Procedures for Granting and Withdrawing Refugee Status

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Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): The Minister will see that article 4 states:

    ''Member States may introduce or maintain more favourable standards on procedures for granting and withdrawing refugee status, insofar as those standards are compatible with this Directive.''

Will the UK wish to maintain more accommodating, thoughtful and humanitarian procedures than other member states for the reception and processing of would-be refugees, or are we happy with our existing standards?

Caroline Flint: The procedures that the UK implements are based on the United Nations handbook, which gives guidance on the treatment of refugees and on their reception. In some ways, the

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directive is trying to bring other member states into line with some of the UN's recommendations, so our standard for attending to the appropriate human rights is pretty high. Under the directive, provisions will have to be compatible with the European convention on human rights and the Geneva convention. Post enlargement, that will mean raising standards in countries that are currently outside the EU.

Concern has been expressed in some quarters, including among some non-governmental organisations, that the standards are too low. However, this is a complex issue, and we must deal with different countries, different legal systems and different procedures, some of which are very well developed. We should have a minimum standard to which we can all sign up, but there should be nothing to prevent countries from seeking to introduce higher standards. As I said, the UK is one of the nations that is already incorporating what is internationally considered to be the appropriate treatment for asylum seekers.

Mr. Malins: If I may, I shall direct the Minister to article 35, which deals with border procedures. Is she concerned that article 35, which allows for the creation of specific procedures for the processing of asylum applications that are made at the borders of a member state, might lead increased numbers of asylum applicants to attempt to evade immigration authorities altogether because procedures at the border are different from those in house, so to speak? Would the UK consider introducing specific procedures at our borders, ports, airports or other ports of entry?

Caroline Flint: My understanding is that the directive does not directly affect us because it deals with land borders. I gave the example of Germany and Poland, although the situation there will change after 1 May. There has been particular concern about countries—Germany, in my example—having the right to detain people before they enter that country. We do not have any such procedures at the moment, and they are primarily intended for countries with a land border. Obviously, we are not fully signed up to Schengen, so we have our own border controls. In that sense, the directive does not unduly concern us.

Those who have questioned member states' right to detain people at the border for four weeks should understand that that applies to people before they enter the country. It is to deal with situations in which people have tried to enter at various points along the border and have been refused. Detaining people for four weeks in those circumstances is understandable, and that right will be important for the accession countries that come in as the EU perimeter expands.

Mr. Malins: I understand that, but can the Minister specifically confirm that article 35 does not apply to the UK? If so, why have not we made it clear in the legislation, or had a reservation against it accepted?

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Caroline Flint: I understand that article 35 will not apply to the UK. I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about how the negotiations have been carried out to ensure that that is clear.

Mr. Malins: Will the Minister expand a little more on whether the directive will help to solve the problem of asylum shopping? How will it help the UK in particular?

Caroline Flint: The discussions about safe countries of origin and safe third countries are particularly important. First, we feel that people who have come from safe countries of origin should be removed back to that country if it is safe. That has been part of our practice, and is important.

Secondly, we know of people who have come to the UK from their country of origin by passing through a safe third country. We want it to be clear that we do not have a situation in which we allow people to abuse the system, but I do not think that we are headed toward that situation. If a third country is safe, people should go back there to have their claims heard, although we must bear in mind certain provisos, such as that that country has signed up to the ECHR and other provisions.

That problem has allowed us to engage in a debate. During debates at the Justice and Home Affairs Council, I have certainly tried to outline the British position and to promote greater understanding of some of our problems, such as people passing through other countries before coming here to claim asylum. There is now better understanding of issues that are particular to the UK, which other countries have not experienced, and more support for our position on those two issues. That will help us to get things right. We need to get things right and to ensure that the directive does not confine us, or restrict what we have already done in our common practice.

Mr. Wilkinson: At article 7, paragraph 1, the draft directive states:

    ''Member States shall ensure that applications for asylum are neither rejected nor excluded from examination on the sole ground that they have not been made as soon as possible.''

Have not the Government been seeking, in law, to make it a criterion for eligibility for refugee status that an application be lodged upon arrival in the UK, not as a sort of afterthought after a period of residence on other grounds? Will the Minister clarify that important point, especially in relation to the later qualification, at article 23, paragraph 4(i), that

    ''the applicant has failed without reasonable cause to make his/her application earlier, having had opportunity to do so'',

which suggests that a delay in the processing beyond the normal stipulated time limit of six months is possible in those circumstances? Where does the Government stand on that? Many UK citizens believe that asylum applicants often lodge their applications as an afterthought when they are about to be deported, or are subject to criminal proceedings.

Caroline Flint: I will first address the hon. Gentleman's point about asylum applications being made as soon as possible. Obviously, there has been

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considerable debate in the UK about the presumption that, however they get here, people should apply as soon as they reach our shores, and about what we should do at the ports of entry to ensure that people are aware that that is the point at which they should declare their wish to seek asylum. In that sense, the phrase ''as soon as possible'' is correct. There may be a circumstance in which that is not possible, but our view is that it should be. There can always be a situation in which, for some reason that we cannot necessarily think of this afternoon, that may not be the case, but we stand by the idea. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman further on that point, if that is helpful.

We do not want people to come into the country by another route—illegally, as overstayers or whatever—and to decide some way down the line that they will claim asylum. We do not want to encourage that and certainly not as part of the directive. May I ask the hon. Gentleman to repeat the question that he asked on the second point?

Mr. Wilkinson: The Minister has covered that point.

Mr. Malins: If I may, I shall raise two matters. I should know the answer to the first one, but I do not. I assume that the best original of this document is in French. However, I want to know for certain whether it is a translation from the French or an original document in English because, if it is the latter, it is one of the most appalling pieces of grammar that I have ever read. I should like an explanation as to the original document and, if it is a translation, to know who translated it.

Secondly, even if the Minister has a number of reservations about the document and gets only, say, 50 per cent. of the issues agreed, could the document be imposed on us through qualified majority voting, or must there be unanimity before the document has legal effect in the UK?

Caroline Flint: I will have to get back to the hon. Gentleman on the question about translation, if that is all right. On the second point, my understanding is that unanimity is required for the directive to go forward. That is obviously one of the issues. The negotiations are taking a considerable time because there is a feeling that we would like to have some sort of minimum directive on the book. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Malins: Can the Minister tell me what she thinks is meant by the phrase ''administrative management'' in paragraph 2 of article 14? As I understand it, an applicant's legal representative can be denied access to a closed area where his client may be held, on the basis of administrative management—not a phrase known to the UK legal system.

Caroline Flint: We are talking about a transit zone, for example at an airport. I think that it is correct that, if someone arrives at an airport, depending on where they are—they might be airside—there might be issues about managing the person before legal representation can get to them. The other instance is where 24-hour

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access is not possible. If that is not enough information for the hon. Gentleman, I will certainly provide him with more.

Mr. Wilkinson: The first paragraph of article 9A says:

    ''Member States may impose upon applicants for asylum obligations to cooperate with the competent authorities insofar as these obligations are necessary for the processing of the application.''

We all know the category that is known in French as the ''sans papiers''—those who come without documents. Paragraph 2(b) of the article states that

    ''applicants for asylum have to hand over documents in their possession relevant to the examination of the application, such as their passports''.

However, traffickers and others who unscrupulously seek to exploit our willingness to grant refugee status tell people, perhaps minors in particular, to destroy their travel documents, including passports, en route. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, am I right in thinking that that does not preclude a careful processing of the application? In some instances, obviously in war and turmoil, documents will genuinely not be available, but all too often documents are fraudulently lost.

 
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