Asylum

[back to previous text]

Mr. Lidington: Once the United Kingdom decides to opt into a particular asylum measure, it becomes justiciable in the European Court of Justice and we cannot opt out simply because we dislike a particular ECJ interpretation of it. Does the Minister agree that opting in is an irrevocable decision?

Mrs. Roche: Of course it is right that we should consider the various measures. We are dealing with a UN convention to which, unlike immigration policy, all EU member states are already signatories. All are signatories to the UN convention on torture, which can also give rise to some subsidiary forms of protection. Moreover, all subscribe to the principles of the European convention on human rights. It therefore seems reasonable to contend that we should move towards a common policy in this area, albeit with the caveat that I outlined. I do not deny that these are serious and important decisions that the UK will have to make at the appropriate time.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): One feature of refugee policy that goes back before the war, which was raised by Amnesty International and others in connection with the document, is the contradiction between trying to prevent illegal entry by those seeking asylum while offering very limited possibilities of seeking asylum from outside the borders of the European Union. How does the Minister envisage that problem being tackled?

Mrs. Roche: Some important issues are being generated not only by this document, but by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as it approaches the commemoration of its 50th anniversary next month. The policy involves inherent contradictions in that it is difficult and, indeed, unusual for refugees to make applications in their regions of origin. They usually make their claims in different parts of the world. Moreover, there is a disparity between the level of support that we provide to help the poorer countries of the world to support large numbers of refugees and the amount of money that is spent on processing applications in the developed world, many of which will be unfounded in convention terms.

The other main issue is that of the convention being used as a migratory instrument for illegal immigration, which was never envisaged by the framers of the convention—indeed, they would have been dismayed to see it used in that way. The UNHCR would emphatically say that it is not a migratory instrument. Several complex issues are involved, which the Home Secretary tried to address in his Lisbon speech and his recent speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Jackie Ballard: If I heard the Minister correctly, she said that it was unusual for applications for asylum to be made in the region of origin. It is my understanding that the statistics do not bear that out, so I would be grateful if she could tell me where she got her information. For example, the figures for Afghanistan refugees are 1.6 million in Iran and 1 million in Pakistan. In comparison, the numbers that have come to the European Union pale into insignificance. Will the Minister clarify her remarks?

Mrs. Roche: With respect, the hon. Lady slightly confused what I said. I said that most of the world's refugees are from the poorer countries. However, my point concerned the way in which the convention operates and the possibility that Europe's acceptance of refugees means that people have to come to Europe to make their claims and to get resettlement in Europe as refugees. The Home Secretary has floated the idea—which, interestingly, has been picked up by the Commission—that it may be possible for asylum seekers or those seeking refuge to make an application in the region of origin. We could then consider the possibility either of increased protection in the region of origin—I have already referred to the disparity in terms of money—or of resettlement in European Union countries, as with the evacuation programme from Kosovo.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): If we are to have systems that allow people to apply in the regions where they are based, have resettlement programmes and begin to lure them in that direction, does the Minister agree that it should be made clear that that would be complementary to—and not an alternative for—those who arrive spontaneously and apply for asylum? We do not want to create the public perception that those who have come through the resettlement programme are genuine, whereas those who apply spontaneously must be fraudulent.

Mrs. Roche: Clearly, the obligation under the convention is that one examines matters on a case-by-case basis, and that is right. However, the proposal that has been outlined by the Home Secretary is interesting, and has been taken up. If one talks to the UNHCR about the matter, it plays well into its concerns about the disparity in resources between the processing of cases in the developed world and the amount spent on support. The ideas in the proposal mirror some ideas in the programmes of other countries. Asylum claims must always be examined on a case-by-case basis.

Mr. Lidington: I refer the Minister to the evidence she gave to the European Scrutiny Committee, in which she expressed:

    ``concerns about the different ways in which the concept of a `uniform status . . . valid throughout the Union' may be interpreted.''

Will she enlarge upon where she thinks problems might arise over different interpretations? Is it potential freedom of movement between countries that causes the Government concern and is their concern over interpretation shared widely in the EU, or have institutions in other member states taken a different position?

Mrs. Roche: We are at an early stage—the document is only a communication. I imagine that our concerns are shared by a number of other member states. We must examine this as a matter of interpretation. If one is looking for a common policy, one can make an argument for uniform status. Free movement, however, is a completely separate issue. We have free movement for EU nationals and our view would be that freedom of movement in the EU can only be given after the acquisition of nationality in member states. That will emerge as an item of discussion and I imagine that other member states have similar concerns.

Dr. Palmer: I thank the Minister for her thoughtful replies. The broad thrust of the document is procedural and organisational. I wonder whether she sees scope for consultation on the interpretation of the laws. For example, consultation could take place on whether an application could be rejected on the grounds that an act of torture was by a wayward official and not an act of state policy. In the past, I understand that different practices have been followed in different European Union countries. Does the Minister see a role for the EU in trying to iron out such differences?

Mrs. Roche: That was an interesting question. We will be dealing with that matter even sooner than is provided for in the document, because it is part of stage 1—the definition of a refugee. It is true that some EU countries do not recognise non-state persecution as a qualification for refugee status. However, such countries grant a lower form of subsidiary protection in such cases, which is the equivalent of our exceptional leave to remain. We are in a fairly fluid situation, because case law in some of those other states seems to be developing in a way that does not recognise the distinction. EU member states will have to address the issue soon.

Jackie Ballard: The Minister referred to the idea, floated by the Home Secretary, of applicants being able to apply from their region of origin. As she said, that is not the current system. I would be grateful if she answered a question that I first asked at the end of a debate in the Chamber when she did not have time to answer. Under the current system, how can an Afghanistan woman, who speaks English and therefore wishes to come to the UK to seek asylum, legally seek asylum in this country?

Mrs. Roche: If people are fleeing persecution, they should apply for asylum in the first safe third country in which they arrive. That springs so clearly from every consideration, and certainly any other EU member state would agree. The first consideration must be that people in danger should flee to the first safe third state. That is important, and I know of no country that would take a different line.

Mr. Lidington: Would the British Government like to see EU legislation on refugee status that limited it to persecution by a Government or Government agencies?

Mrs. Roche: Along with the UNHCR interpretation and most member states, we have always recognised non-state persecution too. In reality, the difference in Europe has not been apparent because other countries have gone for a form of temporary protection such as ours. As I said, case law is moving towards the British position and that of most other member states.

Mr. Gerrard: The question of subsidiary status is raised in the documents from the Commission about whether there should be more subsidiary statuses and what they might be. Will that mean that exceptional leave to remain will become formalised? Does the Minister see that developing as a single subsidiary status and how will it relate to rights of appeal?

Mrs. Roche: That is an interesting question, but it is probably too early to say. There are two issues—one relates to status, and the other concerns what accrues from that status. We have had a difference in full refugee status. My preliminary view is that it is important that we recognise the unique nature of a convention refugee, which is why we have accorded it such status. Other forms of protection are meant to be temporary because, although they apply in cases in which something has happened that makes it difficult for refugees to return home, it does not mean that those refugees qualify for convention status. That is a preliminary view, but I have no doubt that it will be a key issue of discussion among member states as we move ahead with the second stage process.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 2 May 2001