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UK Bill ‘significantly erodes’ human rights and refugee protections, UN agencies warn

Concerns over legislation

The Illegal Immigration Bill eliminates access to asylum for anyone who arrives “irregularly” in the UK, meaning they passed through a country – however briefly – where they did not face persecution.  

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The bill bars migrants from presenting refugee protection or other human rights claims, regardless of their circumstances. It has passed through the Commons, but has yet to clear the Upper House, the House of Lords.  

The law as it stands requires their removal to another country without a guarantee that they will necessarily be able to access protections there. The bill also creates sweeping new detention powers with limited judicial oversight.

“UNHCR shares the UK Government’s concern regarding the number of asylum-seekers resorting to dangerous journeys across the [English] Channel.

“We welcome current efforts to make the existing asylum system work more effectively through fast, fair, and efficient case processing, that allows the integration of those found to be in need of international protection and the swift return home of those who have no legal basis to stay,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

“Regrettably, this progress will be significantly undermined by the new legislation. Cooperation with European and other partners along the routes through which refugees and migrants are moving, is also key,” he continued.

Contrary to human rights

The Bill denies access to refugee protections for anyone falling within its scope – including unaccompanied and separated children – regardless of whether they are at risk of persecution, have suffered human rights violations, or whether they are survivors of human trafficking or modern-day slavery.  

“Carrying out removals under these circumstances is contrary to prohibitions of refoulement and collective expulsions, rights to due process, to family and private life, and the principle of best interests of children concerned,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.

The 1951 Refugee Convention, to which the UK was one of the original signatories, explicitly recognises that refugees may be compelled to enter a country of asylum irregularly.

Most people fleeing war and persecution do not have or are unable to access formal travel documents such as passports and visas. Safe and “legal” routes to immigration are therefore oftentimes not available to them.  

Without the adequate operational capacity to remove large numbers of asylum-seekers or create viable removal arrangements with third countries, thousands of migrants can be expected to remain in the UK indefinitely in precarious legal situations, the agencies said.

‘Grave risks’

“For decades, the UK has provided refuge to those in need, in line with its international obligations – a tradition of which it has been rightly proud. This new legislation significantly erodes the legal framework that has protected so many, exposing refugees to grave risks in breach of international law,” said Mr. Grandi.

UN refugee and human rights experts say the legislation will also exacerbate the already vulnerable situation of refugees in the UK, drastically limiting their enjoyment of human rights and putting many at risk of detention and destitution.  

Their rights to health, an adequate standard of living, and employment are all at risk, exposing them to potential exploitation and abuse.

History of compassion

“The UK has long had a commitment to upholding international human rights and refugee law. Such steadfast commitment is needed today more than ever,” said UN human rights chief Volker Türk.

“I urge the UK Government to renew this commitment to human rights by reversing this law and ensuring that the rights of all migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers are respected, protected, and fulfilled, without discrimination.

“This should include efforts to guarantee expeditious and fair processing of asylum and human rights claims, improve reception conditions, and increase the availability and accessibility of safe pathways for regular migration,” he added.

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