Priti Patel’s new asylum plan stigmatises those seeking asylum in the UK as “unworthy and unwelcome” and creates a two-tier system that would be in violation of international law, the UN Refugee Agency has said.
The UK Nationality and Borders Bill, which the government has introduced in order to deter people from attempting “illegal” entry into the UK, will create a “lower class of status” for the majority of refugees who arrive in the country spontaneously, the UNHCR said.
The bill, which was published in July and is currently going through parliament, would make it a criminal offence for an asylum-seeker to arrive in the UK without permission. Asylum seekers would face up to four years in prison if convicted.
It also seeks to “rapidly remove” asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via unauthorised routes, and grant them only temporary protection, with limited rights if it cannot immediately do so.
Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR’s UK representative, said there was no evidence the bill would achieve its aim of deterring asylum-seekers from travelling to the UK without the correct documents.
She said: “This bill would undermine, not promote, the government’s stated goal of improving protection for those at risk of persecution. It seems to be aimed at deterring refugees, but there’s no evidence that would be the result.
“Those arriving irregularly will be stigmatised as unworthy and unwelcome, kept in a precarious status for ten years, denied access to public funds unless destitute. Family reunion will be restricted.”
The bill is based on the notion that asylum-seekers should seek sanctuary in the “first safe country” they arrive in – however the UNHCR said there was no such requirement under international law, and the principle was not in the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The UN body said requiring all refugees to claim asylum in the first safe country would be “unworkable”.
Ms Pagliuchi-Lor added: “This differentiation of treatment has no basis in international law.
“The Convention’s definition of a refugee doesn’t vary according to the route of travel, choice of country of asylum, or the timing of a claim. Are we saying that an Afghan refugee is less deserving in the UK than when in Iran or Pakistan?
“There are no quick fixes to what is a global problem. The humane solution lies in working with neighbours on refugee transfers – and with countries of origin on returns of those who are not refugees and have no right to remain – and improving the UK system.”
A Border Force vessel intercepts a group of people thought to be migrants in a small boat off the coast of Dover in Kent
The bill has attracted condemnation from a range of respected voices, including the UK’s modern slavery tsar, who warned in a strongly worded letter to the home secretary that the proposed reforms would make the identification of victims of modern slavery “harder” and “create additional vulnerabilities”.
Dame Sara Thornton said: “Those entering this country irregularly may become exploited at any point, particularly if they have debt incurred for their journey. Differential treatment of refugees based on the nature of their arrival may only serve to exacerbate vulnerability.”
The Law Society of England and Wales has also warned that the UK’s global reputation for justice was being put at risk by the new bill.
The Law Society president, I Stephanie Boyce, said: “There are significant concerns and a lack of clarity over whether the Nationality and Borders Bill would comply with international law or, indeed, uphold access to justice for extremely vulnerable people.”
The Independent contacted the Home Office for comment.