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Briefing: new UK approach to refugees and safe third countries


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The government has introduced important new rules on the handling of claims for asylum with effect from 1 January 2021. Guidance for Home Office asylum caseworkers was published the day before, on 31 December, fleshing out some of the operational details. What is not in the policy document is as revealing as what is.

The headline is that any person who travelled to the UK through a safe country will have their asylum case declared inadmissible and in theory face removal to any other safe country around the world willing to accept them. The likely reality of what happens in practice is very different: more delays in the asylum process and very few if any third country removals.

My overall impression is that the rules are completely unworkable as they stand, even if there were removal agreements with other countries. Which there are not, and a person cannot be sent to a country of which they are not a citizen without the agreement of that country. The rules build in an automatic period of delay in the processing of new asylum claims and are replete with opportunities for legal challenge. But I do not think the civil servants who drafted them expect the rules to be “workable” in the sense of removals actually taking place to safe third countries. The rules are about politics and presentation, not governance.

Since the time of Jack Straw as Home Secretary in the late nineties, the three pillars of the in-country UK asylum system have been “fairer, faster, firmer”. The new policy represents the final abandonment of the first two elements of that approach. The outcome will be a significant increase in the number of asylum seekers physically present in the United Kingdom whose cases remain undecided.

The new inbuilt delay will make more difficult and cruel the removal of non-refugees, who will potentially live in the UK for many years before they receive a negative decision. The new delays also postpone the new start that genuine refugees need and deserve, denying them their right to work and other rights conferred on them by the Refugee Convention. In the meantime, they are being accommodated in remote military barracks in extreme poverty. As many as 75% of asylum claims ultimately succeed. Aside from the inhumanity, it is terrible public policy to humiliate and punish those who are ultimately going to be allowed to settle in the UK.

What does inadmissibility mean?

If a claim for refugee status is made and it is declared “inadmissible”, this means that it will not be considered any further. In short, the person’s claim to be recognised as a refugee and to be granted the benefits of the Refugee Convention, to which the UK is still a signatory, will not be either accepted or, formally, rejected. The person, who may or may not be a refugee, is left without status or any of the rights under the Refugee Convention. The Home Office will then try to remove that person to a safe country somewhere in the world.

Formal inadmissibility decisions will be vanishing rare in reality, though. The new process builds in an additional prior limbo period when the person has been referred for consideration for inadmissibility but no formal decision to declare their application inadmissible has been made. A formal inadmissibility decision will only be made if “return” (actually this can be to an entirely new country the person has never been to before) of that person is agreed with another country. This may be through a general “returns” agreement or arrangement or through case-by-case agreements on individuals. Given such “return” agreements seem likely to be rare, so too will be formal inadmissibility decisions.

When might claims be considered for inadmissibility?

The inadmissibility procedure is most likely to be be triggered if the person

could enjoy sufficient protection in a safe third country because … they could have made an application for protection to that country but did not do so and there were no exceptional circumstances preventing such an application being made.

The potential “application for protection” need not have been for refugee status nor indeed any kind of formal status. It is not at all clear what “exceptional circumstances” might be, but being under the control of traffickers might be expected to qualify, for example. The Home Office guidance is largely silent on this issue, which rather gives the impression that mere physical presence in a country would be considered sufficient by most officials. In one example it is suggested that if a person is under the “coercive control” of another then this may qualify.

There are other circumstances which might trigger the inadmissibility process. If a person has already been recognised as a refugee or “otherwise enjoys sufficient protection” (for example because they were granted subsidiary protection under EU law) in a safe third country and can still avail themselves of protection there, their claim in the UK can be declared inadmissible. This is unlikely to arise much in practice. It will be difficult for the Home Office to know or prove if a person has been recognised as a refugee elsewhere without access to the EU’s Eurodac database (see below), and even if it can be proven that the person has refugee or other status in another country, that country is under no obligation to accept the person back if they are not a citizen.

Even if a person has made an “application for protection” (not necessarily refugee status) in a country, their claim in the United Kingdom can be declared inadmissible. Again, it is unlikely that officials at the Home Office could discover this independently without an admission by the asylum seeker in question.

Finally, a person’s asylum claim can be declared inadmissible if they could enjoy sufficient protection in a safe third country because the person has “a connection to that country, such that it would be reasonable for them to go there to obtain protection”. Self evidently, “a connection” is both incredible wide and incredibly vague. There is no further guidance on what it means. We might guess that where a person is proven to have family members in another country, an official at the Home Office might opine that it is therefore “reasonable” for the person to go there instead. In the meantime, their claim to refugee status will be declared inadmissible. The real practical question is whether the person would actually be admitted to that country, which is up to the country concerned, not some civil servant cloistered away in the Third Country Unit in Croydon. This disjunct between theory and practice is the central problem with all of these rules, as we will see.

What might constitute evidence of travel via a safe country?

Firstly, it is for the Home Office to prove it is more probable than not (the civil standard of proof) that a given person travelled to the UK via a safe third country.

The United Kingdom lost access to the EU’s Eurodac fingerprint record database at 11pm on 31 December 2020, so it is no longer possible to definitely establish whether an asylum seeker in the UK claimed asylum in an EU country. The Eurodac database underpins the allocation of responsibility for deciding asylum claims within the Common European Asylum System, often referred to as the Dublin system, but the UK has left all that behind.

The Home Office does still have records of past Eurodac matches, however. These can no longer be used to trigger a Dublin return but the guidance suggests, somewhat optimistically, that this may “form the basis of an enquiry to relevant countries to check the accuracy of the match and request return.” Good luck with that. There’s no obligation on any EU country to agree to any such return.

Instead, an admission from the asylum seeker or circumstantial evidence will be needed. The guidance does not seem to allow for a presumptive approach of “you must have travelled through some safe country because otherwise how did you get here?” The following non exhaustive list of possible sources of information is set out in the guidance:

– observations by a Home Office officer or another person in an official capacity, relating to the person’s method and place of entry to the UK and their known or probable place of embarkation

– physical or verbal evidence collected or recorded at the time of the claimant’s first encounter by a Home Office officer

– documents or other physical evidence submitted by or found on the claimant

– the claimant’s responses in the screening interview (or any other interview, for instance a supplementary interview to screening, or the substantive asylum interview)

– fingerprint evidence showing the claimant to have spent time in a safe third country (for instance, where such evidence is available through the biometric data-sharing process with the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the bilateral fingerprint sharing process with the Republic of Ireland, or any similar process that might be undertaken with any other safe country)

– File evidence of historic Eurodac matches

Being found in the back of a lorry that can be traced to entry through France would be sufficient to link a person to France, we can assume. Being found with lots of receipts from Belgium might potentially be sufficient to show the person was in Belgium at some point, according to the guidance. Being found on a beach might not be sufficient, though. As the Home Office guidance itself also says:

A passer-by in Kent seeing the claimant arriving in a small boat from an easterly direction would not, by itself, meet the standard of proof required…

It is not clear to me what the consequences will be for an asylum seeker who refuses to answer questions about their route of travel to the United Kingdom. There is no “right to silence” that applies here, I think, and a decision-maker would probably be entitled to draw adverse inferences. But that is still not enough to prove travel through a particular country. Lying about route of travel might suggest the person is not generally a truthful one and might amount to the criminal offence of deception under sections 24A or 26 of the Immigration Act 1971. But route of travel is irrelevant in law to whether a person meets the definition of a refugee and is not a core aspect of the person’s claim. Just because a person lies about their route does not mean they are not a refugee, basically.

This is likely to become a real problem for refugees and the Home Office very quickly. Refugees are already afraid to disclose information about criminal networks and people smugglers or traffickers and this will make them even more reluctant to talk.

To which asylum claims does the new process apply?

All new claims for asylum by non-EU citizens made on or after 11pm on 31 December 2020 are to be considered under the new policy. The policy can also be applied to existing asylum claims that were lodged before 11pm on 31 December 2020 (there were no transitional provisions in the statement of changes: see Odelola). The guidance to officials states that the new rules “may” be applied to existing cases but goes on to suggest that this will not normally be appropriate. The guidance is, again, incredibly vague:

…in broad terms, such a decision is unlikely to be appropriate if the claimant would not have been eligible to receive a similar decision under the previous rules, or if the person’s progress through the asylum system has already been substantially delayed compared to average decision timescales.

Average timescales are by nature very much a moveable feast so this is basically meaningless. Waiting times for asylum decisions were already going up and up even before the pandemic.

Where some evidence (see below) exists that suggests travel through a safe third country, the case is to be referred within the Home Office to the Third Country Unit for further consideration. The Home Office guidance states that a decision to make a referral is not a “decision” but an “assessment”. This re-purposing of the English language is presumably intended to avoid these referral decisions becoming the subject of an application for judicial review.

Rather charmingly, the guidance states that where a case “appears to stand a greater chance of being promptly removed if substantively considered and refused, it will usually be appropriate for the case to be routed for substantive decision.” This is said to be most likely to arise in cases certified as “clearly unfounded” or as suitable for the detained asylum casework process. So, perversely, it is only asylum cases which look like strong ones which are to be considered for inadmissibility.

Home Office policy is not to apply the inadmissibility procedure to separated children claiming asylum other than in very specific circumstances where it may be assessed to be in the child’s best interests. A separate inadmissibility procedure exists for any EU citizen who comes to the UK to claim asylum.

Delay and “reasonable” time

The Immigration Rules themselves provide that when an application has been treated as inadmissible, the Home Office will nevertheless go on to consider the case if either

  • removal to a safe third country within a reasonable period of time is unlikely; or
  • upon consideration of a claimant’s particular circumstances the Secretary of State determines that removal to a safe third country is inappropriate

As we have seen, formal inadmissibility decisions are unlikely to occur in practice. Is merely referring a case for consideration as to whether it might be inadmissible enough to constitute treating it as inadmissible? Probably not, in which case the qualifications above do not apply to this prior limbo period and there is no requirement in the Rules at all, even a soft requirement, to properly consider a claim for asylum.

However, the guidance ignores the strict terms of the Rules and states that an asylum claim should be properly considered where “it is clear that there is no reasonable prospect of removal within a reasonable timescale (for instance, if all possible countries of return have emphatically refused to agree to the person’s return).” Given that every country in the world is considered a potential country of “return” the example might be thought unhelpful. The guidance goes on to say that if no country has accepted the person’s “return” within six months then the person’s asylum claim should normally then be properly considered. That period can be extended however and is not a “hard” limit; it is easy to imagine plenty of cases not being admitted for consideration even though six months have elapsed.

It is worth reiterating that this is six months or more on top of the existing waiting times for consideration of a substantive asylum claim.

To which country can the person be removed?

The term used in the rules and policy is “safe third country”. The phrase “third country” is meaningless in plain English but has come to mean, amongst immigration lawyers and officials, a country that is not that of the person concerned and is not the United Kingdom. So if a person travels from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom by transiting in Dubai, Dubai is considered the “third” county. If a person travels from Syria through Turkey, Greece, central Europe and eventually France, all of those countries the person travels through are considered “third” countries. However, even the adopted meaning of the word is not inherently linked to the route of travel. For the Hong Kong citizen who reaches the United Kingdom, any country in the world at all other than Hong Kong and the United Kingdom might be considered a “third” country. Australia, Belarus, Chile and Djibouti are all a third country for this person, even if they have no connection whatsoever to those countries.

It is this wider, indeed widest, definition that the Home Office has adopted. The trigger for a case being considered inadmissible is proven travel through and opportunity to claim asylum in a specific country. But the consequence is that the Home Office “will attempt to remove the applicant to the safe third country in which they were previously present” or “to which they have a connection” or “to any other safe third country which may agree to their entry”. So the person can in theory be removed to any third country at all as long as that country will accept them and certain other minimal conditions are met.

Worse than that, paragraph 345B defines “safe third country” but fails to specify explicitly that it does not include the person’s own country. Whether this matters remains to be seen.

What does “safe” mean?

In contrast to previous legislative attempts at defining safe countries, a “white list” approach of listing certain countries as potentially or definitively safe is not adopted. Instead, the assessment of safety must be specific to the person concerned. It is the Home Office which must prove that the country is a safe one. All of four conditions must apply.

Firstly, the Home Office must establish that the person’s life and liberty must not be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion in that country. This phrasing may at first glance seem slightly odd to refugee lawyers as it is similar to the definition of a refugee at Article 1A of the Convention but not identical. In fact, the words are then from Article 33 of the Convention, the prohibition of expulsion or return (“refoulement”):

No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened [etc]…

The country to which the person is removed, as well as not directly threatening their life and liberty for one of the five reasons, must also respect the principle of non refoulement in accordance with the Refugee Convention: there must be no indirect forcing of refugees back to their home countries.

The country concerned must also respect the prohibition of removal in violation of “the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as laid down in international law”. These words are similar to those at Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The prohibition on degrading punishment is omitted. In practice, this could be argued to matter little as the overlap between “treatment” and “punishment” is very considerable, perhaps complete. The fact that Article 3 ECHR is not specifically referenced could be taken as an ambition to remove people to countries not signed up to the ECHR.

[ebook 17797]

Finally, to be a safe third country for these purposes there must be a “possibility” to request refugee status and, if found to be a refugee, to receive protection in accordance with the Refugee Convention. The country concerned must, we can take it, be a signatory to the Refugee Convention. The requirement that there be a mere “possibility” of making a claim to refugee status is a very low standard, though, and very, very different to the assurance under the EU system of asylum seeker transfers that a claim would be properly processed and fairly heard in accordance with clearly defined minimum standards, supervised by the European Commission and adjudicated by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Any refugee lawyer reading this will immediately see that whether these four conditions are met in a given case is very much open to argument. Without a white list of supposedly safe countries and a statutory presumption that those countries are safe, any individual inadmissibility decision can be challenged by way of an application for judicial review. The Home Office takes the view there is no right of appeal against an inadmissibility decision and given the tribunal’s reputation as a jurisdictional wallflower this seems a safe assumption.

I therefore conclude that the Sovereign Borders Bill we are told is coming soon is going to include a white list and some statutory presumptions to replace those in the Immigration and Asylum (Treatment of Claimants etc) Act 2004, which were tied to EU membership.

Is “inadmissibility” compatible with the Refugee Convention?

Is it lawful to remain a signatory to an international agreement that you ignore in practice and when you deny its beneficiaries their rights under that agreement?

This imposition of limbo, whether before or after a formal inadmissibility decision, is a problem. If a person meets the definition of a refugee in Article 1A of the Refugee Convention, that person is a refugee and is entitled to the rights conferred by the Convention, including the right to work. A grant of refugee status is declaratory, meaning that it is a belated recognition of a pre-existing status. The inadmissibility procedure denies a genuine refugee their rights under the Convention.

The UK has never adopted the Refugee Convention into domestic law, meaning that it is not directly enforceable in the courts of the United Kingdom. In any event, the Refugee Convention itself does not provide any explicit procedural protections for refugees, such as the right to claim asylum, having a claim decided within a reasonable time or having a right to an appeal. These rights are incorporated into EU law, it is relevant to observe: these new rules could not have been adopted while the UK was part of the EU system of laws. The closest the United Kingdom has come to incorporating the Refugee Convention is section 2 of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993:

Nothing in the immigration rules (within the meaning of the 1971 Act) shall lay down any practice which would be contrary to the Convention.

There is a strong argument that the inadmissibility procedure is at least implicitly contrary to the Refugee Convention, for the reasons above. When challenged on this, as seems inevitable, the Home Office will no doubt argue that the Convention is not incorporated, it includes no procedural protections and protracted delays in asylum decision making are commonplace internationally, including in the UK itself.

For my own part, I would say that the inadmissibility procedure does breach the Refugee Convention, and clearly does so. The courts may ultimately disagree but it is perhaps more likely they will decline to consider the question and merely decide not to get involved. Enforcing international law in the UK courts is famously problematic and the question with which I opened this section is not the right question from the perspective of a refugee or a practicing lawyer. The real question is whether there is an enforceable right to have an asylum claim decided in a country in which one is physically present, perhaps within a reasonable time.

What now?

There will no doubt be individual legal challenges to the different stages of decision-making in the new inadmissibility procedure. The Home Office has tried to write the policy and construct the process to make legal challenges difficult. An application for judicial review can be brought against an act or an omission, but the courts have in the past been extremely reluctant to entertain litigation against delays in immigration decision-making. The vague, indefinite nature of the inadmissibility “process” makes bringing a challenge a little like trying to nail down jelly. That is not to say it is impossible, though, and the referral to the Third Country Unit for consideration under the inadmissibility process certainly sounds like a decision of sorts (despite careful protestation to the contrary by the Home Office in the guidance).

There may be a more strategic level challenge as well. This will face different difficulties if based on a challenge to compatibility of the inadmissibility process with the Refugee Convention.

All this means more work for the lawyers and more culture wars for Priti Patel, Boris Johnson and the authoritarian right. In the meantime, genuine refugees as defined by the Refugee Convention will be denied their rights under that Convention, stuck in limbo for an indefinite period and their new lives in this country will get off to a protracted, unpleasant, disabling beginning. Those whose refugee cases are ultimately to be rejected will be supported for months or even years while the Home Office does nothing.

There are two things that might change the unworkability of the new rules. The first is if the UK government reaches removal agreements with one or more countries, thereby enabling the inadmissibility process to begin to have some practical effect other than delay.

The second is that primary legislation might well be needed to make removals practical. A full “white list” of safe countries, statutory presumptions, ouster clauses, revocation of section 2 of the 1993 Act and more are all perfectly possible when your government has an 80 seat majority.

If refugees physically present in the United Kingdom are to be removed to a third country, I would suggest that is legally if not morally different to the Australian policy of intercepting and preventing the arrival of refugees in the first place. The proposed UK approach amounts to evasion of responsibility whereas the Australian approach is avoidance. It is also very different from the allocation of responsibility within the EU, a supra-national common asylum system with clearly defined common standards and enforcement mechanisms.

This all makes the government and people of the United Kingdom seem rather pathetically weak. Other countries in Europe deal with far, far more refugee claims than we do. It is only us who cannot cope with a few refugees and whose government feels the need to evade our international responsibilities under the Refugee Convention. I prefer Angela Merkel’s famous words when faced with a genuine refugee crisis: we can handle this.

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.