10 May 2021
The UNHCR says that the UK government's 'New Plan for Immigration', which seeks to diminish refugee protections, risks "breaching international legal commitments, undermining global refugee cooperation and triggering damaging effects on asylum-seekers who arrive irregularly".
Almost 200 organisations recently condemned the government's consultation on the proposals as a "sham", saying that they are "vague, unworkable, cruel and potentially unlawful."
The UNHCR's observations add further weight to these critiques.
The paper issued by the refugee agency says that "attempts to relieve pressure on the UK asylum system by narrowing access to it for those arriving irregularly are neither effective nor sustainable ways to address the system’s current weaknesses."
It also notes:
"Central to the Plan is a misconstruction of Article 31(1) of the 1951 Convention, which prohibits the penalisation of asylum-seekers for irregular entry or stay except under certain circumstances and limits the nature of the penalties when they are permitted. The proposed ‘temporary protection status’ would impermissibly penalise asylum-seekers. UNHCR calls upon the UK to reconsider this proposal and align its plans with a proper interpretation and application of this provision."
Going forward with the proposal would have "very serious" human consequences, says the UNHCR, pushing those granted the "temporary protection status" into "precarious and potentially exploitative limbo situations in the UK".
A commitment to implementing the 'New Plan for Immigration' is expected to feature in today's Queen's speech.
LONDON – Proposals by the UK to overhaul its asylum system risk breaching international legal commitments, undermining global refugee cooperation and triggering damaging effects on asylum-seekers who arrive irregularly, according to an opinion published today by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
The opinion was drawn up after examining the government’s ‘New Plan for Immigration’ presented 24 March, elements of which are set to be included in the May 11 Queen’s Speech.
“The UK has been an important supporter of refugees abroad, generous in resettlement, with a comparatively robust, fair and functioning asylum system,” said Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR Representative in the UK. “We recognise the need to improve some asylum procedures, but these plans threaten to create a discriminatory two-tier asylum system, undermining the 1951 Refugee Convention and longstanding global cooperation on refugee issues. It’s not too late for a rethink. We’re ready to work with the UK on alternative reforms.”
At the heart of the plan is a two-tier approach to asylum, differentiating between those entering by legal routes, like resettlement, and those arriving spontaneously or having passed through countries deemed safe. For the latter, attempts at transfer to other safe third countries would be made, and, if impossible within six months, access to asylum would be provided. But a successful claim would only offer temporary status, up to 30 months, with abridged rights and benefits, regularly reviewed, and the threat of removal.
“These proposals will be expensive and hard to implement,” Ms. Pagliuchi-Lor added. “We can’t see them deterring movements of desperate people. And the human consequences will be real and harmful. Living under the constant threat of expulsion will hamper the ability to integrate and push people into precarity and exploitation. Mental health will suffer. This feels like a recipe for social problems.”
The right to seek asylum is universal and does not depend on the mode of arrival; asylum-seekers are often forced to arrive unauthorised. Under the Convention, states must grant asylum-seekers access to their territory and fair procedures. They may be returned to where they have, or could have, sought asylum and could still access a fair procedure and receive humane treatment but doing so requires important safeguards, without which the new plan simply risks “externalising” UK obligations, and shifting its responsibility.
International law does not offer unrestricted rights to choose where to apply for asylum, but it does allow people to seek protection in specific countries where they have legitimate reasons, including family and other links. Asylum should not be refused – or restricted – solely because it could have been sought elsewhere.
“If all refugees were obliged to remain in the first safe country they entered, the whole system would probably collapse,” said Ms Pagliuchi-Lor. “A few gateway countries would be overwhelmed, while countries further removed, like the UK, would share little responsibility. This is hardly fair, or workable, and runs against the spirit of international cooperation supported by UK at the UN General Assembly and the Global Compact on Refugees.”
The UK plan also proposes keeping an option to develop offshore asylum processing. Such policies often mean forced transfers to other countries with inadequate asylum systems, de-humanising and harming claimants. The plan also proposes changing the “well-founded fear of persecution” test for refugee status, which is of serious concern to UNHCR as its departs from international standards.
There has been a rise in irregular arrivals by boats in recent years, but UNHCR urges the UK to look at the context. This plan is not responding to a mass-influx. The UK has modest numbers of asylum-seekers relative to European peers, and UK claims have been declining. Of course, not every arrival has a right to refugee status and migrants do pose as refugees. Hence, UNHCR recommends states have well designed, fair and fast claims procedures. UNHCR has made initial proposals to the UK to improve its system, drawing on best practice, including simplified processing. Greater investment upfront could address issues identified in the plan, for example around appeals and backlogs. Asylum applicants arriving irregularly without legitimate claims and no other legal residency options should be assisted to return home. Such returns are complex and require concerted international cooperation.
“It is entirely possible for the UK to protect its borders, and security, while implementing fair, humane and efficient policies towards asylum-seekers in line with the 1951 Convention,” added Ms Pagliuchi-Lor. “These are not mutually exclusive.”
UNHCR fully endorses the need to save lives at sea, encourages eradicating smugglers and traffickers and recognises states have a right to control borders. This, however, must remain consistent with the right to seek and enjoy asylum. UNHCR welcomes the UK’s continued commitment to legal pathways and better integration support for resettled and reunited refugee families, and urges the Government to provide details – as it has in the past – of numbers that it will accept through resettlement.
UNHCR Observations on the New Plan for Immigration policy statement of the Government of the United Kingdom is available here.
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