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UNHCR says it is saddened to see the Nationality and Borders Bill pass its second reading stage in Parliament


Criminalising asylum seekers is unacceptable, the UN Refugee Agency said in a statement today

Date of Publication:
21 July 2021

UNHCR says it is saddened to see the Nationality and Borders Bill pass its second reading stage in Parliament

21 July 2021

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a notable statement today saying it was saddened that the House of Commons yesterday voted to pass the Nationality and Borders Bill at its second reading stage.

UNHCR logoRossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UNHCR's representative to the UK, was quoted as saying: "We were saddened that the Bill has passed this stage in this form … This Bill would create a discriminatory two-tier asylum system violating the 1951 Refugee Convention and target bona fide refugees. The right to seek asylum is universal and doesn't depend on the mode of arrival. Under the Refugee Convention, states must grant asylum-seekers access to their territory and refugees access to their rights."

UNHCR added in its statement that criminalising asylum-seekers was "unacceptable". The Nationality and Borders Bill proposes criminal sanctions for asylum seekers who enter the UK without permission.

Pagliuchi-Lor said: "UNHCR will be working to ensure that the proposed criminalisation of 'illegal entry' will not target refugees … We will seek assurances from Government on this critical matter while the Bill progresses."

While UNHCR welcomed the UK's continued commitment to resettlement of refugees through official routes, it stressed that this does not absolve the UK of its obligations towards those arriving spontaneously.

The statement explained: "Resettlement is … only open to a tiny minority of eligible refugees, and the notion that refugees can choose to travel regularly, or that those who travel irregularly are wealthier and inherently less deserving than others reflects a misunderstanding of refugee movements."

UNHCR has recently spoken out strongly against the Bill's proposals to offshore asylum processing (as we reported on EIN here) and today's statement again urged MPs in the strongest terms to reject the sections of the Bill that would allow the UK to send asylum seekers to third countries for processing of their claims. UNHCR said such policies are dehumanizing, expensive and do not resolve the underlying causes of movement and displacement.

Chris Philp, the Immigration Compliance Minister, told the House of Commons yesterday that the Government believes nothing in the Bill infringes the UK's international obligations.

"Article 31 of the Refugee Convention makes it clear that it is permitted to impose penalties where someone has not come directly, I use the word directly, from a place of danger and where they did not have reasonable opportunity to claim asylum somewhere else. But people coming from France are not coming directly from a place of danger, as required by Article 31, and they did have a reasonable chance to claim asylum in France. So these measures are wholly consistent with our international obligations," Philp told the Commons when closing the second reading debate.

The Law Society said on Monday, however, that there are significant concerns and a lack of clarity over whether the Bill would comply with international law.

"The government should publish a detailed legal assessment of whether and how proposals in the bill – including but not limited to changes to the definition of 'refugee', the introduction of a two-tier asylum system and the criminalisation of arrival to the UK without permission – are compatible with the UK's international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention," I. Stephanie Boyce, the Law Society president, said in a press release.

I. Stephanie Boyce added that the Bill's attempt to criminalise asylum seekers is "highly unlikely to be enforceable or prosecuted," and she warned that "[p]assing unenforceable laws undermines the rule of law, contributes to legal uncertainty and is damaging to Britain's reputation as a rational jurisdiction."

The Bill's proposals to streamline asylum appeals and introduce accelerated detained appeals could also have serious consequences for access to justice, the Law Society stated.