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Asylum Seekers: Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran and Sudan

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what forecast they have made of the number of people from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, and Sudan who will travel to the United Kingdom via a safe route in order to seek asylum in 2023.

The United Kingdom welcomes vulnerable people in need of protection through our relocation and resettlement schemes. The number of people coming to the UK via safe and legal routes depends on many factors, including local authorities’ capacity to support them and the extent to which community sponsorship continues to thrive. There is no explicit provision within our Immigration Rules for someone to be allowed to travel here to seek asylum or temporary refuge.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. We know from the latest available numbers that between September 2021 and September 2022, only close to 1,400 people were resettled to the UK through the specific safe routes of resettlement. This figure is 75% lower than in 2019, and the number of family reunion visas issued is 36% below the pre-pandemic figure. As the Minister knows, all the countries referred to in my Question have an asylum grant rate of over 80%, with Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea sitting at over 97%. The number of individuals claiming asylum from these nations stood at more than 26,500. Now that the Government are deciding admissibility on the basis of arrival, will they establish further safe routes for high grant rate countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and Iran, to reduce the need for asylum seekers to travel irregularly?

The principle is clear in the refugee convention that people claiming asylum need to be in the country in which they seek refuge, having come directly from that country. While we sympathise with people in many difficult situations around the world, we are not bound to consider asylum claims from the large numbers of people overseas who might like to come here.

My Lords, we learned from the Home Secretary and her team giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee that a hypothetical 16 year-old orphan from an African country such as Sudan or Eritrea fleeing war and religious persecution, with siblings legally in the United Kingdom, has no safe or legal route to seek refuge in the United Kingdom. Why has this happened?

As the noble Lord will have heard in my recent Answer, the principle is that you claim asylum in the first safe country you reach. The question Mr Loughton posed at the Home Affairs Select Committee is answered like this: depending on the country you are from, you could engage with the UNHCR; that would be a way of getting leave to enter the UK in order to put in an asylum claim, but clearly, there are some countries where that would not be possible.

My Lords, I am disappointed with the Minister’s negative reply. If we take one country alone, Afghanistan, have the Minister and the Government forgotten that thousands upon thousands of Afghans, in the 40 years of war, sided with and fought for Britain there? Why are they neglecting them now and going back on their earlier promises?

The Government certainly have not forgotten the people of Afghanistan. As the noble Lord will remember, Operation Pitting was the largest UK military evacuation since the Second World War, during which we evacuated about 15,000 individuals to the UK. In the year since the evacuation began on 14 August 2021, a further 6,000 arrived in the UK via neighbouring countries.

My Lords, notwithstanding what the Minister has said about the importance of addressing the right reverend Prelate’s Question about safe and legal routes, does he not accept that, with the UNHCR that he has just referenced saying that there are now between 75 million and 80 million people displaced in the world, this is a global problem that requires international solutions? Should the Government not be leading the way in drawing countries together to look at the root causes of the displacement, and trying to stop these terrible, perilous journeys in small boats, whether across the channel, the Aegean or the Mediterranean, leaving a trail of sorrow behind them?

There is much in what the noble Lord says. It is sadly the truth that we cannot help everyone, with worldwide displacement now standing at around 100 million, not merely 70 million as the noble Lord suggested. The Government continue to offer safe and legal routes for those in need of protection. Since 2015, we have resettled more than 28,000 refugees from regions of conflict and instability through the global UK resettlement scheme, community sponsorship and the mandate schemes, under which the UNHCR will refer the most vulnerable refugees from across the globe for resettlement to the UK.

My Lords, whatever the outcome of Operation Pitting, it did leave behind people who should have been included. Do the Government remain committed to helping the families of interpreters who work for British military personnel and political leaders visiting the country, including the former Prime Minister, who were unable to get out and who remain in terrible danger in Afghanistan?

The answer to the noble Viscount’s question is yes. The Afghan relocations and assistance policy, launched on 1 April 2021, offers relocation to eligible Afghan citizens who worked for or with the United Kingdom Government locally in Afghanistan. The ARAP recognises the service of eligible Afghan citizens and the risks arising to them and their dependent family members as a result of their work.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what provision in the refugee convention permits us to refuse to even consider someone who arrives on our shores seeking asylum?

My Lords, the asylum system is in chaos: 140,000 asylum seekers, and rising, are waiting for an initial decision; 90,000 have been waiting for over six months, and more than 40,000 for between one and three years. It is also reported that 725 claimants, of whom 155 are children, have been waiting over five years. How many of these cases apply to these five countries? Will the Minister join the Prime Minister in promising to clear the asylum backlog by the end of the year? It is action we need, not gimmicks.

The noble Lord is entirely right: it is action we need, and I can certainly recommit to the ambition, outlined by the Prime Minister in his statement, to clear the backlog. As to the various countries within the backlog, those statistics exist but I am afraid I do not have them to hand, so I will need to write to the noble Lord about them.

My Lords, can the Minister say something about the Government scheme for allowing direct applications from people in Syrian refugee camps? This is surely a far better route than the much more perilous one used by those trying to come here illegally.

I entirely agree with my noble friend and clearly, that is the purpose of the UK resettlement scheme. Perhaps it would assist if I outlined that between 2015 and September 2022, we offered a place to nearly 450,000 men, women and children seeking entry via safe and legal routes, including those from Syria but also those from Afghanistan, Ukraine and Hong Kong, as well as the family members of refugees.

My Lords, when the folk arrive here, they are given an ASPEN card, which did provide £35 a week for their subsistence. Has that gone up with inflation? What is the value now? Is it still £35, as it was 10 or 15 years ago, or has it gone up?

I can certainly provide detailed information on the asylum support provisions. Clearly, those in hotels have their accommodation provided for them and are provided with food and a small amount of money for expenditure on essentials. Those in dispersal accommodation receive a financial sum, which has changed with inflation. I will be able to provide the noble Lord with the precise statistics by letter; I am afraid this is quite a long way from the topic of the Question.

My Lords, the UK says that asylum seekers must go to the first safe country, but the United Nations commissioner for human rights says that that is incorrect. Would the Minister like to comment?

The Government’s position is clear: Article 31 requires that a person comes directly to the first safe country and is therefore obliged to claim in that country. Indeed, it is upon that principle that the European Union agreed the Dublin provisions about the return of asylum seekers to places where they made their first claim.