Prompting accusations of a breach of international law ministers quietly changed immigration rules which prevent people who are fleeing war or persecution from claiming asylum in the UK if they have already passed through a ‘safe’ third country.
From 1st January 2021, claims of asylum from a person who has already travelled through or has a connection to a safe third country, including people coming from EU member states, will be treated as inadmissible. These changes will also prevent asylum seekers from being able to make a claim in the territorial waters of the UK.
The UK government will be able to remove refused asylum seekers not only to the third countries through which they have travelled, but to any safe third country that may agree to receive them.
A 10 page statement outlining the changes to the rules was published online without a press or public announcement.
The changes, however, highlight a significant hurdle for the UK government. Claims will only be treated as inadmissible if the asylum applicant is accepted for readmission by the third country through which they have travelled or another safe state agrees to take them.
This could render the new policy “pointless” and would most likely delay asylum applications and leave refugees in limbo in the UK, Immigration law experts have said.
A leading immigration barrister with expertise in asylum law, Colin Yeo, wrote – “The policy is pointless because the government has negotiated no such return agreements, so all it does is delay decisions on all claims, which is cruel to genuine refugees, and delay removal of non genuine cases”.
Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesperson, said the changes were “yet another breach of international law”. He said: “The UK has a proud history of providing sanctuary to those in need, but now the Conservative government is turning its back on refugees. The latest nasty policy from Priti Patel, home secretary, goes against our commitments under the refugee convention and against everything the UK stands for. It’s yet another breach of international law by this irresponsible government”.
Chief executive of Safe Passage International a charity that help refugees access safe and legal routes to asylum, Beth Gardiner-Smith said: “The government’s changes to the immigration rules are a direct assault on the fundamental human right to asylum. These chilling changes on International Human Rights Day do a disservice to the UK’s proud record of providing safety to those fleeing persecution and violence”.
The number of small boat arrivals across the Channel has increased to record levels this year, with more than 8,000 migrants and refugees travelling across the Dover Strait, compared to less than 2,000 in 2019. Total asylum applications however, are down year on year as the Covid-19 pandemic has cut off other methods of travel and limited migration flows.
The prime minister has reportedly become frustrated with Priti Patel’s handling of the situation after she was accused of responding haphazardly with kneejerk proposals which ranged from sending asylum seekers thousands of miles away to islands in the South Atlantic, to using giant water cannons to repel boats.
The UK is a party to the UN’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and to its 1967 protocol, a piece of international law designed to protect refugees.
A statement through the immigration compliance minister, Chris Philip, said: “We are determined to fix the broken asylum system to make it firm on those who come here through illegally facilitated routes and fair on those who play by the rules. There is no reason to leave a safe country like France to make a dangerous crossing. These measures send a clear message and are just one of the steps the government is taking to tackle the unacceptable rise in small boat crossings”.