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Immigration Bill leaves people seeking asylum with an impossible choice

Houses of Parliament
Immigration Bill passed by both Houses of Parliament

From 31 December 2020 many people, including unaccompanied children, will either need to rely on smugglers and dangerous journeys to the UK or risk remaining separated from their family.

On Monday, the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill finally passed both Houses of Parliament. Two days later, the Queen completed the formalities and the Bill became an Act of Parliament.

Over recent weeks, the Bill has bounced between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. This process is officially known as ‘ping-pong’ and it is the means by which any lasting disagreement between the two Houses are finally resolved.

There have been a few disagreements on this Bill but the one that rumbled on longest concerned an amendment inserted by the Lords to safeguard the opportunity for unaccompanied children seeking asylum to come to the UK if they have family here. 

Ultimately, the Government has resisted that amendment. The way it has done so suggests lessons to be learned by campaigners and advocates. 

End of UK participation in the Dublin Regulations

The UK has left the EU and on 31 December 2020 the transitional period during which the UK has maintained its commitment to EU laws is coming to and end. One of these laws that the UK will no longer subscribe to is known as the Dublin Regulations.

These regulations set out which of the European countries who subscribe to them is responsible for an asylum claim made on the territory of any of those countries. 

In recent years, these regulations have been of particular importance to many children who are on their own in Europe seeking asylum but with family in the UK. This is because the regulations state that for such a child, the country in whose territory the child has family is the country responsible for the child’s asylum claim. The regulations make provision for children to be transferred to that country.

Over 12 months to the end of June 2020, 532 people seeking asylum – most of them children – have been transferred to the UK to make their asylum claims here where they have family.

From 31 December 2020, the UK will no longer accept these transfers. Some people, including many unaccompanied children, will either need to rely on smugglers and dangerous journeys to the UK or risk remaining separated from their family.

The Government’s defence

Many MPs and peers, including several Conservatives, supported an amendment that would have retained an opportunity for children seeking asylum to come to the UK to be with family after 31 December. 

The Government defeated that in the House of Commons and on 9 November persuaded peers not to pursue it again. The Government’s defence was twofold.

Firstly, they promised to conduct a review of safe and legal routes to the UK by which people entitled to asylum or wishing to reunite with family can do so.

Secondly, they argued that the amendment was not necessary. Ministers pointed to various provisions in the immigration rules that permit people to join refugee family members in the UK. They said these provisions were sufficient or even better than the proposed amendment.

The promise of a review of safe and legal routes

The Government’s commitment to this review has been put on the face of the Bill. The problem, however, is what has been put there includes no date by when the review is to be completed, no specific purpose for the review and no identification of what will be assessed, let alone any criteria against which any assessment will be made.

The Government has always been free to undertake a review. Without specifying any of these important details, the provision now included in the Bill is toothless. It provides no indication as to what will be considered let alone any means to require the Government to conduct a purposeful and effective review.

Concerns around refugee family reunion visas

There are several concerns about the inadequacy of the UK’s rules providing for refugee family reunion visas. But this is a separate matter from the rules and policies which require that a person must get to the UK before they can claim asylum here while making no provision permitting someone to come to the UK for that purpose.

Sadly, therefore, as the arrangements under Dublin are coming to an end there is simply no provision in the rules or in Home Office policy under which someone – including a child with family in the UK – can come to the UK to make their asylum claim. 

Many people in need and entitled to asylum are, therefore, left only with the option of a dangerous journey, often reliant on smugglers, if wishing to claim asylum here because, for example, this is where they have family or other connections.

Lessons for advocates and campaigners

It is often hard work to understand and clearly explain the law and policy that we seek to change – whether to supporters or the people we seek to influence.

Unfortunately, however, if there is confusion in how the relevant law and policy is understood or discussed, this is likely in the long run to undermine effort to make real and lasting change that truly benefits the people affected.

It may do this by simply misunderstanding the full effect of what advocates or campaigners are proposing. Alternatively, it may do so by enabling Ministers and officials to exploit any confusion to give the impression that concerns underpinning proposals are being addressed when they are not.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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