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UNHCR sets out its opposition to the Government’s New Plan for Immigration and publishes new report on the situation of stateless persons in the UK


UN Refugee Agency addresses some questions about proposed changes to UK asylum system

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CoverTwo notable new documents have been published this week by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In a short explainer piece published yesterday, available here, UNHCR responded to the Government's controversial New Plan for Immigration. A detailed legal position from UNHCR will follow in the coming weeks.

UNHCR says it opposes the New Plan for Immigration's proposals to differentiate the access to asylum and treatment of asylum seekers based on their means and way of arrival.

UNHCR also takes issue with the Government's rhetoric about 'illegal' immigration, a word used frequently in the Plan, in particular with reference to asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats from France.

The UNHCR explainer notes: "It is not illegal to seek asylum – the right is universal — whatever the means of travel or way of arrival. It is generally recognized that asylum-seekers, in exercising this right, are often unable to travel and arrive in a country via regular means. Apart from refugees who are admitted on resettlement (a programme managed in the UK by the Government with UNHCR and IOM), few refugees are able to secure travel documents (usually because the authorities will not give them one), or lose it or have it confiscated. Persuading any country to give them a visa is very difficult. Indeed, when refugee outflows occur, the issuance of visas by other States normally tightens. For all these reasons, UNHCR prefers to talk of 'irregular' rather than 'illegal' travel."

UNHCR adds in its explainer that the UK receives considerably fewer asylum applicants than France and that the vast majority of those asylum seekers stay in France.

The explainer states: "Far more asylum-seekers remain in France than come to the UK. France had more than three times the asylum applications of the UK last year. Due to COVID (and the closure of many transport links), more asylum-seekers trying to enter the UK came via small boats crossing the Channel. We understand the concerns, these sea journeys are dangerous, putting at risk those on board, but overall numbers of asylum-seekers entering the UK are down year on year and compared to a decade ago."

While Home Secretary Priti Patel spoke of an "asylum queue" in her statement to the Commons announcing the New Plan for Immigration, the UNCHR explainer says: "There is no 'queue.' The number of resettlement places (the main route for regular arrival) offered by states, though important, pales in comparison to needs. In the past four years, UNHCR has on average resettled 51,828 refugees per year globally against estimated needs for 1.4 million places."

UNHCR adds, however, that there are elements of the Plan that could be positive. It does, for example, support the Government's commitment to make asylum procedures faster and more efficient.

UNHCR this week also published a new report, I am Human, which presents the findings of a Participatory Assessment on the situation of stateless persons in the UK.

You can download the 28-page report here.

The report examines the challenges faced by people trying to navigate the UK's statelessness determination procedure. UNHCR interviewed 12 people who had an ongoing application or had been recently recognised as stateless.

UNHCR noted that most interviewees said that they felt safe and protected in the UK, but all spoke of their frustration and distress at the length of the process and at the many limitations their lack of status involved.

Many interviewees said that their experiences had led to a deterioration in mental health and concerns were raised around general awareness of the procedure, the quality of reviews, difficulties obtaining evidence, the use of detention and the overall structure of the process.

On the subject of legal advice, the UNHCR report stated: "The interviewees were all very grateful when they received valuable legal advice. However, it wasn't always easy to find. UNHCR encourages States to incorporate access to legal counsel in their determination procedures including offering free legal assistance to applicants without financial means. However, in England and Wales there is generally no legal aid for statelessness leave applications and it was clear that this was a barrier to many of the interviewees finding legal advice. Although exceptional case funding may be available, research has highlighted that solicitors are reluctant to take on such cases because they are complex and remuneration is limited given the significant amount of work involved. Therefore, many of the interviewees felt that they didn't know where to turn, particularly when they had no funds. A few either submitted applications without a legal representative or relied on free expert legal clinics or providers which regularly deal with stateless cases. Three out of four interviewees with statelessness leave had been represented by an expert legal provider or clinic and they all said that a significant amount of preparation went into the application. However, such clinics or providers have limited funding and are not always able to take on cases."

Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR's Representative in the UK, said: "This study shows the challenges many stateless people still experience in the UK when they fall through the cracks, unable to move on with their lives … In light of these findings we'd like the Home Office to implement policies to ensure most decisions are made within six months — a year in exceptional circumstances and ensure that all statelessness leave applicants can access adequate support and accommodation while awaiting decisions, including financial support and a right to work after six months at the latest. It's also important to ensure those claiming to be stateless are given an opportunity to explain their case in person. Their reasons and stories are sometimes very complex and really need explaining."