Not a single European country has decided to support the UK government’s controversial asylum plans, with the UN on Saturday night criticising the proposals as so damaging they risked Britain’s “global credibility”.
Six weeks after the home secretary, Priti Patel, unveiled a sweeping immigration overhaul that included deporting migrants who enter the UK illegally to safe countries such as “France and other EU countries”, sources have said the Home Office has been unable to persuade any European state to sign up to the scheme.
The UN’s refugee agency will soon publish its detailed legal opinion into Patel’s asylum proposals that is likely to conclude her plans infringe international legislation and are unworkable. Despite this, Patel’s asylum proposals are to feature in the Queen’s speech on Tuesday, which lays out the government’s legislative agenda for the next year.
Yet the complete lack of any bilateral European agreements to return migrants from the UK, alongside a warning from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that the Home Office proposals risk undermining longstanding global agreements to offer protection to refugees, already casts doubt on its future.
Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR representative to the UK, told the Observer that the UK’s plans threatened the integrity of the UN refugee convention – which the UK government helped write in 1951 – and which seeks to protect individuals fleeing persecution or catastrophe.
Pagliuchi-Lor said: “If a country like the UK – still wealthy despite the Covid downturn and with relatively low numbers of asylum seekers – seeks to back away from its obligations under the convention, what message does it send to others hosting large numbers?
“There’s no question that the UK has won a reputation as a country of asylum, and with it considerable global credibility – which, incidentally, it has used to advocate for open asylum abroad. The aim should be a system that balances responsibility sharing among countries.”
Pagliuchi-Lor noted the UK’s plans appeared not to comply with the 1951 convention that obliges countries to protect refugees on their territory. She added: “As is often the case in international law, compliance depends on states’ willingness to act in line with their commitments.”
Her comments follow significant disquiet over the government’s consultation – which ended last Thursday – on its fundamental changes to refugee policy. A total of 192 refugee, human rights, legal and faith groups recently signed a public statement denouncing the exercise as a “sham”.
On Thursday, the Law Society’s submission to the consultation described the planned changes as “undermining access to justice and making a mockery of British fair play”.
The UNHCR also revealed that it has offered to help the UK government reform the asylum system but has yet to receive a formal response from the Home Office. “Our proposals aim at finding quick fixes within the existing system, based partly on experiences of other countries. Of course, we’re ready to discuss further improvements with the UK,” said Pagliuchi-Lor.
It follows reports last week that hundreds of people seeking asylum in the UK have already been warned they could be removed to other countries in Europe – despite Brexit removing Britain’s power to make such transfers and the fact it has no legal agreement with EU nations to take these people back.
When the UK quit the EU’s single market on 1 January, it also left the so-called Dublin regulation, the legal mechanism that allows EU governments to transfer applicants back to other member states where they had previously been registered.
The Home Office has been contacted for comment.