Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Refugee Council



  1.  The Refugee Council is the largest organisation in the UK working with refugees and asylum seekers. We not only give help and support, but also work with asylum seekers and refugees to ensure their needs and concerns are addressed.

  2.  We are a membership organisation and we consult regularly with our wide membership base. Refugee community organisations and other agencies such as Action Aid, Amnesty International and Oxfam are members of the Refugee Council.


  3.  UNHCR head Sadako Ogata, in 1998, pleaded that, "the right of asylum be upheld and respected. Without the institution of asylum, victims of torture and genocide have nowhere to flee. Increasingly, borders are closed, legal barriers erected, and asylum-seekers detained preventing them from finding safety. How can I appeal to countries facing a massive refugee inflow which pose a heavy burden, when wealthy countries close their doors to relatively few asylum seekers?" (Talking points—Mrs Sadako Ogata, Forum "Dialogue on Mainstreaming Human Rights in the United Nations" Geneva, 16 March 1998.)

  4.  Few rights are more fundamental than the right to be free from persecution. The UK is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. Article 14(1) of the Declaration declares that "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution". The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person who is outside of his own country owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reason of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The Convention was drawn up as a result of the persecution of the Jews and other minorities in Europe in the 1930s when many could not find safe refuge in Europe. Although the world has changed in the last 50 years the need to protect those fleeing from persecution has not diminished.

  5.  Only last year, at the European Council at Tampere, EU Governments committed themselves to a full and inclusive application of the 1951 Convention and reaffirmed their "absolute respect" of the right to seek asylum. In particular, States agreed to work together to ensure that nobody is sent back to persecution ie maintaining the principle of non-refoulement.

  6.  The 1951 Convention is the only international instrument which defines the duty of states towards those who fear persecution and which set out minimum standards for their treatment. This is why a JUSTICE, Immigration Law Practitioners' Association (ILPA) and Asylum Rights Campaign (ARC) research project report, Providing Protection, recommended:

The 1951 UN Convention is the cornerstone of a protection regime. It should be interpreted broadly and purposively to cover new forms of persecution and to encompass developing international human rights and humanitarian law standards. If common criteria are developed at European Union level they should be subject to proper democratic and judicial control to ensure their conformity with those standards.

  7.  In any case, the Refugee Council does not believe it is appropriate for the Committee to examine whether this vital piece of human rights legislation now requires revising through an inquiry on physical controls at UK ports of entry.


  8.  The trafficking of migrants into Europe has become a major issue for governments and was the subject of the Refugee Council's The Cost of Survival report. In this report we expressed our concern for the plight of refugees coming to the UK. Lost amongst the rhetoric of the trafficking debate is the reality that forces refugees to flee in the first place, the reality that leads them to place their lives in the hands of traffickers in the first place, who abuse them financially and, sometimes, physically.

  9.  The report showed how refugees are faced with little choice when they are forced to escape from persecution. It examined the experiences of refugees on leaving their countries of origin, the dangers and exploitation they suffered en route to the UK and the potential penalties they faced for travelling illegally.

  10.  Illegal entry to the UK is a criminal offence under British law unless the person is found to be a refugee under the 1951 Convention. Article 31 (1) of the Convention explicitly recognises that some refugees will have no option but to use illegal means of entry, and provides that states "shall not impose penalties" on refugees on this account. Yet, as The Cost of Survival documented, initiatives against human trafficking do not discriminate between refugees and other trafficked migrants and so in effect impose substantial penalties on refugees for whom trafficking has become the cost of survival. How, for example, can an Iraqi fleeing Saddam Hussein claim asylum in the UK without having to resort to some form of subterfuge? Surely, it is accepted that the UK is not insulated by its geography to collective responsibility?

  11.  The current perception of those who arrive in the UK with false documents, or through illegal methods, and do not present themselves to an Immigration Officer immediately is that their intentions are fraudulent. The Refugee Council's experience is that there are many understandable reasons for why refugees do not present their claim for asylum at the point of arrival:

    —  In The Cost of Survival all those case studies who used clandestine means were treated as "in-country" asylum claims and therefore denied welfare benefits. They did not make asylum claims at the port of entry even though doing so may have been in their best interests. This would suggest that they were unable, or unaware of the need, to claim at the port of entry. Many refugees simply do not understand the full consequences of their actions or that they have the right to seek asylum at all.

    —  Clearly, for those entering in sealed containers, it is not always apparent when you have arrived in Britain. It is also impossible to leave the lorry to claim asylum without the assistance of the driver.

    —  In some cases it is clear that there is no intention to deceive the British authorities at all. In fact many refugees entering clandestinely make themselves known to the police at the first opportunity.

    —  Other clandestine refugees may wish to seek family and community advice before approaching officials.

    —  Finally, many clandestine entrants are recognised by the Government as refugees. To impair in any way the right of future clandestine entrants to make an effective claim for asylum will lead to victims of persecution being denied the kind of protection this country has traditionally provided.

  12.  Consequently, those using clandestine means to enter the UK represent a significant section of asylum claims. The 1951 Convention obliges the UK to assess all cases on their merits, and on the mode of entry. Any set of measures to deter or detect clandestine entry must recognise and honour the UK's commitment to the right of asylum and accept that many refugees have to resort to clandestine entry to reach the UK. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has warned that the protection which is owed to refugees under the 1951 Convention may be "rendered meaningless" if refugees are unable to reach, and then claim asylum in, States party to the Convention.


  13.  The Refugee Council is concerned about the health and safety implications of using x-ray scanners at ports of entry. Any procedure which may involve a finite risk of causing mutagenic damage needs to be carefully considered. Whilst such scanners may be appropriate for contraband cigarettes, their effect on humans would clearly need to be investigated before they are used to maintain control at ports of entry. The Committee should investigate these health and safety issues as part of its inquiry.

April 2000

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