UK plans for asylum reform 'would break international law'

23 September 2021, 00:59 | Updated: 23 September 2021, 01:36

Migrants continue to attempt the Channel crossing.
Migrants continue to attempt the Channel crossing. Picture: Alamy

By Emma Soteriou

Government plans for asylum reform will 'break international law', a UN agency has said.

The Nationality and Borders Bill - dubbed by some campaigners as the "anti-refugee Bill" - will see people coming over to the UK face harsher penalties that go against rules in place, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The body said that the bill would "penalise most refugees seeking asylum in the country via damaging and unjustified penalties, creating an asylum model that undermines established international refugee protection rules and practices".

It urged the Government to re-assess parts of the bill that would create an "unfair two-tier asylum system and cause unnecessary suffering to asylum-seekers".

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As a part of the reform, it will be a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK without permission, with the maximum sentence for those entering the country unlawfully rising from six months' imprisonment to four years.

It means how individuals enter the UK - be it legally or illegally - will have a direct impact on the progress of their asylum claim and on their status in the UK if they are successful.

However, the bill will also crack down on people-smugglers, who could face life behind bars under the proposals.

It comes as a part of Home Secretary Priti Patel's plans to have a "fair but firm" approach to immigration in an attempt to fix the "broken asylum system".

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Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UNHCR's UK representative, 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. "There's scope for improving the efficiency of the asylum system.

"We want to support the UK with that and are heartened that the Home Office is working on it."

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However, the Home Office's most senior official, permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft, rejected suggestions that elements of the Bill would go against the Refugee Convention and could risk criminalising Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover.

There are "safe and legal routes" for Afghans seeking sanctuary in the UK and the plans would not be in the legislation if they were not "compatible with international obligations", he told the Commons Home Affairs Committee.

It comes after an official Home Office assessment of the proposed reforms found that there was "limited" evidence they would cut Channel crossings.

Ms Pagliuchi-Lor is expected to set out the UNHCR's legal analysis of the Bill when she addresses the Commons Bill Committee on Thursday.