Illegal Migration Bill undermines the rule of law and criminalises innocent victims
Whilst I recognise the need to “stop the boats” and believe the Prime Minister is right to consider it a priority of the government, as a former immigration minister, spokesperson in the European Parliament and lawyer, I have significant concerns about the Illegal Migration Bill.
The bill, as currently written, will not achieve its intended aim of stopping the boats. Instead, it will break solemn laws and treaties and provide greater sustenance to the real criminals – the people traffickers and smugglers – who should be our first targets. The number of detected human trafficking offences has increased substantially in recent years, and we must not allow them to profit from vulnerable people. We should be doing more to catch these real criminals, some of whom are here in the United Kingdom.
Those who breach immigration rules should be deported promptly, while those seeking asylum should be quickly required to prove that they meet the fundamental criteria for refuge. If they fail to meet these criteria, they should be returned to their country of origin. When I was a minister in 1996, I committed extra resources to the removal process because I believed that our system must be seen by our people as firm but fair.
The government is attempting to categorise asylum seekers as criminals even before their cases are heard
The government has claimed that they have taken advice from the "finest legal minds" in this country, but I question who these minds are. I am satisfied, as is the UNHCR and other organisations, that no asylum seeker per se can be illegal. There is a clear difference between migrants who come here illicitly or deceitfully and are in breach of our tight immigration rules, and asylum seekers who present here and claim asylum under the strict criteria of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. As a lawyer, I cannot support the government in breaking the law.
The government is attempting to categorise asylum seekers as criminals even before their cases are heard. They are employing extreme rhetoric and ignoring laws and international agreements – including the European Convention on Human Rights – while implementing their Rwandan scheme. The bill sets out to diminish the UK courts' powers to suspend deportation and sets a dangerous precedent about the way in which they look at judicial review. This approach violates the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of individuals to a country where they could face serious harm.
Changes to the bill were made in the House of Commons but I believe that they do not go far enough. It is essential for the government to prioritise the creation and maintenance of safe and legal routes for asylum seekers, not just as a humanitarian imperative but as a matter of good governance. They provide a framework for asylum seekers and would enable the UK to uphold its obligations under international law. We need to ensure that all UK embassies and consulates are potential application posts for entry where processing can take place. Such routes help to prevent exploitation, abuse by smugglers and traffickers and, ultimately, stop the boats.
I was a drafter of the Dublin agreements when we were in the European Union; they at least made it easier to send back asylum seekers within the law. Since we have left the EU, we must rely on bilateral agreements with our neighbours. We need to become reassociated with new EU initiatives to handle the large number of migrants who attempt to enter the Schengen area every year. Together, we have a better chance of achieving this.
The proposed Illegal Migration Bill needs significant changes to achieve its intended aims. There are various ways in which we can bring about change to protect lives and our borders at the same time, but that does not include breaking international law, leaving the ECHR, curtailing the powers of UK courts, criminalising innocent victims and damaging our race and community relations. I look forward to working with colleagues in House of Lords to bring about these changes.
Lord Kirkhope, Conservative peer and former immigration minister
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