Rishi Sunak ‘extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in UK’

UNHCR ‘profoundly concerned’ by bill that would allow government to criminalise, detain and deport asylum seekers

Rishi Sunak’s government has been accused of “extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the UK” by the United Nations refugee agency after the introduction of a contentious new law to stop small boats from crossing the Channel.

After Suella Braverman was forced to admit that the illegal migration bill was “more than 50%” likely to break human rights laws, the UNHCR said it was “profoundly concerned” by the bill’s provisions, which give the government the right to criminalise, detain and deport asylum seekers, saying it would be a “clear breach of the refugee convention”.

Unveiling the plans to MPs earlier, Braverman said the law places a legal duty on the government to detain and deport nearly all those who arrive “irregularly”, such as via small boats in the Channel.

There would be constraints on the rights of asylum seekers to use a judicial review to challenge decisions, she said on Tuesday, as ministers attempt to bypass the legal wrangles that have prevented the implementation of plans to send people to Rwanda.

The bill will also introduce an annual cap, to be decided by parliament, on the number of refugees the UK will offer sanctuary to through safe and legal routes – but only once the boats have been stopped.

In an unusually critical statement, the UNHCR said: “The legislation, if passed, would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be.

“The effect of the bill [in this form] would be to deny protection to many asylum seekers in need of safety and protection, and even deny them the opportunity to put forward their case.

“This would be a clear breach of the refugee convention and would undermine a longstanding, humanitarian tradition of which the British people are rightly proud.”

After the introduction of the bill to parliament, the prime minister came under pressure from Tory backbenchers to disengage from the European convention on human rights (ECHR).

Braverman wrote on the front page of the bill that she was unable to say that the provisions were “compatible with the convention rights”.

Anticipating a possible legal fight, the home secretary wrote to Conservative MPs and peers saying there was a more than 50% chance the illegal migration bill may be incompatible with convention rights.

Braverman alluded to the bill’s “legal complexities” while announcing the plans in the House of Commons.

“Some of the nation’s finest legal minds have been, and continue to be involved in its development,” she said.

The bill also gives the government the power to sidestep the ECHR rulings, which were used last to stop a deportation flight to Rwanda.

Several senior backbenchers, including the former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, questioned whether the bill will be enacted while remaining within the ECHR.

Simon Clarke, a Conservative former minister, said the UK must leave the ECHR if the new bill aimed at tackling small boat crossings does not work.

“We all hope this legislation will succeed, but will she promise that if it is frustrated by the European convention on human rights that we will commit to leave it? Because leave it we must, if in the end this legislation is forestalled.”

Mark Francois said the “elephant in the room” is the ECHR, which he urged the government to leave.

“Unless we can somehow face them down, we will remain tied up in legal knots in our own domestic courts and, ultimately, in Strasbourg,” he said.

The Conservative Eurosceptic Bill Cash said the bill is “much in the right direction”, adding: “If we don’t deal with Strasbourg judgments and orders, these new proposals could not work … will she discuss these [proposed amendments] including aspects of the ECHR and also the refugee convention with us?”

Joanna Cherry, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West, told the Commons: “Isn’t the plan behind this legislation simply this: the legislation will go through in the certain knowledge that the domestic courts of the United Kingdom will find that it’s incompatible with international law and the European convention on human rights, and then the Tories will fight the next general election on a promise to take the United Kingdom out of the European convention on human rights?”

Leaving the ECHR, which was drafted in the aftermath of the second world war and the Holocaust to protect people from state power, would breach the Good Friday agreement. The only other European nations not signed up are Belarus and Russia – which has been expelled because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Any decision to pull the UK out of the ECHR without an electoral mandate is likely to cause deep consternation in parts of the Conservative party – and would also face challenges in the House of Lords.

Sunak on Tuesday promised to fight any legal attempt to challenge the bill, saying: “We’re up for the fight. We wouldn’t be standing here if we weren’t, but actually we’re confident that we will win.”

Pressed on whether he would be willing to leave the ECHR if any of the bill is found to breach European law, however, he refused to do so – setting up a potential fight with his own backbenchers.

“We don’t believe it is necessary to leave the ECHR,” he told reporters in Downing Street. “We believe that we’re acting in compliance with it and meeting our international obligations.”

The TV presenter Gary Lineker branded the Tories’ latest plan to imprison asylum seekers entering the UK as “beyond awful”.

Lineker – who welcomed a second refugee into his Surrey home in October last year – has criticised the move, quote tweeting a video of Braverman claiming that: “Enough is enough. We must stop the boats”, with the words “Good heavens, this is beyond awful”.

Lineker added: “We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?”

Tory MPs criticised Lineker’s comparison, with Craig Mackinlay saying he went “too far” and Jonathan Gullis urged the BBC to “remind him his job is to talk football, not politics”. On Tuesday night, the Daily Telegraph quoted a BBC official as saying: “Gary will be spoken to and reminded of his responsibilities on social media.”

Opposition MPs said the bill was a cynical attempt to create a row over immigration with human rights organisations, lawyers and political opponents.

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, criticised the government’s record on dealing with people smugglers and said Home Office decisions on asylum cases have “collapsed”, adding: “This is deeply damaging chaos and there’s no point in ministers trying to blame anyone else for it.

“They have been in power for 13 years. The asylum system is broken and they broke it.” Cooper said “serious” action was needed to stop small boat crossings, with a new agreement needed with France and other countries. She added: “Instead, today’s statement is Groundhog Day.”

In 2022 a record 45,755 migrants arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel.

More than 3,000 have already made the journey so far this year. Home Office figures show 197 made the crossing on Monday – the first arrivals since 24 February – taking the total to date to 3,150.


Rajeev Syal and Kiran Stacey

The GuardianTramp

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