THE UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has condemned the practice by countries like the UK of deporting asylum seekers for processing in the first country they arrived.
The UN refugee agency warned against ‘exporting’ asylum and called for ‘responsibility sharing’ for refugees, not ‘burden shifting’.
Amid considerations by some governments to send asylum seekers abroad for processing, UNHCR is urging states not to externalise their asylum and protection obligations.
The UNHCR warns that such practices jeopardise the safety of those in need of international protection.
‘UNHCR remains firmly opposed to externalisation initiatives that forcibly transfer asylum seekers to other countries. Externalisation simply shifts asylum responsibilities elsewhere and evades international obligations,’ said the UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs last Friday.
She went on: ‘Such practices undermine the rights of those seeking safety and protection, demonise and punish them and may put their lives at risk.
‘It is ironic that, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, attempts are being made to weaken its principles and spirit.
‘Instead, the priority must be to find more effective ways to guarantee the universal right to seek asylum and other rights provided by international refugee law.
‘Externalisation attempts typically involve the forced transfers of asylum seekers to third, often developing, nations where human rights safeguards and resources may not be adequate.
‘This may lead to their indefinite “warehousing” in isolated places or in punitive conditions, at great harm to their physical and mental health,’ she warned.
‘I am dismayed by the argument that it is more cost effective to send and host asylum seekers in countries of the global south. I find this morally reprehensible – we must not put price tags on human lives.
‘Refugees are not commodities that can be traded by wealthier nations. To do so is dehumanising, exploitative and dangerous.’
‘Externalisation exploits both the vulnerabilities of overstretched, developing nations and those of refugees,’ warned Triggs.
While countries may agree to transfer asylum processing and protection responsibilities between themselves, UNHCR observes that such externalisation arrangements often fall well short of international obligations in practice.
Under international law, the transferring State is responsible for ensuring that obligations to protect transferred asylum seekers are met fully by the receiving state.
Some of these safeguards include protection against refoulement, access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, health care, employment, education, and social security, and the right to freedom of movement.
If these rights cannot be guaranteed, the transferring country will breach international law.
UNHCR believes that externalisation arrangements run counter to the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees under which 181 countries agreed to share equitably the responsibility for refugee protection.
‘National, unilateral measures which, in effect, deny access to territory to claim asylum at a country’s borders and abdicate responsibility to others, threaten the long-respected refugee protection regime,’ said Triggs.
The overwhelming majority of the world’s 26 million refugees, 85 per cent, are generously hosted in neighbouring and developing regions, often for many years when protracted conflicts prevent returns.
UNHCR urges that over-stretched refugee host countries are supported – not laden with more responsibility.
‘The evidence is that externalisation arrangements do not deter desperate refugees from taking perilous journeys to seek safety.
‘Rather, they will magnify risks, prompt resort to alternative routes, and exacerbate pressures on frontline states,’ warned Triggs.
UNHCR recognises the challenges posed by forced displacement.
But developed countries are host to only 15 per cent of the world’s refugees and are well resourced to manage claims for asylum in a humane manner.
Concerted international action and global solidarity are also crucial to resolve the violence and crises that force people to flee.
Unilateral responses are unhelpful and ineffective.
UNHCR stands ready to assist states in meeting their asylum obligations to ensure fair and fast asylum processes.
The UN agency notes: ‘Non-refoulement is an international principle that prevents states from expelling or returning people to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened.’
- Last week, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said that 82 organisations have signed a joint letter to the Home Secretary, calling for urgent action to prioritise public health over anti-immigrant policy.
The letter warned that the UK vaccination programme is being put at risk by the hostile environment. The Home Secretary must act now to ensure everyone is safe and able to access the NHS.
‘We urged the Home Secretary to
‘1. Immediately suspend all NHS Charging and data-sharing with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration enforcement and mount a public information campaign reassuring people that it will be safe for them to access care during this global public health emergency.
‘2. Immediately suspend “no recourse to public funds” conditions to ensure that everyone can access the support they need to stay safe and where necessary cease working in order to self-isolate.
‘3. Make assurances that migrants unable to attend reporting appointments, court dates, or interviews whilst self-isolating will not be penalised.
‘4. Make provision to extend or modify visas where necessary to prevent people being forced to ‘overstay’ their visa due to being self-isolated or unable to return to a country that is not safe to travel to.
‘5. Release everyone detained under immigration powers to reduce the risk of Covid-19 entering the detention estate and causing avoidable harm.
‘6. Provide specialist support for those housed in shared asylum accommodation to enable safe access to medical services, testing, and where necessary, re-housing for particularly vulnerable people.’
UNCHR’s appeal came on the eve of UK Home Secretary Priti Patel’s latest attack on immigrants and asylum seekers, in which she said new Tory ‘reforms’ – which include the introduction of ‘electronic travel authorisations’ – would make it easier to identify ‘threats’ through ‘targeted and more effective interventions’.
She added there will be ‘wholescale reform’, claiming the current immigration system is ‘broken’.
Last week in the House of Commons, Patel outlined her plans in her Sovereign Borders Bill, which aims to penalise even further those whose desperation forces them to resort to dinghies, lorries or even the undercarriage of planes in a bid to reach the UK.
The Home Secretary wants the ability to deport refugees even while their application is going through the system and to deny them benefits and family reunion rights.
Civil rights organisation Liberty said earlier this month that the Tory government’s immigration plan undermines justice and paves the way for greater rights abuses against refugees:
- Making it harder for people seeking asylum in the UK to make their case
- Making it harder to challenge Home Office decisions which undermine rights
- Making it harder to access and fund legal support
One of the ways the Tory government is seeking to do this is by changing a type of legal challenge called ‘judicial review’.
This process enables ordinary people to challenge governments and public bodies when they get things wrong.
Liberty warned these proposals are part of a much broader government attempt to put itself above the law, which would ultimately damage access to justice for everyone else in the process, and should be thrown out.
If the government continues along this path it would become untouchable, the rights group warns. Liberty believes the government’s broader plan includes attempts to limit how it is held accountable through the courts, in Parliament, and on the streets.
Jun Pang, Liberty policy and campaigns officer, said: ‘We all want to live in an equal, just and fair society. But the government’s immigration plan puts that at risk.
‘It would put migrants at even greater danger of human rights abuses, and further prevent them from being able to hold those in power to account.
‘We know that attacks on human rights will always start with people who are already marginalised.
‘This attack on migrants’ rights is no different.
‘This is just one part of a much bigger government bid to make itself untouchable which will roll back access to justice for everyone.
‘Being able to challenge governments and other public bodies is at the heart of our democracy – but those in power are rolling out a sprawling web of changes to our ability to stand up to power in the courts, in Parliament and on the streets.’