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New Approaches to Asylum in the U.K. Must Respect Rights

Lords Review Human Rights Implications of Proposals

New approaches to asylum being considered in the United Kingdom and the European Union threaten the fundamental rights of asylum seekers and migrants, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a submission to the U.K. House of Lords Select Committee on European Union Affairs, the group raised concerns about the U.K. proposals to process asylum claims and shelter refugees in centers located outside U.K. territory.

The submission references Human Rights Watch’s detailed research in numerous countries where refugees and asylum seekers held in such “protection centers” have suffered egregious abuses, including beatings, arbitrary arrest and detention, rape, and return to countries where their lives or freedom were threatened. Human Rights Watch has found such violations to occur even when international organizations such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are involved in administering them.

"The U.K. government seems to think human rights are optional in immigration
policy," said Julia Hall, senior researcher on Western Europe for Human Rights Watch. "But all the governments in the EU need to remember their obligations under international law. Immigration policy has to do more than just keep migrants out."

The European Commission, UNHCR, and nongovernmental organizations have expressed concern that the United Kingdom is seeking to shift responsibility for refugees to other, often poorer countries. They caution that the U.K. proposals could undermine the right to seek asylum and the right to be protected against return to an unsafe place.

UNHCR’s Executive Committee, which is made up of U.N. member states and sets international refugee policy, is meeting in Geneva next week. The Committee has recently been attempting to clarify refugee protection norms in light of the U.K. proposals and the increasingly restrictive asylum policies of many of the E.U. member states.

Human Rights Watch said the latest U.K. proposals present a new challenge to established international refugee protection norms. “For years we have seen ever more restrictive policies toward asylum seekers in EU member states,” Hall said. “Now, the strategy seems to be shifting toward preventing asylum seekers from coming into the EU at all. It’s a policy of simply turning a blind eye and hoping the problem will go away.”

The Lords review of the external processing proposals comes on the heels of a September 2003 Tory proposal to establish a quota system and process asylum seekers who make it to the United Kingdom on sparsely populated British offshore islands that offer “no prospects for economic advancement.” At EU-level, the current Italian Presidency is focusing largely on external border control. One of the Italian Presidency’s pet projects, known as Project Neptune, aims to coordinate sea patrols to intercept migrants at sea before they reach EU territory.

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