On 24 Mar 2021, the government announced its New Plan for Immigration, which includes a huge overhaul of the asylum system. The plan has the potential to be hugely damaging to the human rights of refugees, and has been criticised by over 200 refugee charities. The plan is vast and contains numerous provisions with potential human rights impacts. This post, and the forthcoming parts II and III, will be limited to three major themes: the right to seek asylum (part I), family reunification for refugees (part II) and detention (part III). It will point readers to organisations working in these areas, both to find out more, and to get involved in their work.

What’s the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee? What are their rights?

The core piece of international law relating to refugees is the Refugee Convention (made up of the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol). A refugee, defined in article 1 of the Convention, is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

The UK has signed and ratified the Convention, and thereby must abide by this definition, as well as certain rights that refugees are entitled to. This includes a prohibition of ‘refoulement’, meaning a return to the country where they face persecution. It also includes provisions on employment, housing, education and public relief.

Once someone applies to be recognised as a refugee under the Convention, they are known as an ‘asylum seeker’. If the UK accepts their claim, they will receive ‘refugee status’, which gives them leave to remain in the UK for five years, after which they have the opportunity to apply for indefinite leave to remain in the country. A very small proportion of refugees are able to access formal resettlement programmes through the UN, meaning they would arrive in the UK (or another country) already recognised as a refugee. However, the majority of displaced people do not access these schemes. 85% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries and 73% live in neighbouring countries to their country of origin. There is currently no legally recognised way of travelling to the UK with the purpose of claiming asylum.

Once asylum seekers and refugees arrive in a country, they are also protected by the country’s human rights obligations. In the UK, this includes United Nations Conventions ratified by the UK, including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the UN Convention against Torture. It also includes the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

What are the government’s proposals?

The policy statement for the New Plan for Immigration asserts that asylum-seekers arriving in the UK via a safe third country, or who have “a connection to a safe country where they could have claimed asylum”, are not genuine refugees, and proposes to make these claims inadmissible in the UK (meaning they won’t be considered as claims for asylum). This statement is not supported by the definition of ‘refugee’ in the Refugee Convention, and risks breaching the UK’s obligations under the Convention.

The government also proposes that those who are recognised as needing protection after having entered the UK ‘illegally’ “will receive a new temporary protection status rather than an automatic right to settle, will be regularly reassessed for removal from the UK, will have limited family reunion rights and will have no recourse to public funds except in cases of destitution.”

The policy statement claims that allowing claims from people who have entered the UK ‘illegally’ means that “other vulnerable people, including women and children, are pushed aside.” However, analysis of published government data conducted by Together With Refugees (a coalition of over 200 organisations) has shown that women and children make up half of people accepted as refugees each year in the UK, and two in three who have been accepted by the UK as refugees would have been turned away under the proposed changes. So the changes would in fact reduce, not support, the rights of the most vulnerable.

The policy statement has suggested that where a claim is inadmissible, they will return individuals to a ‘safe third country’, which will include all EEA member states. However, it is worth being aware that many asylum seekers may have already suffered human rights abuses within Europe, from illegal deportations in Hungary to police violence against refugees in Calais, and children being pushed back from France to Italy in violation of both French and international law. Illegal pushbacks have been linked by the Guardian to over 2000 deaths, and the Danish Refugee Council has called this the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when considering border crossings in Italy, Greece, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Hungary. The Border Violence Monitoring Network (a Balkans-based network of human rights groups) has disturbingly found that the “vast majority” of pushbacks in southeast Europe involve torture. The European Court of Human Rights, in a landmark decision, found in M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece (2011) that a removal of an asylum seeker from Belgium to Greece would violate article 3 of the ECHR (the prohibition of torture), due to their conditions of detention and living in Greece, and the risk of return to an unsafe country.

So whether or not the policy is likely to reduce the numbers of people reaching the UK ‘illegally’ (although refugee charities argue it won’t), the proposed plans are likely to impact the access of the most vulnerable to their rights to life, to not be subject to torture, or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and to be recognised as refugees under the Refugee Convention.

Take action

For more information about refugees, Amnesty International offers a free online course on refugee rights. You may also want to read the highly emotive poem “Home” by Warsan Shire.

There are many organisations currently advocating for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, and you can follow their campaigns through their mailing lists and social media: below is a short list of some of the organisations in this area, but there are many more out there.

But the best way to become more familiar with asylum seekers and refugees is to volunteer and get to know the people with lived experience of seeking asylum and the charities supporting them. We at Studenteer have been busy building partnerships with organisations to help students get involved, but there’s no need to limit yourself to these opportunities. There are lots of grassroots charities supporting asylum seekers via advice services, English classes, creative workshops and political advocacy, who will benefit from some extra hands and give you a chance to develop your experience and skills. It’s never been more important to help build a culture of welcome for refugees in the UK, and everyone can play a part.

By Isla Winchester for Studenteer

© All Rights Reserved, Studenteer 2021

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