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Albanian Asylum Seekers

Volume 826: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how many Albanian asylum seekers are currently waiting for a decision about their claim; how many applications have been accepted in the last 12 months and how many have been refused.

As of 30 September 2022, there were 19,897 Albanian asylum cases pending an initial decision. In the year ending September 2022, 334 decisions on asylum claims from Albanian nationals were grants and 318 were refusals.

I am grateful to the Minister for those figures. He will be aware that I tabled my Question long before I knew that the Prime Minister would make a Statement on this issue this morning. His Statement suggested to me that the Conservatives must have been in opposition for the past 12 years, but I will let that one go. I have two questions. Will the Minister confirm that, even if we are going to move to a fast-track approach for Albanians, which the Labour Party has already supported, that does not mean that an individual claimant will not have his or her claim properly considered? Secondly, will the Minister confirm that referring to asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants” is totally the wrong term? An asylum seeker cannot be illegal, even if he or she flees for safety to another country.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. As ever, he is very à la mode and clearly foresaw that there would be a Statement by the Prime Minster. I will answer his two questions. First, on the fast-track removal of Albanians, as the Prime Minister made clear in the other place, the new deal with Albania will allow us to return people with confidence that necessary protections will be provided for genuine modern slavery claims, in line with our international obligations. Of course, Albania is already a scheduled safe country under the 2002 Act, passed under Mr Blair’s Administration. On the noble Lord’s second question, on the term “illegal immigrant”, that nomenclature derives from the provisions in Nationality and Borders Act, which make it an offence to enter illegally.

My Lords, it is reported that there has been a big rise in online advertisements offering transfers from Albania to the UK by boat or lorry for a price—in other words, smuggling. If this is openly advertised, is it not possible to track down the smugglers and prosecute them?

The noble Baroness is exactly right: the gangs involved in people smuggling do advertise in Albania, usually on social media platforms—I understand that TikTok is particularly favoured. The Home Office has an intelligence unit that considers all these sources and, working with the National Crime Agency, steps are taken to prevent this sort of criminal activity. As the noble Baroness will have seen, the Prime Minister’s announcement increases the NCA’s funding to tackle organised crime within Europe, which will achieve greater control of this type of criminality.

My Lords, when will the new policy announced by the Prime Minister this morning be fully implemented? Is it proposed that there be any element of retrospectivity—looking back to those who are already here—in the scheme?

Certainly, the deal with Albania will take effect as soon as it is agreed, which should be in the near future. The asylum backlogs will be dealt with by the end of next year. A new permanent small boats operational command will be set up, with more or less immediate effect, and enforcement activity will be boosted in the near future. As noble Lords will have heard the Prime Minister say, we plan to bring forward legislation in early January next year.

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that people who have been involved in people smuggling or cocaine trafficking will be brought to justice, but also that a distinction will be made where women and children, for instance, are involved and are clearly victims of the criminal gangs that have been identified? Will he also update the House as to the total number of outstanding claims by refugees and asylum seekers? When I last looked it was 143,000, which was a 180% increase since 2019. What are the Government doing to ensure that those claims are processed more expeditiously?

As of the end of September, there were 117,400 cases, which related to 143,377 people awaiting an initial decision. On enforcement and the penalisation of those engaging in people smuggling, as the noble Lord will know, it is a criminal offence to be the criminal mastermind—if you like—behind a smuggling operation, and the maximum penalty for those types of offences is life. I have no doubt that a sentencing court would bear in mind, as the noble Lord anticipates, that it is an aggravating factor if women and children are involved.

My Lords, asylum seekers coming here from Hong Kong have a very different experience from British national (overseas) visa arrivals. They are not given the same freedom as BNO holders to study, work or live, and that is very impactful on their mental health. Nearly one in four Hong Kongers who fled the crackdown of the ruling Chinese Communist Party says that they still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, linked to the violent crackdown on the 2019 protests and the subsequent fear engendered by the national security law. What assessment have the Government made to identify those suffering from PTSD?

On the BNO Hong Kong cohort, I do not have the answer, and I will write to the noble Lord in relation to it.

My Lords, I am very pleased that the Government have reached an agreement with Albania about the large number of Albanians arriving in this country. However, I dispute slightly what my noble friend said about the legality or illegality of asylum seekers. Under the 1951 convention, it is perfectly clear that merely seeking asylum cannot in itself be an act of illegality. It is, however, obvious to all of us, I think, that the illegality about which we are so concerned lies with the people traffickers, smugglers and those forcing often very poor people to come to this country. I urge my noble friend that we must take further action to alleviate that problem.

I entirely agree with my noble friend: the 1951 convention prohibits the penalisation of asylum seekers. It is the illegal entry—entry without leave—that renders it unlawful under the Act.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Dubs said, the Labour Party supports the fast-track approach, but I would like to ask about an appeals process. The Minister quoted the Prime Minister saying that there will be protection for modern slavery claims. What about people who are fleeing domestic violence? Will youths be treated the same way as adults through this appeals process?

The Home Office is increasing the number of staff making asylum decisions in relation to these areas. We have increased the number of asylum case workers by 112%, from 597 staff in 2019 to 1,276 as of this month, and we propose to increase that again next year with a further 500 in March 2023, up to 1,800 by the summer. In terms of the appeal mechanism, as the noble Lord will be aware, Albania is a certified safe country and the mechanism for inadmissibility will apply. Plainly, there is an appeal right out of country and judicial review opportunities in relation to certification decisions.

My Lords, I will step back from the subject of Albania. Is it not a fact that the large, underlining trend of asylum seekers or illegal refugees—whatever term one wants to use—still comes from Iraq and Afghanistan, countries in which we went to war, with the promise that we would make them safe parliamentary democracies? Will the Minister remind his colleagues constantly that military adventures of the sort that Mr Blair and others pursued, rather than solving the problems, have only made them very much worse?

Obviously, I agree with my noble friend that the consequences of conflict have led to greater migration. As the Prime Minister observed, that problem is not going to go away; we have to address it head-on.