Britain’s immigration plans will ‘damage lives’ and undermine international cooperation, warns UN

Refugee agency ‘deeply concerned’ about ‘discriminatory’ approach and urges Home Office to ‘rethink’

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 10 May 2021 08:26 BST
The UNHCR said the plans risked breaching international legal commitments and triggering damaging effects on asylum seekers who arrive irregularly
The UNHCR said the plans risked breaching international legal commitments and triggering damaging effects on asylum seekers who arrive irregularly (AFP/Getty)

The UK’s new immigration plans will “damage lives” and undermine international cooperation on refugee issues, the UN has warned.

In a damning critique of Priti Patel’s asylum overhaul, the UN’s refugee agency said it was “deeply concerned” about the “discriminatory two-tier” approach and urged the Home Office to “rethink” the proposals.

The home secretary unveiled new measures in March that would see refugees who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes denied an automatic right to asylum and instead regularly reassessed for removal to safe countries they passed through, which are usually in the EU.

People who cannot immediately be removed would be offered a temporary status, up to 30 months, with abridged rights and benefits and limited family reunion rights.

The UNHCR said the plans risked breaching international legal commitments, undermining global refugee cooperation, and triggering damaging effects on asylum seekers who arrive irregularly, as well as being expensive and difficult to implement.

Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR representative in the UK, warned that the reforms were unlikely to deter movements of desperate people and that the human consequences would 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,” she said.

The 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Britain is a signatory, recognises that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means to travel and should not be penalised for this.

Ms Pagliuchi-Lor said: “If all refugees were obliged to remain in the first safe country they entered, the whole system would probably collapse. 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 Home Office’s plan also proposes changing the “well-founded fear of persecution” test for refugee status – which UNHCR said was of “serious concern” as it departs from international standards

Responding to Ms Patel’s proposal to keep an option to develop offshore asylum processing, the organisation warned that this would lead to forced transfers to other countries with “inadequate asylum systems, dehumanising and harming claimants”.

The UNHCR said the Home Office should “look at the context” and recognise that the increase in irregular arrivals by boats in recent years does not constitute a “mass-influx”, saying the numbers remain “modest” compared with other European countries.

It recommended developing a well-designed, fair and fast asylum procedure to work out who is eligible for refugee status, with greater investment upfront to address issues identified in the plan, for example around appeals and backlogs.

“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. These are not mutually exclusive,” said Ms Pagliuchi-Lor.

She added: “It’s not too late for a rethink. We’re ready to work with the UK on alternative reforms.”

It comes after the Law Society of England and Wales warned on Thursday that the immigration plans posed a “serious threat” to the rule of law and undermined access to justice.

The professional body for solicitors in said the reforms would “make a mockery of British fair play” and risked “overturning” the principle that everyone is equal.

A UK government spokesperson said the plans were “fully in line with our international and legal obligations”, adding: “People should claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in rather than making life-threatening journeys to the UK.

“We are reforming the asylum system so it is fair but firm, welcoming those who come to the UK through safe and legal routes while cracking down on criminal gangs that facilitate these dangerous and illegal journeys.”

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