Select Committee on Home Affairs First Report



143.  In June 2000 the Home Secretary made a well-publicised speech to a European conference on asylum issues held in Lisbon. He set out what he considered to be a pressing concern, namely the sharp increase in asylum applications made in the UK and in other EU Member states, consequent in part upon "an unprecedented increase in the number of economic migrants arriving in our countries who are being facilitated in many cases by a highly organised people-trafficking industry." He went on to stress the need to examine "the part which the 1951 Convention - and other international agreements - play in the overall management of our response".[116]

144.  The Home Office, in its memorandum, rules out the prospect of seeking formal amendments to the 1951 Convention, which it believed would be a "huge and time-consuming task . . . the Government does not believe that embarking on such a process at this stage would be the most effective way to modernise the approach to protection and asylum issues internationally".[117]

145.  The Home Secretary argued in his Lisbon speech that rapid communications, the ease of travel and the immense geopolitical changes consequent on the end of the Cold War had led to the global increase in migration and the targeting of developed countries such as the member states of the EU. He contended that in this context the 1951 Convention was now deficient in a number of ways:

  • it did not provide a means of dealing with abuses of the obligations it created

  • it might work to undermine other aspects of the rule of law, and, inadvertently, to "feed serious criminality"

  • it did not provide any framework or principles for determining where a refugee should seek asylum.

146.  Instead, the Home Secretary called for a debate on "a more rational approach to providing protection . . . We should not put up for debate the fundamental obligation on signatory states under the 1951 Convention not to send back those who can show a well-founded fear of persecution. But what we should debate is the changing geo-political, economic, social and legal circumstances in which that fundamental obligation should be exercised." The proposals he mooted included:

  • the adoption of "simple procedures which ensure the swift identification of genuine refugees"

  • treatment of refugee and asylum issues in the regions where they occur

  • an examination of the "horizontal dimensions" of migration (i.e. development, foreign policy and immigration: 'push' and 'pull' factors)

  • agreement within the European Council on the following categories:

    (a)  countries/ethnic groups "facing a high level of persecution", in respect of which quotas of applications made from outside receiving states would be agreed for each Member State

    (b)  safe countries (e.g. all EU Member States, the United States, Canada and Australia), applications from nationals of which would be refused

    (c)  countries where there is "a general presumption of safety"(which would, for instance, include states applying to join the EU), allowing treatment of claims under an accelerated procedure.

147.  Mr Nick Hardwick, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, welcomed the debate which the Home Secretary had initiated, although he believed that the proposals contained several ambiguities and required clarification.[118] Professor Guy Goodwin-Gill, Professor of International Refugee Law at the University of Oxford, pointed out that the Convention forms part of a wider international programme of refugee protection based on a number of instruments, agencies and governments working in concert. While the 1951 Convention was silent on a number of issues concerning refugees and migration, this did not necessarily mean that it suffered from internal contradictions.[119] Hope Hanlan, UK representative of UNHCR, challenged the Home Secretary's assertion that there was a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Convention: "we see that there is a contradiction in the manner in which states operate the Convention, and I think that is a very different thing".[120] She observed that a number of states which have signed the Convention did not strictly respect it, and that some states which had not signed it (for example, Mexico) did respect its provisions.[121]

148.  UNHCR nevertheless accepts that the Convention in its present form "does not respond to the realities of today . . . we agree with the Home Secretary that there are definite gaps. But we do not think that it is by virtue of identifying gaps that one has to unravel the central core".[122] The model of the global refugee protection system posited by UNHCR consisted of measures falling into one of three concentric circles:

  • basic core principles of refugee protection

  • areas of refugee protection where state practices are not harmonised

  • areas where the international response is patchy (e.g. family reunification, burden-sharing between states, mass migration).

149.  Ms Hanlan told us that UNHCR was holding discussions and consultations on the drafting (by the end of 2001) of protocols to deal with deficiencies in refugee protection and other areas where the international response is patchy. Professor Goodwin-Gill believed that more could be done to maintain the Convention as a "continually living instrument". He argued, however, that the present influx of applications to the UK was due less to the perceived deficiencies in the Convention, than to a decision-making procedure which he alleged had not changed in twenty-five years. He proposed a system

      " . . . where the asylum seeker can be brought rapidly in contact with the official who will take an initial decision but in a context in which he or she receives advice and representation. I think it is at that moment you are more likely, provided you front-end load with access to information on countries of origin, interpretation and so forth, rapidly to get to a defensible decision. What we see too often these days [are], quite frankly, indefensible decisions which should never have been taken".[123]


150.  It is our impression that the tragic deaths at Dover on 19 June 2000 focussed attention throughout Europe on the need to tackle the issue through international cooperation.[124] The next day we were told by the Freight Transport Association:

    "we do feel frustrated because we have failed to get the right sort of action from Governments collectively. Only a few weeks back we went to the Commission in Brussels and said, "This is an intergovernmental issue. We need an EU task force to get to grips with this." We had great difficulty in getting Commission officials even to understand it was a problem with which they should be engaged. They said it was our problem, or the problem of the country where the illegals were being detected".[125]

151.  In fact the European Council, meeting in Tampere, Finland, in October 1999, provided "an agenda for action to bring the procedures in member states closer together, providing a clearer common standard for deciding issues of protection and helping to minimise the gaps and differences that encourage opportunistic claims to asylum by those who are not in genuine need of it".[126] The Commission is also seeking to revise the Dublin Convention. The Home Secretary reported to the House a year after the Tampere Council on progress made at a recent Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting:

    "The Commission presented this proposal as its first response to the call by the Tampere European Council in October 1999 to create a common European asylum system. The proposal set out minimum procedural guarantees to ensure that member states could process cases quickly and fairly at a national level and that secondary movements of asylum seekers were avoided. Common standards and time limits would assist in dismissing inadmissible and unfounded cases. Member states gave a general welcome to the proposal, which was remitted to the Asylum Working Group for further consideration".[127]

152.  Several initiatives have now been taken by the EU in the area of asylum and immigration or are under consideration:

  • creation of a European Refugee Fund to finance a "Temporary Protection" scheme which will help member states who face a mass influx of refugees from a specific area due to an acute situation (such as the recent Kosovo conflict)

  • common visa requirements for people coming from non EU countries

  • minimum security standards for EU travel documents

  • establishment of "Eurodac" for comparison of fingerprints of asylum applicants

  • a new immigration policy[128]

  • minimum standards on asylum procedures[129]

  • reception conditions for asylum seekers

  • facilitation of unauthorised entry

  • mutual recognition of decisions on expulsion on non-EU nationals

  • harmonisation of financial penalties on carriers.

153.  We understand that the European Council meeting in Nice in December 2000 agreed that, from 1 May 2004, some aspects of illegal immigration will be subject to Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) rather than unanimity, and to co-decision with the European Parliament. QMV and co-decision will be extended to border control measures once agreement has been reached on the scope of measures concerning the crossing of the external borders of EU Member States. The UK will still be able to opt out of any Title IV measures (ie measures concerning visas, asylum and immigration) under the Protocol on the position of the UK and Ireland.


154.  The United Kingdom should continue its long and honourable tradition of giving asylum to those genuinely escaping persecution. This responsibility should be shared, as now, with other democracies. We accept that a large proportion of those seeking asylum-world wide do not fully satisfy the criteria for asylum. If the UK is to carry out its obligations to genuine asylum-seekers, it needs to make a clearer distinction between them and other people arriving in the UK for settlement. The 1951 Convention did not envisage refugees being able to travel not just to neighbouring countries but to far distant ones. The number of refugees from all over the world who would be eligible for asylum in the UK is unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future. The needs of people fleeing persecution in their own countries should be met as far as possible in the nearest safe country to the one from which they are fleeing.

155.  Few if any countries are organised to provide housing, education, health and other public services for large movements of genuine refugees and economic migrants. There needs to be a national debate about the implications of greater movement of people around the world and this should take place in a wider context than just the issues of asylum-seeking and illegal immigration. Most important of all, there should be international action led by EU countries to support countries near areas of conflict in accommodating refugees.

156.  Improving the speed and quality of the asylum decision-making process should ease some of the problems associated with the operation of the 1951 Convention. Rather than changing the 1951 Convention, action within the European Union presents the most immediate international prospect of the UK meeting its obligations to those seeking asylum in a more efficient way. The Dublin Convention should be revised as soon as possible. The basic principle should be that asylum applications should be made in the first EU country reached. Any subsequent EU country to which the applicant travels should have the right to insist that the application for asylum be made in the previous country, except in those cases where the applicant has valid grounds, such as a visa or immediate family already settled, for making the application in the subsequent country. There should be no need for the Red Cross centre at Sangatte to house hundreds of people near Calais as a base for making repeated attempts to enter the UK.

157.  The 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees should be updated to reflect changes over the past fifty years. We recognise that this cannot be done in the short-term but, given the unrelenting pressure, we do think that the way the 1951 Convention is interpreted in modern circumstances needs to be clarified urgently. In particular we ask whether people fleeing persecution in their own country should be found refuge in nearby safe countries rather than in countries far away. The most immediate task is to improve the procedures for handling refugees, in line with the Home Secretary's Lisbon proposals, in terms of swift identification of genuine refugees, treatment of refugee and asylum issues in the regions where they occur, examining the factors which cause migration and the EU categorising other countries according to the level of persecution or safety.

116  "Towards a Common Asylum Procedure", speech to European Conference on Asylum, Lisbon, 16 June 2000. Back

117  Appendix 1, para. 16.5. Back

118  Q 342. Back

119  QQ 280-I. Back

120  Q 278. Back

121  Q 283. Back

122  Q 284 (Ms Hanlan). Back

123  Q 288. Back

124  Q 465 (Home Secretary). Back

125  Q 182.  Back

126  Appendix 1 para 16.6. Back

127  Official Report 31 October 2000 col 420w. Back

128  Com(2000)757 currently being considered by sub-committee F of the House of Lords European Union Committee. Back

129  Also currently being considered by sub-committee E of the Lords' EU Committee. Back

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Prepared 31 January 2001