Stuart C. McDonald
Absolutely, as there is in Canada.
Members from all parties in this House, sitting on the Front Benches and the Back Benches, regularly speak up for some of the most oppressed people on the planet. We have seen brave interventions on Uyghurs fleeing atrocities in China. The plight of Syrians fleeing a decade-long conflict has been championed, and Christians around the world, including Christian converts, have numerous ambassadors in this Chamber, but we have hardly come to terms with what this Bill means for them.
This Bill prompts a question: why speak up against persecution abroad only to say, when they come knocking at our door seeking shelter, “You are not our responsibility. Go somewhere else”? France seems to be the popular answer among Conservative Members. What if France and the rest of Europe say the same thing? We would end up with the system of international protection of refugees breaking down, as the UNHCR points out.
If the Bill passes, that is exactly what it means. Prior to the Bill, we would have sheltered people fleeing persecution. The Bill expressly seeks to discourage them from coming here by making life miserable for those who do. Today, if a Uyghur, Syrian or persecuted Christian convert arrives in the UK to seek asylum, life will be far from plain sailing, precisely because of the outrageous waiting times, the dreadful asylum accommodation, the prohibition on work and the dreadful levels of financial support. They get here and, thanks to our amazing non-governmental organisations and charities, they slowly start to rebuild their lives.
But next year, if this Bill passes, for many of those Uyghurs, Syrians or persecuted Christian converts claiming asylum here, things will be infinitely bleaker, and that will be a deliberate policy choice of this Parliament. Arriving next year, the Uyghur, Syrian or persecuted Christian will be much more likely to be criminalised, regardless of arguments about whether they had come here directly or not.
Section 24 of the Immigration Act 1971 already punishes illegal entry by those without leave to enter. Sensibly, however, those who claim asylum on arrival are granted immigration bail, which does not count officially as entry. Clause 37 of the Bill changes all that. It would essentially criminalise the very act of arriving to claim asylum, because, as the explanatory notes acknowledge, the majority of asylum seekers will not have the ability to secure entry clearance. Despite the Home Secretary’s protestations last week, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) said, this criminal offence will apply to Uyghurs, Syrians, persecuted Christian converts and anybody else, and the penalty is up to four years in prison.
The next problem for the Uyghur, Syrian or persecuted Christian convert is that although they are absolutely obviously in need of international protection, this Government, in their wisdom, are not even going to consider their claim for protection for six months. The Government are trying to pretend that that is some sort of replication of the Dublin regulations that the UK was party to prior to Brexit, but of course it is not, because, as we have heard, there are no returns agreements with any remotely relevant country and little indication at this stage that there will be any time soon. Any such returns agreement would have to be carefully circumscribed so as to be consistent with the convention and to have carefully considered the circumstances of the individual, including any ties to the UK, such as family members here.
By contrast, the powers in the Bill will allow the Home Secretary to remove a Uyghur, persecuted Christian or Syrian to any country at all, even if there is no connection, and with very little by way of restriction. Today, the Uyghur, Syrian or persecuted Christian faces outrageous delays in asylum protection systems, and the Bill simply adds another six months.
Where will the Uyghur, Syrian or persecuted Christian be during that time—during that limbo—while the Home Office goes through the futile motions of seeking to remove them? Just now, for those who seek asylum we have a struggling, privatised, over-concentrated system of dispersed asylum accommodation. Numerous Committees have told the Home Office how it could be improved, only to be ignored. Under this Bill and this plan, that is not where the Home Secretary envisages the Syrian, the Uyghur or the persecuted Christian going. Instead, the grim future for these refugees appears under this Bill and this plan to be the disgraceful, disreputable open prison-like conditions that we have already witnessed at Napier or Penally.
Even worse, as we have heard, they may face being removed to an offshore centre to have their claim resolved. Here is the real asylum shopping: the British Government grubbing around to find a country to palm off their responsibilities on to. Let us think of the outrages and the lack of accountability we have seen in relation to immigration detention and the Napier open prison—the abuses that have been meted out there and the harm done. As we know from the Australian experiment, that will be as nothing compared to the hell that is likely to await at an offshore asylum facility. How on earth have we gone from having a Parliament where there was widespread support for time-limiting and restricting the use of detention, to imposing a form of it that is infinitely worse?
Having endured their limbo period, these three groups of refugees will finally have their case assessed by the Home Office. But instead of working to improve asylum decision making, the Bill seeks to make it harder for them to prove their case. It seeks to alter the long-established test set out in the refugee convention that the standard of proof required is a lower, but far from negligible, standard of real risk. That standard is clearly justified by the possible consequences of getting decisions wrong and the huge challenges of proving circumstances that happened thousands of miles away in a country the person has fled.
The Bill seeks to muddy the waters by applying a higher legal threshold. The claimant now has to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that they do belong to one of the protected convention groups and that they fear persecution based on that characteristic. That not only undermines the cautious approach in the convention, justified by the dangers that exist for asylum seekers, but pays no regard to just how difficult it is to prove events that happened in faraway countries.
In addition, by having two different standards of evidence in the same proceedings, it makes life harder for already struggling caseworkers. The judge or decision maker may be certain that the proselytising Christian convert will face the death penalty or torture on return, but now the “real possibility” that the claimant is such a proselytising Christian convert is not enough. If the judge is only 49% satisfied that the person is a proselytising Christian convert, the claim is going to be rejected, even though the risk of torture or death is absolutely certain if the decision maker has got that assessment wrong. I find that deeply troubling, and it is clearly inconsistent with the refugee convention.
Let us imagine that the persecuted Christian, the Syrian and the Uyghur have survived their limbo period and made it through the asylum system, and the Home Office refusal of their application has been overturned on appeal. Unbelievably, the harms inflicted on them by the Bill have barely started. On the contrary, the repugnant programme of disincentives is ramped up further, even after they navigate that system. Because they have stopped temporarily in a European country, they are to be treated as a second-class refugee. Regardless of what any Minister says, that is absolutely contrary to the refugee convention and, more importantly, it is simply disgraceful. It is not just nasty, but sickening—