Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the order adds Switzerland to the first list of safe third countries set out in Part 2 of Schedule 3 to the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. This provision is concerned with situations in which an asylum seeker may be removed to a safe third country—that is, one of which he or she is not a national or citizen—without substantive consideration of the asylum claim. Countries in the first list of safe countries are presumed to be places from which an asylum seeker will not be returned in breach of the refugee convention or the European Convention on Human Rights.
Provided that the Secretary of State is able to certify, therefore, that the applicant is not a national or citizen of the state listed, the applicant may be removed to it and no right of appeal lies against the decision on the grounds of presumed or deemed safety. In other words, the applicant cannot bring an appeal arguing that the country in question is not safe.
Applicants may resist their removal on other human rights grounds in the usual way, although provision is made for such claims to be certified as clearly unfounded unless we are satisfied that they are not. If the claim is so certified, any appeal may be made only outside the United Kingdom. The Part 2 list currently includes all member states of the European Union, Iceland and Norway, all of which are bound by the arrangements for determining responsibility for examining an asylum claim set down in EC Regulation No. 343/2003, also known as the Dublin II Regulation. This regulation determines which member state is responsible for dealing with an asylum claim made within the EU or in another participating country. Dublin II combats the problem of asylum shopping in Europe by making one participating state—most often, though not always, the first one that the asylum seeker entered or the one in which he or she first claimed asylum—responsible for an asylum applicant and allowing him or her to be returned there if he or she tries to make a claim somewhere else. Since 2004, the Dublin regulation has allowed us to remove a net total of more than 7,500 people to other participating states.
Switzerland has signed an agreement with the EU allowing it to join the Dublin system and has been taking part in it since December 2008. The UK Border Agency has considered research from a number of sources, including UNHCR reports and the US State Department, and has conducted its own country research. We are satisfied that Switzerland has adequate procedures in place to ensure that individuals will neither be exposed to persecution in Switzerland nor be returned to their country of origin in breach of the refugee convention. We therefore believe that it is appropriate to make this order, which will allow us to operate the Dublin II Regulation with Switzerland as effectively as possible. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the Minister said, the order adds Switzerland to the list of safe third countries to which an asylum seeker can be removed from the UK without substantive consideration of the merits of his or her asylum claim. One effect is that there is no scope to contest removal to the third country on refugee convention grounds either before or after removal from the UK.
The Secretary of State has said that she is satisfied that removing asylum seekers to Switzerland will not be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights and that any asylum seeker returned to Switzerland will be afforded the rights and benefits accorded to all asylum seekers under its domestic law. Paragraph 8.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers to:
“Extensive research into the treatment of asylum seekers in Switzerland”,
“carried out using objective material and information provided by the Swiss authorities”.
Can the Minister say a little more about what that objective material was? From what is said in the Explanatory Memorandum, one takes it that it is independent material, but it would be helpful if the Minister could say a little more on that score.
The list of safe third countries includes, as the Minister said, all member states of the European Union and states in the European economic area. The Explanatory Memorandum also states that since December 2008 eight asylum seekers have been removed to Switzerland. Can the Minister tell us in general terms something about the eight cases? Did the people involved seek to contest the decision to remove them? Have there been any cases of decisions to remove to Switzerland being successfully contested and, if so, on what grounds did they succeed? On what general grounds or basis was Switzerland considered in these cases to be the appropriate country in respect of those eight asylum seekers? Was it, as the Minister said in his introductory comments, that Switzerland was the first country entered? With the introduction of this order, is there expected to be an increase in the number of asylum seekers being removed to Switzerland if the process is simplified?
Paragraphs 10.2 and 12.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum state that adding Switzerland to the safe third country list and its associated procedures will reduce the scope for errors. What kinds of errors are referred to in these two paragraphs?
This does not appear to be a contentious order but, finally, there is a reference in paragraph 12.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the instrument being,
“subjected to internal review within the UK Border Agency to ensure that it has met that aim”.
When that internal review has been undertaken, will the results be made public?
My Lords, this is not a contentious order, but one phrase that the Minister used in his introduction caught my attention. He referred to the net total of those subjected to these orders since 2004. Is that the net total of those who have come into the UK? Net is not a term that I would have expected to hear in the context.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate on the order. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked what constituted objective material: the answer is the US State Department reports that I mentioned and the experience of that country. Switzerland is clearly going to be a safe country as it is another European country, although obviously not part of the European Union, and so I do not see any difficulties. However, we had to go through a rigorous objective assessment of that state.
The noble Lord referred to the number of asylum seekers. Clearly, there are very few asylum seekers being sent back to Switzerland because it is not an obvious country for them to first arrive at. I was asked whether there would be an increase in removals to Switzerland. The answer is, no, the numbers are very low, but some asylum seekers will be subjected to this new procedure. The noble Lord needs to understand that procedures are already in place to allow removals but the Secretary of State must give each case a more difficult and protracted consideration. Once this order is approved, it will be easier for the Secretary of State to require removal.
The noble Lord touched on the scope for errors. It is sensible to have a universal procedure for all asylum seekers. Having different procedures for one very small proportion of asylum seekers seems unwise, and therefore it is better to approve this order and reduce the scope for errors. However, that does not mean that lots of errors are occurring.
The noble Baroness asked about the net total. I have not had any inspiration on that yet. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked how many removals had been challenged. I shall have to write to him on that one, but there have been 12 removals since the Explanatory Memorandum was published.