The United Nations refugee agency’s representative to the UK has warned that the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill “effectively extinguishes the right to seek asylum in the UK for all but a very few refugees”.
The controversial Bill, aimed at tackling Channel crossings, returns to the House of Commons on Monday for its committee stage, and MPs will scrutinise it over two days.
Vicky Tennant, of the UNHCR, told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme that the proposed legislation is “in breach of international law” and “the UK’s obligations under the International Refugee Convention.”
But the Home Office said it is “satisfied that this legislation is within the bounds of international law and is compatible with the Refugee Convention”.
“We know that those coming across the Channel broadly reflect the nationalities of countries affected by crisis, by persecution globally.
“So we’re talking about countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Albania, several of these, as I’ve said, countries that are producing high numbers of refugees.”
She added: “We think the focus of attention really needs to be on the asylum system, on asylum processing, getting that working properly so people are able to present their claims.
“If they’re not refugees decisions can be made quickly, they can be returned to their own countries, and if they are refugees, then they’re able to embark on that integration journey.
“We think that’s in everyone’s interests, not just the refugees interest, but also the interests of the British public.”
The Bill aims to stop people claiming asylum in the UK if they arrive through unauthorised means, but the UNHCR has called it an effective “asylum ban”.
Pressed on what action the UNHCR might take if a country is found to be in breach of international law, she said “there is no sanction as such” but claimed violations have “an impact globally”.
Ms Tennant added: “You know, we have to remember that the vast majority of refugees are hosted in countries neighbouring their own.
“So more than 69/70% are in countries neighbouring their own.
“Now, if you’re a country like Turkey, hosting more than three million refugees or Bangladesh hosting, you know, just short of a million refugees with all the impact that has on your economy, on your infrastructure on your services.
“And then you look at a country like the UK much further away, much less impacted, many fewer refugees, that sends a really unfortunate signal.
“So we believe that if this goes ahead, if other countries were to follow suit, it really would have a very significant impact on refugee protection globally.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a proud history of providing protection for those who genuinely need it through safe and legal routes offering safety and protection to almost half a million men, women and children since 2015.
“More routes to safety for vulnerable people across the globe will be created but the rise in illegal migration must be stopped first.
“People who come to the UK illegally will be liable for detention and prompt removal.
“The asylum system is being reformed at the same time. Shorter interviews, simpler guidance and more decision makers will help clear the asylum backlog by the end of the year.”