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It’s vital we defeat the Illegal Migration Bill’s get-out clause – because isolationism will solve nothing

4 min read

The extreme consequences of new legislation are often obscured by the dry and wordy legalese that’s used to draft it.

An example of what I mean can be found at the very start of the government’s Illegal Migration Bill, which comes back before the House of Lords this week. Lurking within the 50 or so lines of Clause One are rules that will allow this government to sidestep the rule of law and withdraw the UK from vital international obligations that protect human beings.

It is a get-out clause. It is in there because ministers want to get out of their legal obligations to protect the rights of children, get out of protecting trafficking victims, and get out of our agreement to help refugees.

The clause also has an egregious and highly unusual rule that says all measures in the Bill must accord with the Home Secretary’s duty to remove people – including children and victims of trafficking – even if it violates human rights and international law. Global, European and Parliamentary organisations have been repeatedly trying to highlight the consequences of this.

This month, MPs and Peers on the Joint Committee on Human Rights said it is “overwhelmingly clear” the Bill breaches the UK’s international human rights obligations, including the European Convention on Human Rights, and risks breaching others.

The Council of Europe said it is “extremely concerned” about UK Government’s willingness to risk breaching international legal obligations and the rule of law. “The Illegal Migration Bill would increase legal uncertainty and conflicts between UK domestic law and the requirements of the ECHR – as well as a number of other international conventions,” it added.

The UNHCR, the arbiter of the Refugee Convention that the UK helped draft, said the Bill is a ban on the right to claim asylum. “The Bill would breach the UK's obligations under the Refugee Convention, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, the 1961 Convention for the Reduction of Statelessness and international human rights law and would significantly undermine the international refugee protection system,” it said.

And the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child said the Bill doesn’t properly consider the best interests of children and would “violate children's rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Refugee Convention”. At the time of writing, a child rights impact assessment, which should inform all clauses affecting children, has not been produced by the Government.

The UK’s National Human Rights Institutions, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe and the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings have all said the same. The Government wants to end the limits on the detention of children and pregnant women, to deport victims of trafficking, to remove refugees from the UK, and to deny them chances to appeal.

Publicly, the Ministers pushing this Bill seem at best confused about its impact or, at worst, they are refusing to admit it. When it was first published the Home Secretary took the unusual step of revealing she was unable to say if the Bill was compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Elsewhere she said it was compatible with international law and dismissed as fatuous claims that the Bill breaches the refugee convention, despite the UN agency’s devastating legal critique.

There must be no ambiguity when it comes to adhering to the rule of law and Peers and MPs have an opportunity to put an end to any confusion. It is vital we back a cross-party amendment tabled by Baroness Chakrabarti, Lord Paddick, Lord Etherton and Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate and supported by peers from all benches will remove the Government’s get-out clause and replace it with a plainly worded rule-of-law clause.

It will make sure that the Illegal Migration Bill complies with our existing international agreements and obligations and honours our commitment – made by Winston Churchill almost 70 years ago – to welcome refugees fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts and regimes.

Nobody wants refugees to risk their lives to reach the UK on a flimsy dingy. But the solution to stopping Channel crossings is not scrapping our asylum system, detaining families indefinitely, or sending trafficking victims back into danger.

Global refugee migration is international by its very nature. The only way we can rise to its challenge is to work with other nations to find a common way forward to ensure people are protected. We cannot let this Bill’s get-out clause isolate us further.

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