Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Amnesty International UK


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.


  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  On several occasions the Secretary of State for Home Affairs has stated that the 1951 Refugee Convention is outdated and in need of revision.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.

April 2000

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