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EU Bilateral Agreements for Asylum Seekers

Volume 814: debated on Monday 6 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in negotiating bilateral agreements with European Union member states for the return of asylum seekers arriving in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we are in discussions with a number of EU member states and other third countries to reach bilateral arrangements for the return of asylum seekers and intend to open further talks with others. The political declaration agreed by the UK and the EU alongside the TCA noted the importance of this issue and our intention to engage bilaterally with member states on such arrangements. These take time and it would be inappropriate to disclose the nature of those talks.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer, but is not the answer that very little progress has actually been made? It would be nice if she acknowledged the fact that it is because of Brexit that we have lost the right to return asylum seekers who could have claimed asylum in other EU countries. More to the point, without these agreements, does it not make the Government’s plan to legislate to make all unauthorised arrivals on UK shores illegal not only unjust and possibly in breach of our international legal obligations but completely unsustainable?

I say to the noble Lord’s final point that everything we are doing complies with all our international obligations, including the refugee convention. I see the noble Lord shaking his head, so let me underline that this allows for differentiated treatment where a refugee has now come to the UK directly from a country of persecution and did not

“present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.”

That is from Article 31.

My Lords, care and justice for asylum seekers is obviously a matter very close to the heart of the Church, Jesus himself being a refugee. Last week, the Church of England published a toolkit for the many churches that have asked us what they can do to support Afghan refugees. The Minister will know that the Church and other faith communities are among the main support works for asylum seekers. There are more than 3,000 Afghan nationals with existing asylum claims waiting for a decision, some of whom have been waiting a long time. What steps are the Government taking to expedite procedures for dealing with existing or new asylum claims by Afghan nationals, given the very changed situation and the particular stress and trauma felt by these people?

I say to the most reverend Primate that I thank the Church of England in particular for everything it has done to support asylum seekers; the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has been the first person to take part in community sponsorship. The work of the Church has been incredibly important. Clearly, we will be trying to expedite asylum claims as quickly as possible. We have suspended returns to Afghanistan—understandably so—and I hope that the claims of all those who are waiting in the queue will be seen to as quickly as possible.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that asylum seekers, who are not required to take any PCR test when they land in the United Kingdom—unlike double-vaccinated Members of this House—are put at a great disadvantage? Does she envisage that they will be required to take a PCR test before they can be sent back anywhere?

It would be helpful to outline the process here. All migrants are tested on arrival with a lateral flow test and any refusing are treated as though they are infectious and are isolated. Due to a small possibility of false positives associated with lateral flow, any individual who receives a positive result at a residential short-term holding facility in England or an immigration removal centre will be offered a PCR test to confirm the result, and any detained individual with symptoms of Covid, or testing positive for Covid, will be placed in protective isolation for at least 10 days.

My Lords, is there not another question for the Home Office? Given the difficulties of last year’s endless reporting on Windrush and the Wendy Williams report that said the Home Office was institutionally racist and ignorant, how will it handle new asylum and refugee cases? Is this the right department to handle the increasing number of asylum seekers and refugees? Given that the United Kingdom is one of the poorest countries for receiving refugees and then processing asylum claims, and noting that the BBC reported this morning that from 2008 to 2019 the UK sent back almost as many Afghans as we have just received, is the Home Office the right department to be operating this scheme?

I disagree with the noble Lord on a number of points. I think this country is incredibly generous in terms of how it supports and welcomes people who need our help. He mentioned Wendy Williams. I very much look forward to welcoming her back later this month when she reports on the findings of her first report. I am also very pleased that the Minister appointed for Afghanistan refugee resettlement is my honourable friend VickyAtkins, who will be a very compassionate and suitable candidate for the role.

My Lords, returning to the original Question, is not the truth that the Home Office has been unable to negotiate any bilateral agreements—indeed, none is in sight in the near future—causing chaos and confusion? The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said that we are breaching the 1951 agreement. The truth is also that if we were still in the European Union, we would have the common European asylum system, which worked extremely well. Is this not all a self-inflicted disaster?

The noble Lord will not be surprised to hear me say that no, it is not a self-inflicted disaster. Of all EU states, we have been one of the most generous. As I said previously, we do not think we are doing anything that breaches our international obligations.

My Lords, the Minister claims that the UK is very generous but, according to the Home Office, in 2019, there were around five asylum claims per 10,000 people living in the UK, compared with the EU 28, where there were 14 asylum claims per 10,000 people. What success does the Minister expect to achieve in returning asylum seekers to the EU when the UK does not appear to be taking its fair share?

I absolutely dispute that. We have granted protection or other forms of leave to 2,742 children alone, and to more than 47,000 since 2010. As I previously said, in 2020, the UK received the second highest number out of all European countries—nearly 3,000—of asylum applications from unaccompanied children.

My Lords, there appear to have been agreements involving money reached with the French authorities in connection with what the Government regard as irregular migrants who are trafficked across the channel in small boats. First, how much has been paid to the French authorities over the past five years and how much is still due to be paid? Secondly, since record numbers of people fleeing desperate situations have already crossed the channel this year, against what specific criteria do and will the Government assess whether that money paid has or has not delivered on whatever it is the Government expect from the French in return?

I fear that I do not have details of payments made to the French, but I can say that, so far this year, up to 25 August, our co-operation with French law enforcement has helped to prevent more than 10,000 migrant attempts. That compares to just over 4,000 for the previous period, in 2020. Clearly, how we are working together is having some effect.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that asylum seekers who sometimes risk their lives in small, leaky boats, desperately trying to rebuild shattered lives, are human beings deserving of compassion, not unwanted objects to be shuttled between countries—particularly between countries that call themselves Christian?

I have no hesitation in agreeing with the noble Lord that asylum seekers are human beings who deserve our respect; they are not objects. Our Nationality and Borders Bill seeks to address the point that the people who are so culpable here are the criminals, who have no regard for lives, vulnerable or otherwise, and seek only to make money out of other people’s vulnerability.