the increased use of visas and the imposition of penalties on carriers is the main barrier preventing refugees from reaching safety, and that the answer therefore is to end these policies. I profoundly disagree, and so does every Justice and Home Affairs Minister in the European Union. Movements in this way would not be determined by rationally by EU Ministers but principally by racketeers who control the trafficking routes.

41. Neither governments nor their publics within Europe and beyond would find this acceptable. We are all committed to the Convention and all wish to see it operate effectively. At the same time, we have a duty to operate immigration policies for the benefit of our communities.

42. So we need other ideas - ideas which enable us to consider asylum claims in the region of origin.

43. One option would be for the EU to set up a resettlement programme, under which an agreed number of refugees - and possibly others in need of protection - would be identified in their own regions and brought to the EU for resettlement. The European Commission has stated, in its November paper on a common EU asylum system, that it will be carrying out feasibility studies on just such a programme.

44. I can see potential advantages in such a scheme, not least from our experience from the Humanitarian Evacuation Programme from Kosovo, to which I referred earlier.

45. Equally, there are serious issues to consider such as the cost and scale of any programme, how those selected for resettlement would be allocated to individual Member States, and what the criteria for selection would be. In assessing this, the Commission can draw on the experiences of countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia. The UK is going to play a constructive part in the Commission's work.

46. It will also be necessary for the EU to fit any procedures for assessing asylum claims overseas into the wider picture. We need to ensure that such external procedures are matched by domestic EU procedures which deal with unfounded asylum claims more speedily than is the case at present. We would also want to see more applications lodged from overseas being tied at the same time to fewer claims being made within the EU.

47. The aim of my speech in Lisbon was to highlight the inconsistencies and illogicalities in the current global system for the protection of refugees.

Frankly, and we all need to face this, the system has drifted out of the control of governments and into the hand of criminal traffickers.

48. The Commission Communication on Asylum rightly seeks to look at the asylum system as a whole. The UK will want to play a full part in the developing debate on all these ideas but it is clear that completing the reform of the domestic system will provide the essential platform from which more radical longer term ideas can be considered. Any moves towards the implementation of ideas for processing of claims overseas or substantial resettlement programmes will have to be in parallel with driving down the number of unfounded applications across Europe.

More effective domestic procedures for weak claims

49. This leads onto my third area: devising better ways of dealing with those who are not in need of protection but who seek to shelter under the umbrella of the Convention.

50. In so doing, these individuals do great damage to asylum systems. They overload the elaborate procedures we have for assessing asylum claims. They cause vast quantities of money to be expended on assessing unfounded claims which would be better spent in the regions of origin. And they can turn the public against genuine refugees.

51. There are two main ways of deterring misuse of this kind. The first is to process claims quickly. There is a range of measures which states can implement domestically to address this . However, there are collective measures which I believe could help.

52. For example, an EU- or internationally-agreed list of safe countries or groups from which asylum applications would be ruled inadmissible or considered under a greatly accelerated process. This ought to be on the agenda for the EU and indeed in the United Nations. More generally, the EU's development of common asylum policies should reduce the attractions of so-called "asylum shopping".

53. The second aspect of deterring unfounded claims is the prompt return of those found not to need protection. The integrity of any asylum process will be undermined if those who make unfounded claims are able to stay.

54. I therefore make no apology in highlighting this issue as a fundamental one for any protection regime. Everyone who is concerned about the need for international protection should be in favour of an effective system for returning those who do not have such a need. One aspect of this is that the countries concerned must document and accept back their nationals who do not qualify for protection elsewhere. We are already working with our European partners to conclude Community readmission agreements with third countries.

Again, it is an EU wide problem to ensure that the states from which unfounded applications come must recognise their responsibility to their citizens. These countries are often quick to complain about unfounded allegations made against them. And they are right. Allegations are often unfounded. But the quid pro quo for them to take their place amongst civilised states must be for them to recognise their responsibilities.

55. EU States have their particular set of interests on protection issues. Other countries, many of whom provide shelter for the millions of displaced people, have their own set of interests, which might not all be the same as ours. But nor need they be incompatible - all countries have their part to play in meeting the burden of supporting refugees.

56. We need to get together so that we can understand each other's perspectives, and move on from there to identifying collective actions which will deliver the effective protection system we all want. UNHCR's global consultations provide us with an excellent opportunity for such a debate.

Conclusion

57. Most of us can agree that the international protection regime is not operating as well as it should. We need some radical thinking if we are to ensure that the principles of the 1951 Convention are to be applied effectively in the modern age.

58. With the EU looking to move towards a common asylum system, and with UNHCR holding its global consultations exercise, now is the time to have that debate and to find solutions.

59. Asylum is an international issue which requires an EU and international response. And the UK is dedicated to playing its full part in trying to develop a better system of protection.



Statewatch News online