Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440 - 459)



  440. The processes are much quicker but it boils down to the same thing, everybody stays.
  (Mr Straw) No, that is not the case. We are improving enforcement against a background that the system was close to collapse by April 1997.

Mr Howarth

  441. Home Secretary, we have been three years in a Labour Government now. I do not think you can blame everything back on the Tories.
  (Mr Straw) I do blame the Tories, particularly as we are now lectured about the need to improve removals. I do agree that we need to improve removals, but I say that the party which was in Government for all those years and which collapsed the system is in no position to lecture us about how it needs to be improved.


  442. May we move on to the 1951 Convention? I think it was in your Lisbon speech that you reminded people that this is a Convention that is 50 years old and was borne out of totally different circumstances, in a world which was far less mobile and in many ways was more politically stable, although there was a down side to that. Do you think it is possible now to get agreement, perhaps, not so much on changes to the Convention itself, but the way in which, for example it may be interpreted across the European Union? Is the discussion going on among Ministers at the EU about this, and is there some hope of the prospect of achieving that?
  (Mr Straw) Given the way in which UN Conventions are drawn up and the way they are changed, I think it is unrealistic to expect any quick progress on changing the terms of the Convention. Also there is then the issue of how you would change those terms. It seems to me that the basic criteria to give refugee status to those who are in well-founded fear of persecution is satisfactory and something to which every country which is signed up to human rights should do. The question is how that obligation is interpreted, Mr Chairman, as you say. On that we have not been helped as a country by differing interpretations of some aspects of the 1951 Convention, not least in the issue of non-state persecution, but there are aspects which do, the inter-relationship between the 1951 Convention obligations and those under the European Convention on Human Rights. This is an area where I am convinced that we would benefit by a greater degree of co-operation with our EU partners and by there being a greater degree of commonality between the approach which each EU partner adopts, because at the moment I think you do get what has been called "asylum shopping", where slightly different interpretation in different countries leads to people being attracted to one country or another. You then have problems under Dublin, which is not working effectively and which is an error agreed by the previous administration in 1990, which has made it more difficult to return people to safe third countries in Europe rather than less difficult. As you may know, we have had a couple of court decisions where the courts have held that for certain groups, France and Germany were not safe third countries. We have sought to overcome those in part by Section 11 of the 1999 Act, which has now come into force, but it is a common standard, to use the cliche, "a level playing field". It would be helpful and a lot of work is now going on to that effect with the Commission and with other Members of the JHA Council.

  443. I think you have raised a problem in that speech of the need, at present, for, say, somebody getting out of Afghanistan and wishing to claim asylum in the United Kingdom, having to get to the United Kingdom to claim that asylum, rather than making that claim in the first safe country, which, for the sake of administration, we will call Pakistan. Does that remain your ambition?

  (Mr Straw) Yes. It will be hard to achieve, but I think we have to begin with the analysis. I was very struck by the much more rational way in which Western Europe dealt with humanitarian problems in Kosovo. Agreeing, first of all, that there was a humanitarian problem because of huge political instability—civil war—and then saying that most of the focus should be on relief of those people on the border with Macedonia and that their best interest was served by temporarily housing them just outside the country and making arrangements, not least through military power, to secure the safety of their areas and then it would be a lot easier for them to go back, and, thirdly, accepting that there would be some groups who did, because of their state of health or other circumstances, need a respite from that kind of terror and they should be accommodated in various European countries. That is what we did in this country in the Humanitarian Evacuation Programme and what happened in other European countries. There has been a problem with that, which is that the criteria which were used by different European countries varied. Germany, for example, as part of the condition that they could go to Germany, each of those who were going on their HEP voluntarily gave up their right to apply for asylum, and they could not subsequently apply for asylum in Germany unless the objective circumstances in Kosovo had changed from the time when they left. The legal advice to England, very strongly, was that if I had sought to do that and some people subsequently made applications for asylum, they would claim that they had given up their right to claim asylum under duress, ie, on leaving the country. We need to sort that out. That said, it must be more rational to have a situation where the kind of approach that we adopted in Kosovo is more widely used, but we query whether it could be used in Afghanistan. The other thing that that would do is focus the attention of the developed world on the need for there to be political solutions to these areas of instability. In other words, we are dealing with the push factors as well as the pull factors. It is pretty extraordinary that we are, in Western Europe, America, Canada and Australia, spending billions and billions of pounds dealing with the affects of political instability in these countries, of civil war, and far less on dealing with the causes of that instability.

  444. We were told in Germany, Spain and, I think, Hungary, that they had bilateral agreements with some of the countries in which many of the asylum seekers/immigrants were coming. In some cases they had made agreements that the numbers of immigrants they would accept formally met the qualities that they were seeking, and part of those arrangements were that they would then not entertain applications for asylum. I must say that it surprised me that they could do that, and partly for the reasons that you yourself gave. Given that that is going on, do you think that lessons are needed to get a common interpretation of the 1951 Convention, or can those two things go side by side?
  (Mr Straw) I think they go side by side. Any country which is signatory to the 1951 Convention has to entertain applications for asylum. There were special circumstances around the equivalent of the HEP Programme in Germany and although they found it easier to require the people on their programme to go back to Kosovo, that is against the background in which they have hundreds of thousands of people settle in Germany compared to those who settle in the United Kingdom. I think that a common interpretation and common procedures where these made things easier—not where they made things more difficult—would make life much more sensible within the EU and, in time, would help overcome some of the problems of the Dublin Convention, which is the subject of review by the EU at the moment.

  445. One of the questions we came away with, Home Secretary, was that other EU countries, Spain and Germany, for example, have these arrangements where they immediately return those who they regard as illegal arrivals, which raises the question of why we are not similarly able to do that with those on the same footing coming from France?
  (Mr Straw) We used to be able to do that.

  446. Is this Dublin?
  (Mr Straw) Yes. We used to be able to do that under a gentleman's agreement which was in existence, and that gentleman's agreement still exists in respect of immigration—people who have been refused leave on an immigration basis and who do not claim asylum. Although it was not perfect, it worked pretty well. The extraordinary thing is that Dublin, which was signed up to by the previous administration in 1990, came into force in October 1997 and as night follows day, sadly, led to the abolition of that gentleman's agreement, and it has made matters worse. That is where we are. I have looked at whether we can re-establish that gentleman's agreement by doing other things, but if you see it from France's point of view, they say, "Well, the United Kingdom agreed Dublin, we have all signed up to it, we have all ratified it."

  447. So did Germany and Spain presumably?
  (Mr Straw) There is a bilateral agreement between Germany and Denmark by which people are returned across the border, but it is infinitely easier to do that at a border crossing than it is across the Channel.

  448. Spain do it with people coming from North Africa.
  (Mr Straw) They do and they do not. Spain has hundreds of thousands of people who are wholly illegal within Spain. There was an amnesty granted last year in which 500,000, not asylum seekers, but wholly illegals from North Africa, were given residence, and in turn that is a very successful pull factor. One of the truths about Southern Europe is that they have fewer people who make applications for asylum for all sorts of cultural and administrative reasons, but they have hundreds of thousands more people who have no papers at all and who are not known to the authorities. That is also true in France. France has fewer asylum seekers per head of population than the United Kingdom does, but in Southern France the agri businesses would scarcely operate without people who come across from North Africa, sans papiers, as they are known, and they work on the margins. I told you about Spain, and although it is true that there are good bilateral arrangements between Spain and Morocco, Spain has huge difficulties in getting removals to any part of North West Africa. So life is not always as it appears.

  449. We were told by the Spanish Immigration Minister, a few weeks before Barbara Roach made that speech on the background of all of these problems, that they had a need for 200,000 immigrants to do the jobs that the Spaniards did not want to do, particularly in construction and agriculture.
  (Mr Straw) That is despite the fact that Spanish unemployment is one of the highest in Europe.

Mr Howarth

  450. Can I take the Home Secretary back to the 1951 Convention? Can I invite the Home Secretary to agree that circumstances have changed pretty substantially since 1951 when this Convention was drawn up? At that time there were few international air services, international travel was restricted to very few people and the circumstances today, of course, are wholly different, where we have hundreds of flights just across the Atlantic every day. The most recent figures that I have are for last year, which show that nearly 9,500 people were either recognised initially as being refugees and being granted asylum, or were not recognised as refugees but given extended leave to remain. Can I put to you, Home Secretary, that given the ease with which people can travel today, the 1951 Convention is simply out of date, because is not the corollary of those obligations we entered into in 1951 that wherever there is conflict around the world and wherever people are being persecuted—and many of the countries which Britain ruled so successfully, the successive governments are persecuting their own people—we must, therefore, accept an obligation to house those people in the United Kingdom.
  (Mr Straw) If there is instability anywhere in the world?

  451. Yes?
  (Mr Straw) No. I do not accept that and neither does the Convention lay that down. If you are saying to me should we abandon the 1951 Convention and the practical and moral obligation that it imposes on Member States in isolation, my answer to that is no.

  452. I am inviting you to review the position given it is now so out of date.
  (Mr Straw) Circumstances have changed since 1951, there is no question about that, for reasons you have described and, above all, because of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Up until literally the Berlin Wall came down asylum applications to this country were running at about 4,000 a year, there was a backwater in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. Most were accepted, most were from Eastern Europe and they were political refugees from the Soviet Union or its satellites.

  453. All the figures you gave us just now were nothing to do with the Soviet Union.
  (Mr Straw) Some of them are.

  454. Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka.
  (Mr Straw) They are to do with the Soviet Union. What was going on before the collapse of the Berlin Wall was that each bloc, the NATO/US bloc and the Soviet Union, and to some extent China, had a hegemony over certain client states in Asia and Africa and there was a kind of stand-off in each of those countries so it led to the appearance of stability in many of those countries. Now, you could argue, and I would certainly do so, that system was leading to huge pent up forces which spilt out in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and created that instability, but if you look at many of the countries where there has been subsequently significant turmoil, Afghanistan is the best one, that is the best example, but there are many others—

  455. Sri Lanka, China, Somalia?
  (Mr Straw) I am not suggesting all of them but in many of them it has flowed as a consequence of the instability which followed after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, just as, if I may say, a good deal of migration from Eastern European itself as those economies went into free fall. Can I just make a wider point about the 1951 Convention? The 1951 Convention does not only apply to Western Europe and the more profitable states, it also applies to any Member, a signatory of the United Nations. The greatest burden of supporting refugees falls on the developing world, it falls on the states contiguous to Rwanda, for example, it has fallen over many years on India who have taken the equivalent of refugees and economic migrants by the hundreds of thousands across the border from Bangladesh to West Bengal and which in turn, let me say, has contributed to political instability, particularly in the North Eastern States of India. There are many other examples as well. Countries like India and countries contiguous to Rwanda have to an extraordinary degree actually accepted their obligation, they are not just sending people back at the point of a gun. They may not have provided them with the degree of wealth and support they are provided with in Western Europe and Australia and Canada but they have accepted those obligations. If we in the West suddenly tear up a Convention then I do not think it would be much of a message to the countries which have taken the biggest burden over the years.

  456. Surely the point is they have tribal associations across their boundaries which many people argue are artificial anyway. Although I take your point, surely it would be natural to expect them to do that, just as it would be natural for us to accept Jewish refugees from Germany or perhaps Huguenots from France, it would not necessarily be natural for us to accept the rise in refugees in the same way.
  (Mr Straw) Sometimes the tribal associations lead to a lack of apparent welcome rather than the reverse, we need to be clear about that. Yes, of course, it was we who divided East Bengal and West Bengal, the British Government.

  457. A Labour Government.
  (Mr Straw) Well, there is a history to it if you want to know. It was done twice and I think it was in the earlier part of the last century it was done as well. Leaving that aside, the fact of the matter is that some of the people in Bangladesh of course have associations, ethnic and religious associations, with the muslims in West Bengal, some of them do not, but it is still a very substantial pressure on those countries. It is something we need to bear in mind in weighing the balance of this issue.

  458. I do not want to prolong this but I am keen to try to develop with the Home Secretary this idea that he did express in Lisbon concern about the Convention.
  (Mr Straw) Of course.

  459. There is provision for us to renounce it and I do not think there is any question anybody wants to do that because obviously we are all concerned about those who are the victims of oppression. I am not clear that the Government is clear that the consequences of accepting the application of a 1951 Convention to year 2000 circumstances will not lead to substantial further justifiable, in terms of the Convention, claims to residency in the United Kingdom and the obligation on the British people further to accept substantial numbers of people with all the consequences that flow from that.
  (Mr Straw) I think I am pretty clear about what needs to be done, and I have to say, modestly, that I think the United Kingdom is clearer about the changes that need to be made than many other Member States in the EU, indeed they welcomed the contribution that was made by way of the Lisbon speech. What I called for, as you will be aware, is a more rational approach which involved the categorisation of groups of people and countries of origin, an EU settlement programme, the possibility which the Chairman made of applications lodged overseas, and actions by the regions of origin to reduce migration pressures. I think these are sensible proposals we need to look at. Each has a downside for sure but we need to examine them. Certainly I think the categorisation of countries would be extremely helpful into countries which are completely safe, those where it is accepted, on a stricter basis than UNHCR finds at the moment, that there are problems, and those that are the intermediate category where the default setting would be people's applications fall to be refused but, of course, there could always be one or two individuals who may be able to make a claim to prove it.

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