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UNHCR consultation response finds many aspects of the New Plan for Immigration do not respect fundamental principles of refugee law


UK asylum proposals would create a discriminatory two-tiered approach to asylum, UNHCR says

Date of Publication:
11 May 2021

UNHCR consultation response finds many aspects of the New Plan for Immigration do not respect fundamental principles of refugee law

11 May 2021

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) yesterday made public its response to the Government's now closed consultation on the New Plan for Immigration.

UNHCR logoThe 35-page 'UNHCR Observations on the New Plan for Immigration policy statement of the Government of the United Kingdom' is available here.

While UNHCR's is only one of many responses to the consultation, it is one of much importance and carries significant weight.

UNHCR says that at the heart of the New Plan for Immigration is "a discriminatory two-tiered approach to asylum", as the Plan would differentiate between asylum seekers who arrive through legal pathways, such as resettlement or family reunion visas, and those who arrive irregularly, such as by crossing the Channel by boat.

The UNHCR's observations note: "The right to seek and enjoy asylum is a universal human right expressed in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and is inherent in the proper functioning of the 1951 Convention, the centrepiece of international refugee protection today. … The exercise of this right is not subject to the regularity of arrival."

Overall, UNHCR finds that many aspects of the New Plan for Immigration do not respect fundamental principles of refugee law and threaten to undermine global refugee cooperation.

UNHCR is concerned by the Plan's proposal that an asylum claim will be considered inadmissible if a claimant passes through safe countries to reach the UK.

UNHCR stated: "Whilst international law does not provide an unrestricted right to choose where to apply for asylum, there is no requirement under international law for asylum-seekers to seek protection in the first safe country they reach. This expectation would undermine the global humanitarian and cooperative principles on which refugee protection is founded, as emphasized by the 1951 Convention and recently reaffirmed by the General Assembly, including the UK, in the Global Compact on Refugees. It would impose an arbitrary and disproportionate burden on countries in the immediate region(s) of flight and threaten the capacity and willingness of those countries to properly process claims or provide acceptable reception conditions and durable solutions. This would (and does) threaten to make these first countries, in turn, unsafe and encourage onward movement."

Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UNHCR Representative in the UK, warned: "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."

While UNHCR is positive about some aspects of the Plan, such as the commitment to third-country pathways, the observations make clear: "[R]esettlement and other third-country pathways cannot substitute for or absolve a State of its obligations towards persons seeking asylum at its borders, in its territory, or otherwise within its jurisdiction, including those who have arrived irregularly."

Expressing deep concern at the Plan, UNHCR called on the UK to guarantee the right to seek and enjoy asylum for all persons under its jurisdiction, including those who enter irregularly.

UNHCR concludes as follows in its observations:

"UNHCR is concerned that the Plan, if implemented as stated (or as inferred herein), will among other adverse consequences undermine the application of the 1951 Convention in the UK and create a sub-class of refugees, denied a durable solution, based on an inappropriate penalisation under Article 31(1) of the 1951 Convention. Living under the constant threat of expulsion and being prevented from integrating will only push refugees under the new Temporary Protection Status into precarious and potentially exploitative situations in the UK – the very situations the UK seeks to take global leadership in eradicating.

"As highlighted in these observations, many aspects of the Plan do not respect fundamental principles of refugee law. And while UNHCR welcomes any meaningful efforts to increase safe and legal pathways to the UK, these do not absolve the UK of its legal responsibility towards asylum-seekers who arrive spontaneously. This includes those arriving by small boats. UNHCR is deeply concerned that redirecting such boats away from the UK, in the absence of a regional or bilateral transfer arrangement of the kind discussed herein, may lead to more deaths in the Channel. It is entirely possible for the UK to protect its borders, and the security of its public, while implementing fair, humane and efficient policies towards asylum-seekers that are in line with the 1951 Convention. These are not mutually exclusive. UNHCR is already working closely with the Home Office to improve the quality of its asylum decision-making under the Quality Protection Partnership and provided detailed proposals for procedural reform to the government in February of this year. These proposals draw upon global best practice for the adoption of fair and efficient asylum procedures, including simplified procedures. In light of the concerns expressed in these observations, UNHCR stands ready to continue to work with the government to adopt a more sensible, humane and legally sound set of changes to address the problems it identifies with its asylum system.

"Beyond the immediate concerns that the Plan seeks to address, UNHCR encourages the government to adopt the broader perspective its global aspirations require. The international protection system, underpinned by the 1951 Convention, is only as strong as the resolve of States to uphold it. If prosperous States that receive a comparatively small fraction of the world refugees appear poised to renege on their commitments, the system is weakened globally. And the role and credibility of the UK, so far a strong advocate of that system around the world, would be severely diminished."

Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor added that the Plan's proposals would be expensive, hard to implement and unlikely to deter movements of desperate people.

UNHCR also noted that the New Plan for Immigration is not responding to a large influx or even to an increase in asylum seekers. While the UK has seen a rise in arrivals by boats in recent years, overall claims are declining and the UK has modest numbers of asylum seekers relative to comparable European countries.