Priti Patel insists new asylum seeker plans do not break international law

Government accused of ‘unjustly differentiate between the deserving and undeserving refugee’
Photo: PA

By John Johnston

24 Mar 2021

Priti Patel has defended new immigration rules which make harder for people to claim asylum if they arrive in the UK illegally, following criticism from charities working with asylum seekers.

The home secretary insisted the proposal does not break international law.

Under new plans to overhaul the immigration system, Patel has said there will be "tougher criminal offences for those attempting to enter the UK illegally" claiming it will reduce the number of people making dangerous journeys across the English Channel.

Home Office figures say that 8,500 people arrived via the Channel in 2020, and estimated that 800 have made the crossing this year.

As well as introducing tougher sentences for people smugglers, the home secretary said that those who arrive "illegally" will "no longer have the same entitlements as those who arrive legally, and it will be harder for them to stay".

"If, like over 60% of illegal arrivals, they have travelled through a safe country like France to get here, they will not have immediate entry into the asylum system – which is what happens today," she told the BBC's Today Programme.

Patel insisted the plans did not breach international law despite the Geneva Convention saying that asylum seekers should not be penalised for arriving in a country by illegal means before claiming asylum.

"The refugee convention does allow for penalties to be imposed where a refugee has not come directly from a country of persecution," she added.

"All the work we are proposing... is in line with the refugee convention, and in line with international law and the European Convention on Human Rights."

But the approach has been roundly criticised. Beth Gardiner-Smith, chief executive of Safe Passage International. "These proposed reforms will do nothing to prevent dangerous Channel crossings, whilst making the lives of many who have fled war and persecution a misery," she said.

"It is heartbreaking too that the government seems set to make it more difficult for refugee families to reunite, leaving yet more child refugees stranded and alone."

Refugee Council CEO Enver Solomon accused the government of trying to "unjustly differentiate between the deserving and undeserving refugee".

"The government is effectively creating a two tier system where some refugees are unfairly punished for the way they are able to get to the UK," he said.

"This is wholly unjust and undermines the UK's long tradition of providing protection for people, regardless of how they have managed to find their way to our shores, who have gone on to become proud British citizens contributing as doctors, nurses and entrepreneurs to our communities.

"All refugees deserve to be treated with compassion and dignity, and it’s a stain on 'global Britain' to subject some refugees to differential treatment."

Patel defended the approach, saying the government were in talks with EU nations to agree on a plan which would see migrants sent back to "safe countries" which they had travelled through on the way to the UK.

"In terms of returning people back, we are speaking to EU member states right now. Originally, as we were having the negotiations up to the end of transition this was absolutely an issue we were having with the European Union," she told the BBC.

"This is a matter for discussion today at the G6 because this is not just about the UK, this is actually about all countries around the world stepping up and absolutely taking responsibility for dealing with asylum in the right way. We have 80 million displaced people in the world."

She added: "They have a moral duty to save lives and stop people being trafficked through their own countries. We have seen people die in the Mediterranean, we have seen people die literally on the coast of France, bodies being washed up. Only last week we had a dead body found in the back of a lorry coming to the UK. This is simply unacceptable."

John Johnston is a reporter for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story was first published.

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