The 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and its 1967 Protocol, provide the foundation of international obligations relating to the protection of refugees. Within this framework, the EU has developed a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) which seeks to establish common standards for the reception and treatment of asylum seekers.
The UK has a selective relationship with the CEAS. It participates fully in the Dublin System—to determine which Member State is responsible for examining an asylum application lodged in the EU—and the Eurodac database of the fingerprints of asylum seekers. However, the UK is already out of step with EU asylum standards as it chose not to opt in to the most recent round of CEAS Directives on reception conditions, asylum procedures, and qualification for international protection. Nonetheless, leaving the CEAS could still have significant implications for UK asylum policy, and for vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in Europe.
UK withdrawal from the Dublin System after Brexit would result in the loss of a safe, legal route for the reunification of separated refugee families in Europe. Vulnerable unaccompanied children would find their family reunion rights curtailed, as Dublin offers them the chance to be reunited with a broader range of family members than under current UK Immigration Rules.
In a ‘no deal’ scenario, the UK’s sudden departure from the Dublin System could have a significant humanitarian impact on separated refugee families, leaving them in legal limbo. We are not satisfied that sufficient steps have been taken to mitigate disruption to reunion routes. We urge the UK and the EU to honour their commitment to the right of refugee family reunion by negotiating an interim agreement in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. A temporary extension of current arrangements would be the most feasible option.
After Brexit, the UK is also likely to find it more difficult to enforce the principle that people in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach. Without access to the Eurodac database, it is unclear how the UK would be able to identify asylum applicants who have already been registered in another European country. And a new returns agreement (or agreements) would be needed for the UK to be able to send asylum seekers back to their first point of entry to the EU.
Another key concern is the potential for Brexit to impact the UK’s bilateral relationships with EU Member States which are essential to the effective management of UK borders, in particular the juxtaposed border controls with France and Belgium. These arrangements are underpinned by bilateral and trilateral agreements, but their continued operation has come under scrutiny in the context of Brexit. Juxtaposed controls are particularly unpopular in the Calais region, where they have resulted in the establishment of unregulated migrant camps, and calls to scrap the system increased following the 2016 referendum.
UK, French and Belgian border agencies continue to work together to tackle the rising trend in migrants attempting to cross the Channel in small boats, and the increase in people seeking to travel to the UK from Belgium following the closure of the Calais camps. Nonetheless, we are concerned about the implications of Brexit for these relationships. The agreements underpinning bilateral border cooperation have undoubtedly been easier to sustain under the shared umbrella of EU membership, and a disruptive ‘no deal’ Brexit could place them under considerable strain. The Government must make every effort to maintain effective bilateral border cooperation after the UK leaves the EU, especially in a ‘no deal’ scenario, when good will towards the UK is likely to be in short supply.
Looking to the future relationship, it is clear that the UK and the EU must continue to work together to protect our borders and manage regional migration flows across Europe. Properly managed migration will help to ensure that asylum cases are handled in a timely, efficient and compassionate manner, in accordance with our obligations under the Refugee Convention and international human rights law.
We support the Government’s aim to establish a new, strategic relationship with the EU on asylum and illegal migration, and the framework for asylum cooperation set out in the July 2018 White Paper on the future UK-EU relationship. Subsequent publications, however, have not reflected the same level of ambition. We are particularly concerned by the conspicuous lack of any reference to future UK-EU asylum cooperation in the November 2018 Political Declaration.
Whether as part of any wider association agreement, or a specific cooperation arrangement, it is vital that refugees and asylum seekers are considered in any agreement on the future UK-EU relationship. Future UK-EU asylum cooperation should take the Dublin System as its starting point and would ideally be based on continued UK access to the Eurodac database. It should have at its heart a shared agreement on, and commitment to uphold, minimum standards for refugee protection, asylum procedures, qualification, and reception conditions.
The right to reunion for refugee families should not be restricted after the UK leaves the EU. All routes to family reunion available under the Dublin System should be maintained in the new legal framework for cooperation, together with robust procedural safeguards to minimise delays in reuniting separated refugee families. Neither the UK nor the EU should contemplate vulnerable people who have already experienced trauma facing additional suffering as a result of Brexit.
The Government should reconsider its opposition to participating in a European responsibility sharing mechanism for asylum seekers, if this becomes an established feature of EU asylum policy and operates on a voluntary basis. This would demonstrate solidarity, good will, and the UK’s commitment to play its part in managing migration flows across the continent, which could help to secure other UK objectives for future cooperation on asylum and migration.
The Government’s wider review of future UK immigration policy provides an opportunity to develop a more effective and humane asylum policy. This should include the expansion of UK refugee family reunion rules, and renewed efforts by the Home Office to improve the speed and efficiency of its handling of asylum cases.
We welcome plans to establish a single, global UK refugee resettlement programme from 2020. This should build on best practice from previous schemes, and be underpinned by a long-term funding commitment. Local authorities, charities and community groups must be closely involved in the design and delivery of this programme, and in the development of a consistent package of integration support for all recognised refugees in the UK whether they arrived via resettlement or as an asylum seeker. In the context of record numbers of forcibly displaced people worldwide, the Government should also be more ambitious than its current target of resettling 5,000 refugees in the first year of the new programme.
Finally, we urge Ministers to moderate the language they use when discussing asylum issues. The UK has a proud history of offering sanctuary to those in need, and should be a vocal advocate for protecting refugees from persecution. The Government should have the confidence publicly to challenge those who seek to present genuine asylum seekers as a threat and something to be feared.