The Prime Minister’s law will stand in defiance of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, writes Brian Latham

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Rishi Sunak is pitting the UK Government against the United Nations if the bill making it impossible for “small boat people” to claim asylum or refugee status is passed. 

That is because the bill stands in hostile defiance of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – article 14 of which states that all countries have a responsibility to grant the right to seek and enjoy asylum to everyone and the right to leave their country. It’s silent on small boats – for a reason.

The post-Second World War treaty was signed at the tail-end of the biggest migration of European people in history when millions of people were uprooted by war and the Holocaust. 

The UDHR does not say countries must grant asylum or refuge to those seeking it, but it does say that all countries must accept their applications. Indeed, most countries do, even less than democratic nations such as Turkey. It does not state that applications must be made before arriving in a foreign country, either. That would be impossible in many cases.

Sunak’s one-size-fits-all bill makes no distinction between people fleeing war and simple economic migrants looking for a better life. A traumatised single mother fleeing war in Syria would be deemed ‘illegal’ and unable to apply for asylum alongside an unemployed Albanian coming to Britain in search of a job. A young man escaping the Eritrean slave-state would have his rights removed alongside a Bulgarian looking for better pay. 

The UN is likely to say that’s illegal, and so are many lawyers who will likely keep the Government tied up in the courts for decades if the bill becomes law.

At face value, there’s a gulf between an ordinary economic migrant and a refugee fleeing terror and war. Lee Anderson, the Conservative Deputy Chairman, clearly believes the electorate won’t make the distinction when he states that the next election will be fought on immigration and ‘culture wars’. 

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Still, the timing of the Prime Minister’s announcement, so soon after his apparent success with the Northern Ireland Protocol, will at least partially appease the right-wing faction of the Conservative Party, some of whom are miffed by Sunak’s grown-up approach to a seemingly intractable problem in Belfast. 

The Government’s obsession with small boats isn’t without another absurdity.

Refugees who have fled war and terror don’t have passports They live a hardscrabble existence in bureaucratic limbo with little more than they can pack into a few shopping bags. They can’t board planes, book tickets, or do anything that requires documentation if they have no documents – and they certainly can’t reach an island nation other than by boat. Being frightened and traumatised, they’re going to want a boat that’s as unofficial as possible. Authority and officialdom has done nothing but provide them terror. Sunak’s bill seeks to add to that terror with an implacable refusal to even listen. 

The bill would also force countries poorer than the UK to finance the burden of refugee care.

Among wealthy European countries, only Germany shoulders the cost of hosting 2.2 million refugees. Turkey holds a staggering 3.7 million displaced people, Uganda 1.5 million. The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, reports that 74% of the world’s 32.5 million refugees are housed by low and middle-income countries.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s plan to send some refugees from the UK to Rwanda simply outsources the cost to an already poverty-stricken nation. 

It would be glib to suggest that refugees and asylum seekers can apply for refuge in Britain from France or some other country. Some do, of course, but for most genuinely stateless refugees, the process is impossibly difficult.

A mother of small children living in a cold tent in a squalid, litter-strewn refugee camp, wasting hours queueing for food and medical attention, without access to lawyers or advisers, with no internet and limited foreign language skills isn’t able to navigate Britain’s notoriously confusing bureaucracy. Her experience is outside anything experienced by the prime minister or his cabinet. That’s not his fault, but it partly explains the lack of empathy. 

According to UK-based Refugee Action, in late 2022 there were 231,597 refugees in Britain, 127,421 asylum seekers, and 5,483 stateless persons. In other words, the world’s sixth-biggest economy takes care and responsibility for a meagre 1.1% of the world’s externally displaced people – and still complains about the burden. 


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