UK’s planned asylum overhaul would break international law: UNHCR

UN refugee agency blasts controversial Nationality and Borders Bill championed by governing right-wing Conservative Party.

The UK government's proposed asylum reforms have been fiercely criticised by charities, rights groups and opposition politicians [Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

New asylum laws planned by the United Kingdom will create an “unfair two-tier system” in violation of international law, the UN’s Refugee Agency has said.

In a statement on Thursday, UNHCR warned the Nationality and Borders Bill would “penalise most refugees seeking asylum in the country via damaging and unjustified penalties” if it comes into force.

Whether people are deemed to have entered the UK legally or illegally will affect how their asylum claim progresses under the proposals.

Those found to have entered the UK without permission could also face up to four years imprisonment if the changes come into effect.

The government claims the new rules would “deter illegal entry into the UK”, curtail criminal trafficking networks and help rapidly “remove from the UK those with no right to be here”.

But UNHCR said there was “no evidence” the aim of deterring refugees would be achieved in this way.

Instead, the agency said, the planned revisions threatened to create a “new, lower class of status to be assigned to the majority of refugees – those arriving spontaneously”.

Home Secretary Priti Patel, a politician with the ruling right-wing Conservatives who supported Brexit, and the driving force behind the bill, claims the reforms are aimed at fixing the UK’s “broken” asylum system.

During the campaign period for the EU referendum in 2016, “taking back control” of immigration was a key mantra for the pro-secession camp.

Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, 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.

“Those arriving irregularly will be stigmatised as unworthy and unwelcome, kept in a precarious status for 10 years, [and] denied access to public funds unless destitute.”


The bill, which is currently moving through the UK Parliament’s lower chamber House of Commons, is based on the idea that people should claim asylum in the “first safe country” they arrive in.

Officials hope this would lower the number of migrants and refugees arriving in the UK, particularly as more have been making the journey from France via the English Channel in recent months.

But the UNHCR said no such concept exists within international law, citing its absence from the 1951 Refugee convention, which lays out the definition of a refugee and the responsibilities of states involved in asylum claims.

“This differentiation of treatment has no basis in international law,” said Pagliuchi-Lor,

“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.”

Forcing refugees to claim asylum in the “first safe country reached” would prove “unworkable” in practice, the UNHCR said.

“Of the world’s 34.4 million refugees and asylum-seekers, 86 percent are in less wealthy countries,” it said.

“The policy would put even more pressure on such countries and undermine solutions. It might also encourage further refugee movements.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies