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Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Volume 819: debated on Monday 28 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what regular conversations they have with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and how this relationship informs (1) their policy on the interpretation of the Refugee Convention, (2) day to day operational policy for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, and (3) their legislation.

My Lords, the Home Office has regular and routine engagement with UNHCR on a number of matters, including through its quality protection partnership and as a standing member of the asylum strategic engagement group and decision-making subgroup. There are also additional ad hoc meetings to discuss individual policies and issues.

I am grateful to the Minister for that. She will appreciate that due to tragic events in recent days, our defence of the refugee convention is now totally inseparable from our defence of the Ukrainian people. Can the Minister comment on reports over the weekend that relatives of Ukrainians here in the UK have been denied visas? Can she assure us that the widest group with connections to this country will be welcome here and that no one—no one—will be turned back or criminalised on account of their means of escape?

I can absolutely assure the noble Baroness that everything that we do will be aligned with the refugee convention. The Prime Minister and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary have made a number of statements this weekend to that very end: that we will do everything we can to help our friends in Ukraine.

My Lords, given that the UNHCR has criticised the UK’s response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in and around Ukraine, why have the Government not allowed visa-free entry of refugees from Ukraine into the UK?

As we speak, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is outlining some of the further things we will be doing to help our colleagues and friends in Ukraine, as has the Prime Minister over the last 24 hours. This Question is about the UNHCR in relation to the refugee convention, and we do not think that anything in what we do breaches the convention.

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that although it is very welcome that she says that the Government will be sticking by their obligations under the convention, it is not terribly convincing when they are simply marking their own homework? What does she have to say about the extremely detailed and well-argued views put forward by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about the legislation we will be considering later today? Why should we accept her word rather than the UNHCR’s word? Surely, they know about their own convention?

It is absolutely for the UNHCR to comment on our interpretation of the refugee convention, but it is for Parliament to determine our interpretation of it.

My Lords, is it not surprising that this Government are trying to legislate to enact their own interpretation of the convention without apparently consulting anyone else in the rest of the world?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will have seen the reports over the weekend that maybe as many as 5 million people will become refugees from Ukraine. The UNHCR has estimated that maybe 1 million will go to Poland alone. She will have seen pictures of three-mile long queues of people trying to get out. I thank her for what she said already about the British Government’s response. Does she not agree that the Home Secretary should now call on all Interior and Home Office Ministers across the whole continent of Europe to come together to speak to one another about how they will deal with this unfolding crisis, which is adding to the more than 82 million people already displaced in the world today?

I agree with the noble Lord that the crisis that is unfolding is horrifying in the extreme. Poland has been generous to a fault to its neighbours. We will assist with some of the humanitarian assistance in Poland and other places. Of course countries should come together to decide the best way forward for what is yet another humanitarian crisis.

My Lords, the EU has said that Ukrainian refugees, who do not need visas to get into the Schengen zone anyway, can stay for three years without having to regularise their situation. I thought that the UK took back control in order to regulate better than the EU. Can the noble Baroness tell me what the UK will do better than the EU for Ukrainian refugees?

It is a very peculiar word to use, to do “better”. We all need to do our part. I absolutely hear what the noble Baroness said about what the EU is doing. We will of course play our part.

Can the noble Baroness offer us any other examples of alternative interpretations of the refugee convention worldwide? If not, on what basis does she believe the Government are entitled to do so in reference to Clause 11 of the Bill we will discuss later?

It is up to states to interpret the refugee convention for themselves in line with the Vienna convention, which is a crucial part of it. There are examples across the world of states having interpreted in different ways but, as I said, it always has to be in line with the Vienna convention.

My Lords, we heard from various Cabinet members over the weekend, including the Prime Minister, about the Government’s willingness to help Ukrainian refugees and all that sort of thing, but that is totally not what is happening. How come they can say that, which sounds like a blatant lie, when in fact the Government are doing everything they can to make it harder for refugees, including Ukrainian refugees, to come in?

My Lords, is the Minister able to indicate how many visas or entry clearances have been refused to Ukrainian citizens since the crisis started?

The crisis is about 72 hours old, so I cannot say. I really do not know the answer so I will not pretend, but I am sure that, as the hours and days go on, the Government will have in place a system for helping refugees here and, do not forget, back in their home country. Ukrainians want to go back to Ukraine, and the best thing we can do for the whole global effort is to ensure that the war in Ukraine comes to an abrupt end.

What did the Government mean by the assurance that I believe was given to my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti? The assurance given in relation to Ukraine was that, whatever the Government did, it would be aligned with the refugee convention—I think those were the words. Is that aligned with the refugee convention in the same way the Government think the Nationality and Borders Bill is aligned with the refugee convention?

My Lords, amid all the distressing news about what is happening in Ukraine and the movement of people across Europe, can the Government be particularly sympathetic to any children who get separated from their parents? We have seen some awful photographs of children who are really very disturbed and distressed already. Can the Government make sure that they care for children who are separated from their parents?

I commend so much what the noble Lord has said. At the heart of any Government with a heart will be those children who are displaced.

My Lords, in an earlier answer the Minister asserted, no doubt rightly, that the Government had consulted with the UNHCR, and by implication with other people, before bringing forward the legislation we are to consider later today. Can she give the House any examples of ways in which the Government’s original intentions for this legislation were changed or modified as a result of those consultations?

Obviously, I will not go into the details of individual conversations, but we consulted with the UNHCR, as would be expected. Clearly, we did not come to the same conclusion as the UNHCR.

My Lords, the evidence of the horror unfolding in Ukraine on our TV screens over the last several days must surely put to bed once and for all the Government’s grotesque assertion that it is pull factors that attract refugees to seek asylum in Britain or anywhere else. Surely the Minister sees that the Government must do the decent thing and pull the abominable Clause 11 from the Nationality and Borders Bill, because they will be defeated when it comes to a vote in this House.

I think we should separate out pull factors from those in war-torn countries who need our humanitarian protection. I do not think we should conflate the two things. These people desperately need our help, and they shall get it.