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Baroness Blatch: I hope that I may be forgiven for this intervention. We are on Amendment No. 9. We have now spent a quarter of the time apportioned to the Bill. I believe that the noble Lord has made his point well; I believe that the House has taken that point; and it is on the record. I wonder whether we could progress a little. I believe that we have about 25 minutes left for the business.

Lord Avebury: I was distracted by the intervention. I had been coming to the end of my remarks. I was about to say to the noble Baroness, as my noble friend has already done, how much I appreciate the immense trouble that she has taken to give full responses to the four amendments tabled on individual countries. I believe that the debate will turn out to be useful, not entirely for what the noble Baroness said, but for what she omitted to say. The debate illustrates the necessity for careful examination of the statements which have been promised by the Secretary of State in order to indicate the political and human rights conditions in each of the countries which it is proposed to place on the list.

In conclusion, I ask the noble Baroness whether it is possible for drafts of those papers to be presented to noble Lords prior to the debate. If we have any suggestions on how they should be amended, or how better to portray the human rights and political conditions in the countries concerned, perhaps we may submit our proposals. We did so as regards the Home Office's document on Nigeria, as the noble Baroness may remember. Many of those points were taken up. As I believe that we may claim to have slightly greater experience than the Home Office as regards what is happening in other countries, perhaps we could make a useful contribution towards the compilation of those papers.

However, the essence of the four debates has led me to the conclusion--I do not know about other noble Lords--that we have amply illustrated the fact that it is wrong to distinguish certain countries which are to be taken out of the mainstream and dealt with by another procedure within our asylum system. I believe that enough criticisms have been made of the human rights systems in each of those four countries--there are another three that we have not discussed--to indicate

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that the procedure is wrong in principle. We believe that such orders from the Secretary of State should be rejected and that no country should be singled out for the fast-track procedure. Having said that, I accede to the noble Baroness's suggestion and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 9, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Williams of Crosby moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, Amendment No. 9A:

Line 16, at end insert ("and where the country concerned has indicated in writing its willingness to take the applicant.").

The noble Baroness said: I can move the amendment briefly. I shall speak more briefly than did my noble friend in moving the previous four amendments. However, it is important to recognise that there is a great tradition in British history, the tradition of the man or woman of conscience from John Bunyan onwards. My noble friend marvellously exemplifies the doggedness and determination of those men and women of conscience. They do not worry that everyone else wants coffee or to go to bed; they stick at it because they believe that the principle is right. I pay due tribute to my noble friend who has kept us debating for the past hour and a half.

Amendment No. 9A is a probing amendment. It is not addressed to those people who are returned to the countries on the designated list from which they come. We have discussed that situation in great detail; I do not wish to go over that ground again.

The amendment deals with the issue of people who are sent back to a friendly country, sometimes known as a third country. I am concerned with people on the designated list who may be returned to a third country rather than the country from which they originally came. I seek a written understanding of some kind in order to avoid the fairly cynical business of "pass-the-parcel". That has become, alas, a characteristic of the way in which we treat human beings in the world today. In other words, if you can land the refugees somewhere else, that is good enough, and you can wash your hands of them.

The amendment's purpose is to find out how far the Government will try to seek assurances from any country back to which they send someone, or to a third country to which they may have travelled on their way here. Do we try to discover whether such people will be accepted by that country?

I am sure that, like me, noble Lords have read of cases where refugees are shuffled from country to country. They are taken to airports, put on planes and sent back again and again. That is a disturbing characteristic of the modern world. I do not refer just to the United Kingdom but to all the countries of the European Union. One finds people being sent to and fro. Perhaps I may give one example of Zairean refugees who have been returned to Belgium. In most respects, Belgium is a democracy, a friendly country and a member of the European Union, but it has a disturbing tendency to send Zairean refugees back to Zaire, one of the most brutal dictatorships that the world knows. I know because

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I once had the non-pleasure of chairing a meeting with President Mobutu who is by any standards a violent and brutal dictator.

I wish to ensure that we know that we are not returning asylum seekers, on the ground that they have a friendly country to which to return, to countries which might send them back to the country from which they started, and which could not be described as friendly. I believe that that is called refoulement. I wish to discover whether we have taken steps to ensure that refoulement will not occur when we return someone to such a country. I beg to move.

Earl Russell: This is an amendment of some importance. The UNHCR has observed that:

    "It must be recognised that the notion that an asylum seeker ought to seek protection at the first available opportunity is not a principle of international law but rather a practice that some states have employed to limit the numbers of asylum seekers claiming refugee status in their own countries".
We are concerned here not about whether the country in question is law abiding and in general safe but whether the specific refugee is able to obtain access to the asylum process. I intend to refer to a number of cases in a moment, but before doing so I wish to put to the Minister a hypothetical case in which we are the third country. I shall be interested in her answer which will guide some of my behaviour in the course of later proceedings on the Bill.

Let us assume that there is a person with a well-founded fear of persecution in Chad. He wishes, being French-speaking, to claim asylum in France. Getting a flight out of Chad without being noticed is difficult as such flights are thin on the ground. So he escapes overland through Nigeria. He catches a plane from Lagos but can only find one to London and not Paris. Arriving in London he manages to make his way through to France which sends him back here under the third country rule. What do we do with that applicant? If we admit him to the process and allow him to claim asylum here, well and good. He will end up in a country where he does not speak the language rather than in one where he does, but his life and liberty will not be in danger, so perhaps no desperate harm is done. However, can the noble Baroness assure me that we will neither bounce him back to Paris which will set up a game of battledore and shuttlecock nor return him to Lagos?

The question of obtaining access to the process is crucial. I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the judgment of Mr. Justice Hidden last week in the case of ex parte Bostam. It concerned the status of Belgium as a safe third country. The court was much influenced, in finding Belgium not to be a safe third country for those particular applicants, by the case of Kwita, decided by the Conseil d'Etat in March 1995.

Belgium has what is known as the eight-day rule. That means that a person must claim asylum within eight days of arriving in Belgium. But of course in the case of people who have been in transit through Belgium before claiming asylum elsewhere, the question arises as to whether the eight days run from the first arrival in Belgium, or from the second. The Belgian Ministry of the Interior takes one interpretation; the Belgian Border Police takes the other.

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In the case of Kwita, who had been 12 days in Belgium and then claimed asylum in the UK and was sent back to Belgium under the safe third country rule, he was refused the right to claim asylum and sent back. That was the ground on which Mr. Justice Hidden decided that Belgium was not a safe third country.

We can find similar cases in most other countries of the European Union where the person was found not to be an asylum seeker because he could not get admission to the process. There is a case from the Netherlands, where the Dutch insisted that the woman was only in transit in Holland and readmittance was out of the question. The Home Office adjudicator said:

    "Whether in fact the appellant was only in transit may be doubtful, but this is the view taken by the Dutch authorities on the evidence available to them. In the light of this latter, I cannot be satisfied that the applicant will be readmitted to Holland, nor that a claim for asylum would be considered by the Dutch authorities".

There are a number of other similar cases in the Netherlands, some of which were found to be proved by the Dutch ombudsman. It is one of the delights in dealing with what is in general a free country that authorities within the country itself may investigate these matters and find the complaints to be justified. However, no country is so free that it does not have technical restrictions on its asylum process.

I wonder, incidentally, if we rely heavily on the safe third country rule, whether because a great many planes land in London on the way to destinations in Continental Europe, we may get more people sent back to us than we send back to anywhere else. I wonder whether this process will be for the convenience of anybody at all.

If there is to be a safe third country procedure, it should be operated only by international agreement. That is the only tidy way to do it. That is what my noble friend's amendment asks. I am delighted to support it.

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