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Refugees

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:57 pm on 18th June 2002.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 7:57 pm, 18th June 2002

My Lords, I am grateful to the House for allowing time for this debate and I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box.

This short debate, which falls in refugee week, is not intended to be a rehearsal for Monday's Second Reading of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. I shall address only one aspect of that Bill: the intended overseas gateway for genuine refugees. The prospects for the genuine refugee have become progressively worse than they were seven years ago—before the previous two asylum Acts. That is both despite and because of improvements that make us now one of the fairest asylum regimes in the world.

The genuine refugee—in case anyone has lost sight of that unfortunate person—is someone who has suffered persecution under the terms of the 1951 convention and is therefore entitled to claim asylum in the countries that are signatories. We know that the number of asylum seekers has increased drastically since then, mainly because of conflict, globalisation and trafficking. That has meant more congestion in the courts, more competition at the port of entry—Sangatte being the latest nightmare for all concerned—and, worst of all, a more hostile environment for refugees. In the words of writer Jeremy Harding:

"Refugees have begun to look like beggars at the gate, or even thieves".

That is a terrible indictment. In the media and on the street, genuine refugees are now accused of all sorts of crimes that they have not committed. Cases of assault, theft, fraud and violence committed in our cities are being laid at the door of refugees. I know personally of a case in which a criminal gang from Europe routinely comes over to break into cashpoints.

So the old question remains: how can we distinguish the genuine refugees from the bogus one, and especially from young migrants—known to be mainly in their 20s and 30s—who are genuinely seeking a new life but see a new opportunity as asylum seekers which both this Government and the previous one have provided.

There are many grey areas. There are asylum seekers with genuine claims entering illegally via Sangatte, often because they are in the hands of agents or they have succumbed to trafficking. We can all understand the motivation of migrants who claim asylum. Anyone in Zimbabwe without a UK passport, for instance, who has no direct evidence of persecution is in precisely that situation. But we cannot support that under asylum legislation.

This is not a contentious subject. All of us would like to find ways of distinguishing refugees from illegal immigrants right at the outset of their journey. Indeed, the Government have recognised this in the new Bill. During the Standing Committee, Mrs Angela Eagle expressed a general concern that at the moment people cannot enter the country legally to claim asylum.

Accordingly, the Bill is making a modest start by means of the new Clause 47, which is the proposal for a resettlement programme. While I welcome this, it is still far too modest a scheme and looks suspiciously like window dressing. This is why we must scrutinise what the Government are doing. Instead, we need a more vigorous approach which demonstrates the Government's determination to identify the genuine refugee. At present, Ministers are pointing at the "gateway" rather like the stable door after the horse has bolted. We need this approach urgently, and we need it now.

The gateway schemes are usually linked with Jack Straw's speech as Home Secretary during the Lisbon conference of 16th June 2000, when he said:

"It is unacceptable for genuine refugees to have to wait years for a decision. And it is unacceptable for taxpayers to have to bear for a prolonged period the cost of supporting asylum applicants who do not qualify for refugee status".

He then went on to stress the need to move towards the common system agreed in Tampere. He listed the shortcomings of the 1951 convention, arguing that any EU harmonisation is bound to lead to a new interpretation of the convention, although he said that this must be done without jeopardising its core principles. We would all support that.

Other noble Lords may wish to take up the European question during Second Reading. In the past two years there has been little progress and many are becoming exasperated and calling for a bilateral agreement with France. I cannot see how this week's meeting in Seville will achieve very much more, but I hope that I am wrong and that the Minister will put me right.

I am concerned now, however, with the last part of Jack Straw's speech, when it came to his world view of migration—a view which is hardly ever heard from a Home Secretary in a national or even a European context. This is why I am recalling it today. He acknowledged that the "burden" of asylum—which is a contentious phrase—falls more heavily on developing countries. He went on to say:

"We should therefore approach the issue from a world, and not an exclusively northern hemisphere perspective. We need to do all that we can, through the United Nations and more directly, to bolster and support states around the world who receive these major influxes—dealing with them, whenever possible, primarily as regional problems . . . And we need to look more deeply at the underlying causes of migration . . . Could we not find a more rational approach to providing protection? I believe the time has come for an international debate".

Two years have passed. I wonder whether the present Foreign Secretary still holds these optimistic views, let alone the present Home Secretary, or whether he believes that this international debate is really taking place. Perhaps the Minister will say what has happened to the EU High Level Working Group, for example, which was to examine all the dimensions of migration and of which much was expected two years ago. There is a real risk that the world—or Europe at least—is turning inwards and looking to its own frontiers, stemming the tide of asylum more like the Dutch boy in the dyke than the statesmen of Europe.

But let us look at the positive side, the gateways, starting with the plan to resettle refugees in the UK. The idea of resettlement quotas has been around for decades. I remember discussing it with NGOs and embassies in Hong Kong and Bangkok at the time of the Vietnamese boat people. The scheme proposed in Clause 47 has been used for many years by the United States and Canada—which received significant numbers—and the Scandinavian countries.

When do the Government plan to start this scheme, which is long overdue? What numbers will be involved? It should not be a token number like 500, as we see in White Paper; it should be a recognised EU gateway for the tens of thousands already processed by the UNHCR. It is easy now to forget the time when encouragement of refugees was a right and a necessity rather than a luxury. Could not this scheme's success send a positive message to all asylum seekers who have Sangatte luggage labels, or do the Government fear, as some do, that the scheme may be too successful and that the gateway will too quickly be seen as the more legitimate route to asylum?

When I first read the Lisbon speech two years ago I was under the impression that there would be regional gateways to Britain all over the world. Is it too much to hope that the embassies will be able to interview asylum seekers in the care of the United Nations who might otherwise face the appalling risks and costs of a journey to the port of entry? After all, we are now going to see gateways for skilled migrants for agreed periods, with welcome signs in Delhi or Islamabad saying "Doctors this way", and advertisements in Kampala and Nairobi saying, "Accountants are needed". Why not refugees? They have skills.

Do the Government deliberately intend to attract genuine refugees within their managed migration policy, or are they to wait in their own long queue which, in the end, leads to despair, to frustration and, quite possibly, as I have already mentioned, to crime? I am not describing periods of emergency where there is a perceived aim of temporary resettlement, as happened successfully in Kosovo. I am referring to acute personal situations where there is a recognised need for evacuation and resettlement, probably on a permanent basis.

Jack Straw's speech went even wider than this. It referred to the identification of countries and ethnic groups "facing a high level of persecution", in contrast to "safe countries". The Home Office has run into trouble over white lists and safe countries already and may not wish to pursue this, but I should be grateful if the Minister could say how far this idea has progressed. My noble friend Lord Listowel will ask about the precise role of the Department for International Development in supporting countries of first asylum.

There are many questions which I know the Government cannot yet answer. It is to their credit that they are exploring them, but we do need the answers. I know that they want to restore confidence in the asylum system. I wish them well in their efforts this week to achieve a European solution. But I believe that one way forward is to place greater emphasis on applications from genuine cases well beyond the gateways of Europe. I hope that the Minister will show how this is being done as a matter of urgency.