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Refugees: Status

Volume 815: debated on Tuesday 2 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent discussions they have had with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in relation to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and in particular regarding the principle that asylum seekers must apply for refugee status in the first safe country they have reached.

My Lords, the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is part of our new plan for immigration, seeks to build a fair but firm asylum and legal migration system. Those in need of protection should claim in the first safe country they reach. That is the fastest route to safety. The plan complies with our international obligations and we continue to engage with our partners, including the UNHCR, with whom we have a positive and constructive relationship, as we take the plan forward.

Is the Minister not saying, in effect, that the Government know better than the UNHCR, the UNHCR being the guardian of the 1951 convention? By what right and by what argument are the Government saying that the UNHCR is wrong on this?

My Lords, the first safe country principle is widely recognised internationally; for example, it is the fundamental feature of the common European asylum system. Without enforcement of this principle, we simply encourage criminal smugglers to continue to exploit very vulnerable migrants.

Does my noble friend agree that it is time to renegotiate the original Geneva convention on refugees, which was passed when there was a finite problem of displaced persons in Europe and was subsequently extended worldwide before anyone realised that cheap mass transport and communications would make mass movement of economic refugees between continents possible? The scale of the mass movement is indicated by the US’s offer of 50,000 visas every year to a handful of countries on a lottery basis. It receives applications from 13% of the population of Albania, 9% of the population of Armenia, 8% of the population of Ghana and 15% of the population of Liberia. It is time to recognise that the scale of this problem exceeds anything the original treaty was designed to deal with.

I certainly concur with my noble friend that not only are migration patterns changing because of the nature of access to travel but that the figures all over the world are massively increasing from what they were. Renegotiation of the 1951 convention is a bit above my pay grade, but I certainly say that this country has always tried to give refuge to those most in need. To that end, we have been extremely generous.

My Lords, given that geography alone means that the UK will rarely be the first safe country an asylum seeker has reached, could we not at least designate especially vulnerable groups of people, such as Yazidis subject to genocide, or Afghan women judges, 60 of whom have been given temporary refuge in Europe, to have their asylum applications processed at our embassies and, in addition, ensure that Afghans with UK evacuation letters, including five women judges who are now in Greece and have been waiting for weeks, are now transferred to the United Kingdom without any further delays?

I will work backwards through that question. The noble Lord mentioned Afghan judges. They are among those who have been granted leave to come to this country The UK Government—the MoD, the Home Office and the Foreign Office—are doing all they can to enable people who need our refuge to come here. The noble Lord also mentioned some very vulnerable groups, including the Yazidis. Of course, our immigration system is based on need. I will certainly take back his point about the embassies. He and I have discussed this in the past.

My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, can the Minister indicate when the Government next hope to meet the UNHCR? As my noble friend Lord Dubs has said, it is the guardian of refugees worldwide.

I can certainly take back the point the noble Baroness makes. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, we meet with the UNHCR on a regular basis. It is a very important body and a well-regarded partner, with which we work closely.

My Lords, may I remind Members here of the arid desert there will be as climate change takes its effect? In the coming years, there will be a massive movement of peoples who will be looking for somewhere to sustain them. What conversations are taking place to try to obtain some agreement on a humane response to this crisis? Which countries are we discussing this with? Which organisations are we talking to? It is high time that we looked to the future to try somehow to alleviate the worst of any crisis.

The noble Lord makes a very pertinent point about the effects of migration during the last few years. Different climate events in different countries are accelerating this process and the conflicts to which it might lead. Since 2015, we have resettled more than 25,000 men, women and children who have sought refuge from persecution across the world. Some 36,000 visas have been issued under the refugee family reunion rules. We aim to resettle 5,000 people a year under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme and a further 5,000 a year under the global resettlement scheme. We have been extremely generous. All of us must play our part.

My Lords, we support the view of my noble friend Lord Dubs on this issue. However, if it is the Government’s view that asylum seekers must apply for refugee status in the first safe country they reach, is it therefore also their view that asylum seekers reaching—or trying to reach—this country via France, cannot be sent back there without French agreement, if it was not the first safe country they had reached or through which they had travelled?

My Lords, what are the Government doing about unaccompanied minors who want to join their families in this country?

My Lords, the noble and learned Baroness makes a really important point about unaccompanied minors. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in this area. We will always try to give unaccompanied asylum-seeking children refuge where it is needed. There will always be scope for an exemption from temporary protection status if it could not have been reasonably expected that they would come directly or claim without delay. All UASCs will be exempt from any no recourse to public funds requirement.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, was perhaps at risk of confusing the issue somewhat. He appeared to be talking about economic migration, which is not the same as asylum seeking. Does the Minister agree that the two are different, and does she agree that it is the right thing to do to offer asylum to all those who reach our shores claiming asylum if they have a genuine case?

I do not think my noble friend was confused at all. I think he was saying, if I interpret him correctly, that the nature of migration has hugely changed over the last 70 years, and is it time to look again at our obligations under the 1951 refugee convention?

My Lords, the involvement of external powers, whatever their motives, dramatically increases the number of refugees, and this can place an unfair burden on neighbouring safe but poorer countries. Does the Minister agree that external powers involved, directly or through the sale of arms, have a moral obligation to accept refugees that they have helped to create?

I think the noble Lord asks a question that probably requires more than the 20 seconds that I have left to answer it. He makes a pertinent point about conflict and the cause of migration and refugee issues. Certainly, some of the countries that he talks about might not be suitable to send refugees to.