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Dublin System: Asylum

Volume 609: debated on Wednesday 4 May 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on reforms to the Dublin agreement and the effects on asylum.

This morning the European Commission published its proposals for reform of the Dublin protocol and emergency relocation in response to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. The proposals were first announced under the EU-Turkey deal, and agreement is critical to finding a solution for Europe’s asylum systems ahead of the summer. The Government will now scrutinise the proposals carefully.

As the House will be aware, the UK has an opt-in to any EU proposals on justice and home affairs issues. It is not bound to sign up to the proposals the Commission has published today; we will have three months to consider whether to do so. The proposals will be laid before Parliament, and an explanatory memorandum will be provided. Scrutiny Committees in both Houses will look at the issue in detail, and Parliament will be able to consider the proposals in the usual way.

The Government strongly support the principles behind the Dublin regulation. We believe that an asylum claim made in the EU should be dealt with by the member state most responsible for the applicant’s presence in the EU. This provides certainty for the applicant and protects other member states’ asylum systems from abuse. But our starting position is clear: we will not opt into any legislative proposal that replaces the existing Dublin principles with a redistribution mechanism, and we do not support relocation. Those in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. We support the existing Dublin regulations and the principles underpinning them.

In this context, it is worth noting that the Commission has been very clear today that, should we not opt into the revised Dublin regulations, the existing regulations will continue to apply between the UK and other member states, and this is at least partly a direct result of the Government’s engagement with the Commission and other member states. As such, there is no risk that we would lose our existing powers to return people to other EU member states—powers that we have used nearly 12,000 times since 2005.

Where an individual is the responsibility of another EU member state under EU law, the Government seek to return them under the Dublin regulations—and we will continue to do so. We have been engaged in regular constructive conversations with our European counterparts and the European Commission, and will participate fully in the negotiations on this draft proposal at European level. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for his statement, although I am somewhat concerned that it will be three months before we know what this will look like in reality, given that we have a very important referendum coming up in that time.

The Minister said in February that the Dublin agreement

“should be upheld, not undermined.”—[Official Report, 29 February 2016; Vol. 606, c. 689.]

In theory, the Dublin asylum regulations ensure that EU countries can deport refugees to their first port of entry, as he just re-confirmed. The Secretary of State recently restated her view

“that amending the Dublin regulation is unnecessary and risks undermining a vital tool in managing asylum claims within the EU.”—[Official Report, 2 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 21WS.]

However, the EU Commission is pressing ahead with reforms despite her views, and despite many European countries expressing their extreme disquiet. Under the existing rules, Britain ostensibly, as the Minister said, has the right to deport asylum seekers to their first port of entry. However, in practice that means—he gave a figure—that only 1% of asylum seekers from the UK each year have been relocated to the first port of entry, according to Eurostat. Does he accept that this very low figure of only 1% for relocations is accurate? If so, will he explain why the UK is performing so badly under the current regulations?

In practice, the Dublin agreement is very far from perfect, and the EU is desperate to find ways of evening out the strains from the large numbers of asylum seekers, as well as of not rocking the British boat before our referendum. Even the European Commission has acknowledged that the current Dublin system does not work. Germany has all but abandoned it, and Greece has apparently not abided by it since 2011. The Commission has stated:

“Even where Member States accept transfer requests, only about a quarter of such cases result in effective transfers, and, after completion of a transfer, there are frequent cases of secondary movements back to the transferring Member State”.

Does the Minister accept that even with relocations as low as 1%, we are often obliged to re-admit individuals under the secondary transfer process? Does he have figures for the House on how many are relocated back to the United Kingdom? Given the low numbers sent back to the first port of entry under this system, and the fact that many of them return, does he still believe that this is a good deal for Britain? Despite the haggling and horse-trading going on behind closed doors as we speak, has the Secretary of State secured a permanent and favourable opt-out from any form of quota sharing—an opt-out that cannot be overruled at any point in future by other member countries? It is important to know that at this moment.

These proposals are part of a package to try to manage the surge in migrants and refugees flooding into Europe. The Commission is in the process of proposing measures revising the terms of the Dublin regulation—namely, imposing a financial penalty of €250,000 for every refugee not taken by a country if another member state experiences a sudden influx. How will this new quota/penalty system proposal sit with the current Dublin III proposal that the Minister says he wishes to stay within? Has he secured a permanent and favourable opt-out from any form of penalty payment that might be negotiated in future for non-acceptance of quotas—one that could not be overruled at any point in future by other member countries?

Order. Before the Minister responds, two points should be made. First, I say in all courtesy and gently to the hon. Lady that she modestly exceeded her time allocation, but I am sure that that was inadvertent and will not be repeated on subsequent occasions.

Secondly, equally courteously and gently, I say to the Minister, with reference to his final sentence commending his statement to the House, that he did not make a statement to the House. The Government could perfectly well have volunteered a statement to the House, but the reason the right hon. Gentleman is in the Chamber is that I required a Minister to attend the Chamber to answer the urgent question—capital U, capital Q—from the hon. Lady. It may seem a fine distinction to those attending our proceedings, but it is quite an important one. The right hon. Gentleman is here involuntarily and not voluntarily. I hope the position is now clear.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am always the servant of the House in this regard.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) has raised various points. The UK has a very clear opt-in arrangement in relation to justice and home affairs matters and we retain firm control over the ability to decide which matters to opt into, as I explained clearly in my opening comments.

The existing Dublin regulations provide a significant benefit. As I have said, we have used the process to remove nearly 12,000 people from the UK to other EU member states over the past 10 years.

My hon. Friend asked whether we may subsequently be bound by, or be required to be participants in, the new arrangements. I point her to a specific statement in the European Commission’s press release:

“The UK and Ireland are not required but instead determine themselves the extent to which they want to participate in these measures, in accordance with the relevant Protocols attached to the Treaties. If they do not opt in, the current rules as they operate today will continue to apply to them, in line with the Treaties.”

That provides the important clarification and certainty sought by my hon. Friend. Clearly, that provides protection in relation to whether or not we decide to opt into certain matters, including the quota penalty, to which she referred.

Let us be clear from the start: through our opt-out on home affairs and justice, Britain would not be required to take part in any asylum relocation system, nor would we be required to pay any financial levy to avoid it. Let us also be clear, however, that we have a keen national interest and a moral responsibility to ensure that effective systems are in place to tackle the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe in a decade. A humanitarian crisis on this scale clearly needs a concerted EU-wide response.

It is clear that the Dublin arrangements are not working on the ground. They are not able to cope with the numbers or process the claims. For those precise reasons, Labour has been calling for many months for a reconsideration of how the Dublin arrangements work in practice. The Government, as ever, have been slow and reluctant to act, as characterised by the Minister’s involuntary appearance here today.

Labour is also clear that the key Dublin principles preventing first country states from refusing to process asylum seekers and allowing return to first country are important. We welcome the Government’s update on that, but what reform proposals have they made to the Commission?

There is also the wider and key question of unaccompanied children in Europe. Today the chair of the Association of Jewish Refugees called on the Prime Minister to do more to help what he called “the most vulnerable victims” of the Syrian conflict. We cannot continue to sit on our hands or to be subject to the repugnant rhetoric that these children in Europe are safe—they are not. There is a groundswell of support. When will the Government finally listen? If there is to be a U-turn, the sooner it happens, the better.

The hon. and learned Gentleman clearly did not hear what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s Question Time just a few moments ago. He said that we are in discussions with Save the Children and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about what further assistance can be provided to those who had already registered in Europe before the EU-Turkey deal came into force. He also mentioned the discussions that we will have with local authorities.

I reject entirely the hon. and learned Gentleman’s claim that the Government have been slow to act on the Dublin regulations. We have sent experts to France and other European countries to support that process, to enable its practical implementation on the ground, and to ensure that it bears fruit and speeds up.

The hon. and learned Gentleman highlighted issues relating to the Dublin regulations. The Government believe that the long-standing principles at the heart of the Dublin system are the right ones, and it would be a major error to tear them up and replace them with something completely different. Dublin may not be operating as it should be, but that does not meant that its principles are fundamentally flawed. That is the approach that this Government will take to further negotiation.

Right hon. and hon. Members will not have seen the proposals in detail, because they have only just been published. It is right, therefore, that we reflect on them in detail and continue our discussions in order to ensure a reformed Dublin system that benefits the UK, while acknowledging the protections we have to maintain the existing Dublin arrangements.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) not only on securing the urgent question, but on the manner in which she conducted her analysis. She was, of course, completely right. The European Scrutiny Committee is looking at this very matter and we will be talking about it this afternoon. Would the Minister be good enough to give us an assurance that, if we so decide, which I feel we will, that there should be a debate on the Floor of the House, he would encourage that with the Whips? Will he also make sure that the matter is not left hanging around for as long as three months? We need urgent answers to these questions.

The three-month period is the time the UK has to consider whether to opt into measures at the outset. As my hon. Friend will know, that is one of our protections in our relationship with the EU with regard to justice and home affairs matters. The Commission has published its papers this morning and I am sure that they will be scrutinised in detail by the European Scrutiny Committee. The Government will provide information and support that process in order to ensure that the measure is properly scrutinised by the House. There is no delay on the Government’s part: the three-month period is our safeguard in deciding whether to opt in, and it certainly does not defer scrutiny.

The Dublin rules were not fit for purpose, even before the current crisis in Europe developed, and that crisis has pushed the system way beyond breaking point. Even a child would understand that front-line countries such as Greece and Italy cannot be expected to deal alone with all the asylum seekers who arrive there. The proposed system of financial penalties would be an improvement, but it is a distant second best to the proper sharing of responsibility throughout the European Union. If the United Kingdom is not prepared to sign up to the new EU asylum system, exactly what steps will the Government take in order for the UK to do its bit for those already in Europe, particularly the child refugees?

When I was in Calais with other Scottish National party MPs at Easter, we met many refugees with family in the UK, and we met men who had acted as interpreters for the UK armed forces, including men who had been at Camp Bastion at the same time as Prince Harry and when the Prime Minister visited. The Government keep assuring us that they are taking action to speed up the processing of take charge requests, once they receive them. Will the Minister now provide us with the figures on processing times that we have repeatedly asked for, so that we can have some evidence that those take charge requests are being dealt with more speedily?

More fundamentally, there is a real problem with the French side of things being handled slowly and the fact that many of the refugees in Calais and Dunkirk are afraid to claim asylum in France because of the very bad experiences they have had there already, including being tear-gassed by French authorities. Will the British Government consider providing a route to bypass the French system and allow direct claims to the UK based on family ties?

The relevant requests under the existing Dublin arrangements are being processed in a matter of weeks, as I have indicated to the hon. and learned Lady on previous occasions. Direct contact between officials on both sides means that they are able to make speedy decisions and ensure that those who have links to the UK can be reunited. The Government believe in that principle very strongly. We are also providing additional funding to and investment in other parts of Europe, and that work is absolutely intended to support that principle.

The hon. and learned Lady mentioned the French Government’s actions. They have engaged a specific non-governmental organisation, France Terre d’Asile, to identify people in the camps and ensure that they are protected speedily. We support that work and we will continue to support the French Government and play our part in ensuring that those who have a connection to the UK are established, identified and come to the UK quickly.

Does the Minister agree that the migrant crisis that we face is our part of a crisis that affects every European Union member state and requires a European Union solution? It is a complete absurdity, first promulgated by the UK Independence party, that if we left the EU these people would somehow no longer be a problem for us.

As the Government have played a full part in the limited progress so far on closing the outer border of Europe and making arrangements with Turkey for the return of asylum seekers, does the Minister accept that although we are legally quite entitled to insist on the Dublin convention, and of course must exercise our opt-out when it is in our interests, we must have regard to the problems of Greece, Italy and other countries? Those countries have not encouraged these vast numbers of people to come to them, and we will need the co-operation of their Governments if we are eventually to restore order in every member state, including the United Kingdom.

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that this is an EU-wide problem which we will need to continue to address at that level, and that it is clearly not the case that the UK leaving the EU in the referendum would suddenly make the migration crisis go away.

My right hon. and learned Friend mentions Greece and Italy, and he will equally know that the EU-Turkey deal is intended to support efforts on the frontline. From next week we will be sending out about 75 experts to support front-line activity in Greece.

I think that in his heart, the Minister probably accepts everything that the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) said today, including that the Dublin agreement is in crisis not because of the United Kingdom but because other EU countries are flouting the way it operates. The Home Affairs Committee saw that for itself when it visited Greece and Italy. Other partners need to fulfil their obligations under Dublin and deal with matters in their countries so that people do not end up coming to Calais seeking to come over to the United Kingdom. To do that, they need just 10% of the money that has gone to Turkey. The EU-Turkey deal was the most generous in history, but Greece and Italy are the countries that need our support.

The right hon. Gentleman will know about the practical support that we are providing through the European Asylum Support Office to front-line states that have seen significant numbers of people arriving on their shores. We have provided £70 million of funding for the Europe-wide response, which is a significant contribution to the activities needed to support vulnerable migrants. He is right that we need to continue the work with Greece and Italy, which is precisely what the Government will do, as we recognise the pressures that those Governments are under.

The EU documents about the EU-Turkey agreement, including the creation of a visa-free area for most of the EU and Turkey, make it clear that strengthening the Turkish frontier with Syria, Iraq and Iran must be part of the revised asylum and migration policy. Quite remarkably, and rather strangely, the documents say that the EU will help build walls, fences and ditches along what is an extremely long border. Can the Minister tell us how many miles of those impediments to migration the EU has in mind, and what the costs might be?

The clear focus is on seeing that refugees do not make the journey across the Mediterranean sea to the shores of Europe, which is consistent with the approach that the Government have taken. It is why we have pledged £2.3 billion to tackling the humanitarian crisis, which is giving people a sense of hope and opportunity through work and education. That is the right approach to show people why they should not be making the journey, and the EU-Turkey deal supports that.

I know that the Minister is proud of his opt-in, but in reply to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) he seemed to agree in principle that the refugee crisis is a European crisis that requires collective action. If we had the Brokenshire regulations instead of the Dublin regulations, what exactly would they be?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for framing the question in that way. It underlines the need for each EU member state to play a part, which is precisely what the UK Government are doing. We are providing expert support, funding and a significant contribution to resettlement through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme and the new children at risk resettlement scheme. The basic principles of Dublin are right and need to be upheld, but the question is how we can improve the practical aspects of it.

If the Dublin convention is to work optimally, it requires the collection of biometric data from migrants. Perfectly understandably, the more savvy migrant declines to co-operate with that process, probably with the connivance of Italian and Greek officials. What can be done to strengthen that part of the Dublin arrangements?

It is about practical implementation, and that is why I made the point about the 75 experts we are sending out to Greece. Other European countries are doing the same, to see that the practical measure of taking fingerprints is upheld at the frontline. I think that practical support will make the difference.

Does the Minister accept that the Dublin regulation should put a floor on what we do, not a ceiling? With that in mind, will he look again at the treatment of those who claim asylum having previously helped our armed forces in Afghanistan as interpreters? If they had treated us as we now treat them, the lives of many of our servicemen would have been put at risk or lost.

I will look carefully at what the right hon. Gentleman says about how those who have supported the British armed forces in Afghanistan are analysed and treated in our asylum system. Many right hon. and hon. Members have raised that issue, and I can assure him that I am giving it close attention.

Does the Minister agree that EU reform in this area should take into account a member state’s efforts to resettle refugees from third countries outside the EU and to fund those countries? With the UK having delivered more than £1 billion of aid to try to prevent perilous journeys at sea, it would be right for the EU to endorse our approach if reduced migration is the aim.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the steps that the Government have taken through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. Our focus remains on providing safe routes for the most vulnerable in the region. The UK has made an important contribution, which plays a part in the overall work across the EU of providing stability and preventing people from making the journey.

The Minister will know that there is a huge amount of concern about the issue in this country, and especially about unaccompanied children in the camps in Calais. It is welcome to hear that the Government now agree with Alf Dubs, but given what the Minister has said today and the problems that we have seen to date with people claiming asylum through the current Dublin arrangements, will he give us some numbers? How many young people does he think the UK will now be able to offer sanctuary to as a result of the decision that the Government have made today?

The Prime Minister said earlier that we will discuss the matter with local authorities, and we will also continue discussions with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Save the Children and others. It is right that we assess the issue carefully in that way and come to the right conclusion.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK has the double protection of being outside the automatic opt-in and outside Schengen, so that when asylum seekers choose not to claim asylum at the first port of call, they cannot travel across Europe and come to the UK through a no-border zone?

We have the best of both worlds in being outside the borderless area of Schengen, which gives us the protection of being able to uphold our own border and carry out the necessary checks, and having legal rights through the opt-ins and the enhanced mechanisms that the Prime Minister achieved through his renegotiation, which will add to that protection.

It would be helpful if the Minister made it clear, given that the Government are now going to accept the Dubs amendment, that many of the justice and home affairs opt-outs are designed, as he has just said, to control Britain’s borders. He will be aware of the very good journalism by Ben Riley-Smith of The Telegraph showing that the Semaphore system, which controls those coming into the country, went down for several days last summer, leading to the Minister and the Home Secretary being roused from their beds. Yesterday, his permanent secretary admitted that that had happened many times but would not say when and for how long. Do we not deserve that information? Will the Minister publish it?

We provide clear assurance and protections for the UK border. We take a multi-layered approach. We ensure that the primary control points have 100% checks for scheduled arrivals, which the last Labour Government did not do. This Government will continue to maintain that focus on our border and security.

My right hon. Friend will know from the conference on the migrant crisis at which both he and I spoke last week of the anger and despair of the Hungarian Government at what is now being proposed by the European Union. Will he explain what our Government are doing to criticise, or to try to take enforcement action against, Germany for its unilateral rejection of the current regulations?

As I have indicated to the House, the Government have opt-outs and opt-ins for certain measures. There are aspects of Schengen that we are not party to, and we will not be party to the Schengen area. It is for those member states bound by those regulations to enforce compliance, with the Commission. That is rightly a matter for them and not for the UK.

I hope that the Minister will find a way to provide more support for unaccompanied children. Compassion demands it. Will he outline how the UK front-line support that is going to be provided to Greece and Italy will help to ensure that unaccompanied children already in the European Union do not go missing?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point about issues such as trafficking and exploitation. Kevin Hyland, the independent anti-slavery commissioner, will be travelling out to Greece and Italy shortly. The experts we are sending out will include people with knowledge and understanding of those issues in relation to children, so as to seek to provide greater assurance on the very matter he raised.

Through their recent renegotiation the Government have demonstrated that an axiom of our EU membership is our common European citizenship, which implies the common treatment of people right across the EU. Will the Minister not concede that if the public vote to remain in the EU, he will not long be able to resist pressure in the Council of Ministers to concede our opt-out and to join the arrangements, whatever those are, in a process of bargaining away to achieve whatever happen to be the objectives of the Government of the day?

I do not concede that. The UK has very clear legal protections; indeed the way in which we opted out of a number of pre-existing justice and home affairs measures shows the clear approach of this Government in upholding what is in the UK’s best interests. I have been very explicit this afternoon in highlighting that we judge that being part of the relocation mechanism is not in the interests of the UK.

Given that the Minister has said that the asylum regime may well change after the EU referendum, will he concede that there is no status quo on the ballot paper for the referendum, just as those who voted to stay in the Common Market in 1975 did not get the status quo? Given that Opposition parties seem to be working on the basis that other EU countries are incapable of providing decent and humane refuge to asylum seekers, does he agree that we should not want to be part of a political union that cannot treat asylum seekers properly and with decency?

On the status quo, the Commission has said explicitly that we can continue to uphold and operate the existing Dublin arrangements if we decide not to opt in to the new measures published today. That assurance is important. Clearly, we will continue to work to support other EU partners, to ensure that those who claim asylum on their shores are able to do so effectively. Our expert support is precisely in tune with that.

Part of the plan announced today is a proposal that European countries that refuse to give shelter to refugees could be forced to pay into the coffers of countries that do take them. We have the temporary opt-out on this at present, but will the Minister state that that opt-out is absolutely guaranteed and is one that we will not consider reneging on? Will he also publish the legal advice he has been given on the legal basis for that proposal?

I say to my hon. Friend that I am not referring to some temporary opt-out. Our ability to opt-in to measures on justice and home affairs matters is one of the basic principles of the treaty. I know he understands and recognises that. It is the basis upon which I have made my points to the House this afternoon.

The Minister has been involved on the issue of human trafficking for many years and so knows about the problem. One problem with continental Europe is its open borders. Whatever the other advantages of those open borders, they are a human trafficker’s charter. It seems to me that the new proposals will add to that problem. We want more checking, to stop the evil crime of trafficking.

I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend, who has done so much to highlight the issue and has assisted in the reforms that have taken place. We need to step up our response to organised immigration crime, which is why we have established the taskforce and will continue to work with European partners to highlight these important issues and see that children are protected and do not fall into the hands of traffickers. I hope that the work on the frontline and the further inputs from Kevin Hyland will assist us not just as a country but in supporting other member EU states.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Enterprise Act 2016

Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Act 2016

Bank of England and Financial Services Act 2016

Trade Union Act 2016

Transport for London Act 2016.