London: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it is “profoundly concerned” by the United Kingdom government’s proposal to deport asylum seekers without considering their claims. If passed, the UNHCR has said, this it will amount to an “asylum ban”. It has accused Rishi Sunak’s government of “extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the UK” after the introduction of a contentious new law to prevent small boats from crossing the Channel.
In a statement issued on Tuesday (March 7) afternoon, UNHCR said that the government’s new Illegal Migration Bill would “deny protection to many asylum-seekers in need of safety and protection” if it comes into force.
Earlier in parliament, home secretary Suella Braverman was forced to acknowledge that there was a more than 50% chance that the Bill would violate human rights laws. Given the provisions of the Bill, the UNHCR is “profoundly concerned” that authorities want to criminalise, detain and deport asylum seekers.
On the Bill’s main page, Braverman stated that she was unable to state that the measures were “compatible with the convention rights”.
“This does not mean that the provisions in the bill are incompatible with the convention rights, only that there is a more 50 percent chance that they may not be,” the home secretary wrote in a separate letter to MPs.
Today, however, she appeared to double down in favour of the Bill, saying that it is unfair to compare it to Nazi Germany and stressing on its importance to beat the apparent burden of sustaining illegal immigrants on taxpayers.
'It's unhelpful to compare our measures to 1930s Germany'
— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) March 8, 2023
The UNHCR has stated that the government’s intentions to deport asylum seekers without taking into account their claims entail a “clear breach” of international law as it “undermines the very purpose for which the Refugee Convention was established” in 1951 which, after being approved by Winston Churchill’s Conservative government, was at the time endorsed by all parties in the House of Commons.
“This would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention and would undermine a long-standing, humanitarian tradition of which the British people are rightly proud. We urge the government, and all MPs and peers, to reconsider the bill and instead pursue more humane and practical policy solutions,” the unusually critical statement read.
“The convention explicitly recognises that refugees may be compelled to enter a country of asylum irregularly,” the agency statement added. “International law does not require that refugees claim asylum in the first country they reach.”
If the Bill becomes law, anyone who arrives on a small boat will have their asylum claim deemed “inadmissible” and will make the home secretary legally obligated to deport anyone who arrives on a small boat, either to Rwanda or another “safe third nation”, even if they are from a country that has been devastated by war, like Afghanistan or Syria, or if they face persecution like women from Iran.
The Bill also grants the government the authority to defy European Court of Human Rights rulings, which were most recently invoked to halt a flight of deportees to Rwanda.
The big question of where will the tens of thousands of individuals who cross the Channel be sent looms large.
Last year, half of those who crossed the English Channel were from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Sudan or Syria. At least 80% of asylum claims from specific nations are granted – for countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, the percentage is around 98%.
At a press conference on Tuesday, queries regarding the practicalities of the UK’s ability to hold and deport huge numbers of asylum seekers were brushed off by Sunak, who was upbeat about the possibility of judicial challenges.
The new regulation, according to Sunak, will “deter” individuals from crossing the English Channel in small boats and will give the UK the power to “decide who we bring and how many”, he claimed without offering any supporting data.
A yearly cap on the number of refugees the UK will accept through safe and legal channels will also be introduced by the law, but only after the boats have been halted. This cap will be established by parliament.
This year so far, more than 3,000 people have crossed the Channel. It is a record in itself – as it is more than twice the number that crossed last year during the same time.
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, alleged that the Tory government’s inability to tackle people-smuggling gangs, “collapsing” asylum judgements and a decline in the number of family reunion permits had worsened the “deeply damaging chaos” in the Channel.
“The asylum system is broken and they broke it,” she added. “They still don’t have any return agreements in place … this Bill isn’t a solution, it is a con that risks making the situation worse.”
Many Tory MPs while speaking to British media have expressed their scepticism about bringing this Bill into effect before the next general election, particularly if Theresa May intervenes.
However, even if it sees the light of day, it will leave the UK out of the ECHR – created to safeguard people from state power in the wake of the Second World War and Holocaust – which violates the Good Friday Agreement. Belarus and Russia, which were expelled due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are the only other European countries that have not joined.
Kalrav Joshi is an independent multimedia journalist based out of London. He writes on politics, culture, technology and climate.