Government defends under-fire Illegal Migration Bill

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Downing Street has defended the Illegal Migration Bill and insisted the Government continues to abide by its international legal obligations on asylum.

The proposed legislation – which would change the law to make it clear people arriving in the UK illegally will not be able to remain in the country – has come under fire from both the Council of Europe and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as it progresses through Parliament.

Critics have dismissed the Bill as unworkable but right-wing Tory MPs believe the legislation does not go far enough, with some calling for ministers to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to gain tighter border controls.

Ahead of the Commons report stage of the Bill on Tuesday, a Council of Europe migration committee described the plans as a “wilful distortion of core UN and European conventions which the UK itself contributed to designing”.

Meanwhile the EHRC said it remains “seriously concerned” that the Bill could put the UK in breach of its international legal obligations and that some of the proposals contained in the legislation were “particularly worrying”.

Asked about the legislation being criticised by the Council of Europe, the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said: “We cannot allow a system to continue which incentivises people to risk their lives and pay people smugglers to come here illegally.

“We cannot have a system which is unfair to the thousands of people who are coming here through safe and legal routes who see their positions usurped by those who come here illegally who are sometimes not as vulnerable as they are.”

Migrant Channel crossing incidents
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, from the RNLI Dover Lifeboat following a small boat incident in the Channel (Gareth Fuller/PA)

The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s committee on migration, refugees and displaced persons said: “The right to seek asylum is a fundamental right. If passed, the Illegal Migration Bill would deny protection to asylum seekers who entered the UK unauthorised, including victims of trafficking.

“The Bill also foresees a greater use of detention in border management including for children …

“The provisions of this Bill are a wilful distortion of core UN and European conventions which the UK itself contributed to designing.

“Its provisions would jeopardise the right to an effective remedy, breach the non-refoulement principle, endanger victims of forced labour and modern slavery, and strip international protection seekers of their right to seek asylum, with no regard for the best interest of the child.

“The government-proposed amendment to the Bill announced this week, which puts into question the obligation under Article 34 of the European Convention on Human Rights to respect interim measures, is of immense concern.

“Non-discrimination, non-penalisation and non-refoulement are the pillars of the Refugee Convention, requiring effective access to fair and individualised procedures.

“In practice, applying such core principles may prove challenging to state and local authorities in seeking to determine individual applications fairly.

“Nevertheless, the repeated legislative changes in the UK are resulting in removing much-needed protection for refugees and victims of trafficking, severely disrespecting fundamental human rights standards. Such measures are not a valid policy response to the issues at stake.”

The EHRC said it “remains seriously concerned that the Bill risks placing the UK in breach of its international legal obligations to protect human rights and exposing people to serious harm”, adding: “Provisions providing for the detention of children and pregnant women and removing protections for victims of trafficking and modern slavery are particularly worrying.

“Effective rights-compliant action is needed to ensure that more lives are not lost on dangerous Channel crossings.

“We welcome the Government’s commitment to increase safe, regular routes to the UK for those in need of asylum and recommend these are brought forward alongside the Bill.”

The calculations by the two charities were based on there being the same number of Channel crossings as last year (45,755), when 5,242 asylum applications where made on behalf of unaccompanied children.

The warnings come as the battle over the legality of the Rwanda deal continues with a four-day Court of Appeal hearing which began on Monday.

The Government’s plan to send migrants to the east African nation – a policy ruled lawful by High Court judges – has so far been stalled by legal action and no flights have taken off.

More than 5,500 migrants have arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel this year, according to Government figures.

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