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UNHCR dismayed and deeply concerned by UK’s “neo-colonial” plan to send asylum seekers abroad for processing


Assistant High Commissioner for Protection warns offshoring would undermine the entire asylum system

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Gillian Triggs, the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said today that UNHCR was "absolutely dismayed" that the UK was legislating to allow asylum seekers to be sent abroad for offshore processing.

UNHCR logoThe new Nationality and Borders Bill proposes to amend section 77 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 to make it possible to remove someone to a safe third country whilst their asylum claim is pending. The explanatory notes for the Bill says this "supports the future object of enabling asylum claims to be processed outside the UK and in another country."

Triggs, who was speaking today at a Chatham House members' event on refugees and displaced people, expressed deep concern at the idea and warned it would undermine the entire asylum system.

She said reports that the UK and Denmark were considering sending asylum seekers to processing centres in Africa showed "neo-colonial" thinking.

The Press Association provided the following quotes from Triggs:

"[UNHCR is] absolutely dismayed that some of our strongest supporters historically are now playing with this idea of externalising their responsibilities … What we are finding is that Western, developed and wealthy countries are now not sharing responsibilities but shifting burdens to these poor countries.

"To see Denmark and now the United Kingdom looking at the same ideas [as Australia] is a matter of deep concern to UNHCR because we see it as almost a neo-colonial approach. You pass it off to …African countries and you wash your hands with it. You might pay a lot of money… but nonetheless to shift the burden in that way without the safeguards is a problem.

"There's no doubt at all that the Denmark example, and now we see the United Kingdom introducing legislation to the same effect, we are deeply, deeply concerned for the future of the asylum system. Because if we push back at the borders and we do not allow a claim to be made at the border, you pretty much undermine the entire asylum system."

According to the Press Association, Triggs added that it was not expected that the UK or Denmark would be able to implement the plan as they are having a great deal of difficulty finding countries who are willing to be partners. "We have to warn against it but at the same time we have to be realistic, that countries that are being approached to be part of these schemes are saying 'under no circumstances'," she was quoted as saying.

In response to Tuesday's publication of the Nationality and Borders Bill, UNHCR UK posted on Twitter yesterday:

"The new Nationality & Borders Bill includes sweeping penalties for refugees who arrive spontaneously in the UK. The UK risks breaching commitments under the Refugee Convention that clearly protect the universal right to seek asylum and for refugees to access basic rights.

"UNHCR urges the UK to:
- Drop plans to create this lower class of refugee
- Work with [UNHCR] on reforms to build a fair, humane and efficient asylum system
- Continue action against criminals and smuggling gangs
- Redouble efforts to cooperate with Europe on asylum."

In an article for The Conversation yesterday, Dr Leonie Ansems de Vries of King's College London (KCL) said the UK's plans for offshoring asylum seekers for processing "are not compatible with international law."

Ansems de Vries, who is a senior lecturer in international relations and chair of the KCL Migration Research Group, noted: "The right to claim asylum is a universal right, which is enshrined in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, to which the UK is a signatory. Anyone has a right to claim asylum regardless of how they arrive in a particular country. Asylum seekers have a right of access to the country and to a fair legal process."

She added: "It is disturbing to see how far the UK government – and especially the Home Office under Priti Patel's leadership – is willing to push its hostile environment agenda. The measures are not only in breach of international law but will also be inefficient and costly, will not respond to the perceived problem."

The Home Office said in a blog post about the Nationality and Borders Bill on Tuesday that it would 'keep the option open' of sending asylum seekers abroad for processing.

The Home Office stated: "We set out in March 2021 how we will make legal changes so that it is possible to move asylum seekers from the UK while their asylum claim, or appeal is pending. This will keep the option open, if required in the future, to develop the capacity for offshore asylum processing – in line with our international obligations."