The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has said the the government should be urged to look at English Channel crossings with ‘perspective’, as an official told MPs that Britain only received a ‘small number’ of asylum seekers in comparison to other countries in Europe and the vast majority of refugees stay in regions near their home nations.
Due to the geographical position of the UK and the distance from crisis hit countries only a small number of refugees are received. UNHCR representative to the UK Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor urged the UK to look at this in perspective, “The Channel crisis is certainly a challenge but needs to be looked at with the broader perspective of a global challenge for all countries in respect to displacement”.
Home Office figures suggest that more than 16,000 migrants have crossed the Channel in small boats so far this year, which is almost double the total for the whole of 2020. Ms Pagliuchi-Lor said that although the number of crossings had increased the overall number of applications is ‘relatively stable’ at approximately 35,000 a year, which is far below France, Greece, Germany, Spain, Italy and other countries. She warned that nations such as Jordan and Pakistan, neighbour warzones, have witnessed enormous influxes which they cannot cope with alone.
The UNHCR official made these comments to a parliamentary committee considering the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would make it a criminal offence to enter Britain without ‘entry clearance’. The UNHCR had previously said the proposals violate international law, by creating an ‘unfair two-tier asylum system’ which discriminates on the basis of how people arrive with no lawful basis.
Asylum cannot be sought from outside the UK and the change would mean refugees reaching the country on small boats and other irregular means face four years in prison. The bill would also make it easier to prosecute asylum seekers who steer boats, and people who provide humanitarian assistance for ‘assisting unlawful immigration’.
Ms Pagliuchi-Lor said that people should not be penalised where they act for humanitarian reasons rather than financial benefit or other forms of gain.
The government however, say that the measures would ‘deter illegal entry into the UK, to break the business model of people smuggling networks and to protect the lives of those they endanger’.
Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton said that there were ‘many other factors’ considered by asylum seekers making the journey to the UK, rather than thinking about ‘what is the nature of the law when we get there’. She felt that the proposals, which include limiting asylum seekers’ access to public support, could worsen modern slavery in the UK by making vulnerable people destitute and even more desperate.
A government impact assessment said there was a risk that increased security and deterrence in the Channel may encourage migrants to attempt a riskier means of entering the UK. Taking these measures would advance the legitimate aim of encouraging asylum seekers to claim in the first safe country they reach and not undertake these dangerous journeys facilitated by smugglers to get to the UK.
The government has recently announced new schemes to resettle refugees directly from the Middle East and Asia although places offered are not sufficient and the process too slow.
Ms Pagliuchi-Lor went on to say: “The entire bill revolves around the notion that refugees are required to seek asylum in the first safe country they reach, but that is not a requirement in international law. Such a principle would be ‘unworkable’ in practice, overwhelming developing and low-income countries that are nearest to crisis areas”.
Concerns were also raised concerning the bill, if passed in its current form it could trigger a ‘race to the bottom’ if other countries start trying to renege on commitments under the Refugee Convention.
She added:”We support the broad aims of the bill in terms of tackling smuggling networks, having fair and faster procedures and facilitating returns of those not in need of international protection. We believe this bill will not achieve these aims and may exacerbate further some of the issues that have been identified”.
Changes to mean more asylum applications are declared ‘inadmissible’ by the UK will ‘create massive problems’ at a time when there are not agreements enabling them to be transferred to safe third countries in Europe. An EU-wide agreement allowing Britain to send asylum seekers to countries they previously passed through, such as France and Germany, expired with Brexit.
Since the UK changed its immigration rules, 4,500 asylum seekers have been told their applications may be inadmissible but no-one has been deported and the government is ‘simply creating a very long queue leading to nowhere’.
“The system as described would exacerbate the current backlog and increase the costs by making the procedures longer and I think it will have a number of unintended negative consequences”.