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UK Illegal Migration Bill: UNHCR and UNHRC warn of profound impact on human rights and international refugee protection system

18 July 2023.

GENEVA – The Illegal Migration Bill, which has now been passed by Parliament in the United Kingdom, is at variance with the country’s obligations under international human rights and refugee law and will have profound consequences for people in need of international protection, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi warned today.

The Bill extinguishes access to asylum in the UK for anyone who arrives irregularly, having passed through a country – however briefly – where they did not face persecution. It bars them from presenting refugee protection or other human rights claims, no matter how compelling their circumstances. In addition, it requires their removal to another country, with no guarantee that they will necessarily be able to access protection there. It creates sweeping new detention powers, with limited judicial oversight.

“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,” Grandi said.

The Bill denies access to protection in the UK for anyone falling within its scope – including unaccompanied and separated children – regardless of whether they are at risk of persecution, may have suffered human rights violations or whether they are survivors of human trafficking or modern-day slavery and may have other well-founded claims under international human rights and humanitarian law.

“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 High Commissioner Türk.

Most people fleeing war and persecution either do not have or are unable to access formal documents such as passports and visas. Safe and “legal” routes are rarely available to them. The 1951 Refugee Convention, for its part, explicitly recognizes that refugees may be compelled to enter a country of asylum irregularly.

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

The legislation will exacerbate the already vulnerable situation of people who arrive irregularly in the UK, drastically limiting the enjoyment of their human rights, and putting them at risk of detention and destitution.

As a result, their rights to health, an adequate standard of living, and to work are at risk, exposing them to the risk of exploitation and abuse.

“In addition to raising very serious legal concerns from the international perspective, this Bill sets a worrying precedent for dismantling asylum-related obligations that other countries, including in Europe, may be tempted to follow, with a potentially adverse effect on the international refugee and human rights protection system as a whole,” Türk warned.

“UNHCR shares the UK Government’s concern regarding the number of asylum-seekers resorting to dangerous journeys across the 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. 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,” said Grandi.

All those who leave their country of origin to seek safety and protection elsewhere are entitled to the full respect of their human rights and dignity, regardless of their legal status, mode of arrival or any other distinction.

“The UK has long had a commitment to upholding international human rights and refugee law. Such steadfast commitment is needed today more than ever,” the UN Human Rights Chief stressed.

“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,” Türk said.

UNHRC

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