Memorandum by Amnesty International UK
PHYSICAL CONTROLS AT UK PORTS OF ENTRY
Amnesty International welcomes the opportunity to
participate in the enquiry by the Home Affairs Committee of the
House of Commons into the physical controls which operate at UK
ports of entry.
THE UN CONVENTION
OF 1951 NOW
1. On several occasions the Secretary of
State for Home Affairs has stated that the 1951 Refugee Convention
is outdated and in need of revision. Amnesty International is
extremely concerned at any proposal to revise the 1951 Geneva
Convention relating to the status of Refugees and have raised
our disquiet with the Home Secretary regarding comments about
amending the Refugee Convention. We noted that although the world
has changed a great deal since the Convention was drawn up, the
protection afforded by the Refugee Convention is every bit as
vital now as it was half a century ago. It remains the most important
international instrument for the protection of those fleeing human
rights violations. There is currently an estimated world-wide
displaced population of over 30 million people suggesting that
the need for effective refugee protection is greater than ever.
2. Amnesty International welcomed the commitment
in the conclusion of last year's Tampere European Council to "the
full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention".
An agenda for policy development in the asylum field has been
determined following extensive and serious deliberation by EU
member states. Amnesty International believes that this is a time
for dispassionate reflection upon the difficult and pressing issues
identified in the Tampere conclusion. We would advocate that the
Government does not allow itself to be deflected from that agenda.
With increasing numbers of people fleeing human
rights violations in their country of origin and in need of international
protection, Amnesty International has grave concerns about any
attempt to revise the Refugee Convention particularly in the light
of the Presidency Conclusions of the Tampere European Council
to which the UK Government is a party.
3. While recognising that governments are
entitled to control immigration and entry to their territory,
Amnesty International calls on them to ensure and demonstrate
adequately that asylum-seekers have effective access to their
asylum procedures. Any restrictions on entry such as visa requirements,
sanctions on airlines or other forms of transport or other similar
restrictive measures, should not obstruct this access in practice.
Amnesty International opposes the use of such restrictions on
entry which do not meet these criteria.
4. In recent years, the UK, along with many
other States, has made access to its territory and, therefore,
to its asylum procedures, more difficult by imposing visa requirements
on nationals of the main refugee-producing countries. This, coupled
with carriers' sanctions, has forced many asylum-seekers into
the hands of agents who profit by "trafficking" in human
misery, charging extortionate fees for procuring forged documents
and arranging passages. Airline staff have been forced to act
as immigration officers, checking documents to prevent passengers
boarding without proper documentation in order to avoid the carrier
paying a fine. In response to the doubling of the carriers' fine
in July 1991, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated
that "the protection which is owed to refugees under the
1951 UN Convention on Refugees may be rendered meaningless if
persons in search of protection and assistance are unable to reach
the territories of States party to this instrument". Amnesty
International agrees with these concerns.
5. The Government's approach to deterring
and preventing the arrival of passengers because "it is easier
and more cost effective to deal at source with abuse of our immigration
laws and stem migratory pressures", does not discriminate
between people attempting to flee persecution and others. Indeed,
it seems that no attempt is made to distinguish the two: visa
requirements have routinely been imposed in response to the increased
number of asylum-seekers arriving from particular countries. Amnesty
International recalls the imposition of visa requirements on nationals
of Bosnia-Hercegovina during the Yugoslav war; visa requirements
were imposed on nationals of Colombia and Ecuador in May and August
1997 respectively when the number of asylum-seekers from those
two countries increased.
6. The Government has stated that the placement
of Airline Liaison Officers (ALOs) initially in Accra, Dhaka,
Nairobi, Colombo and New Delhi has been one of the most effective
preventative measures undertaken recently by the Immigration Service.
ALOs have, apparently, successfully stopped large groups of inadequately
documented passengers from arriving in the UK and their number
has been expanded to 15 additional posts. The intention is to
reduce the total number of asylum applications made in the UK.
7. With the coming into force of the Immigration
and Asylum Act 1999, pre-entry controls have been extended to
cover lorries crossing the channel, thereby placing the onus on
the lorry driver to ensure that their cargo does not include potential
asylum-seekers to the UK in order to avoid paying a fine of £2,000
per passenger or risking having their lorry impounded.
8. The problem for those fleeing human rights
violations is that they often experience difficulty in obtaining
a valid passport from their national authorities or an exit visa.
Even those who are in possession of a valid national passport
are unlikely to obtain a valid entry visa for the UK as British
diplomatic posts cannot issue visas for the purpose of seeking
asylum. The putative asylum-seeker is forced into a position where
she or he has to lie in order to leave their country including,
on occasion, using an entirely false identity. Those revealing,
or suspected of having, an intention to seek asylum in the UK
are likely to have their visa application refused. Many fleeing
violations of human rights therefore have no choice but to pay
extortionate sums to an agent to "traffic" them to safety.
9. Amnesty International has repeatedly
raised its concerns that pre-entry controls such as visas, carriers
sanctions and the presence of ALOs prevents many people at risk
of severe human rights abuses from getting out of their home countries,
which we believe amounts to constructive refoulement.
Amnesty International believes that any restriction
on entry which obstructs the flight to safety of individuals in
need of international protection is a violation of the Refugee
Convention. Amnesty International condemns measures that obstruct
the entry of asylum-seekers into a safe territory as being incompatible
with the provisions of the Refugee Convention.