Britain must not ignore its obligations to vulnerable refugees

The writer was formerly attorney-general in David Cameron’s government

The UK government is seeking to push through legislation that would rip holes in an international treaty on refugees. Even as European refugees flee in greater numbers than at any time since 1945, ministers barely seek to hide that intention. Initially, they insisted that the UK would comply fully in providing appropriate protections for refugees. As that argument became threadbare, the line changed. Now, ministers claim they understand the 1951 Refugee Convention better than the UN itself — the overwhelming evidence is that they do not.

The House of Lords takes a dim view of the government’s false claims. Peers last week voted by an overwhelming majority to strike out provisions in the nationality and borders bill that would create an unprecedented “two-tier” system for asylum seekers, tearing up a key precept of the convention. They voted to block a series of other damaging proposals, part of legislation that former Supreme Court justice Lord Brown described as “grotesque”.

The “anti-refugee bill”, as its critics call it, hacks away at the rights of those seeking asylum from repression, violence and torture. It is dangerous for refugees, and for Britain’s standing in the world. As former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has noted, the legislation threatens the integrity of the global asylum system.

The Refugee Convention — the UK is a founding signatory — was a response to the deadly lessons of the 1930s, when those fleeing persecution were sent back to their deaths unless they could produce the right paperwork. At its heart was the proposition that what matters is determining why a refugee has arrived in a country, not how.

As we see war exploding in Europe in ways that seemed unimaginable just a few weeks ago, and with more than 1mn Ukrainians already forced to flee, Boris Johnson seems determined to abandon those longstanding commitments. The government has presented a welcome but limited loosening of the rules in recent days (it is less than other countries have offered). But the unavoidable truth remains that Ukrainian and other asylum seekers could in future be criminalised after their long and dangerous journeys to safety for failing to present appropriate paperwork. The UN refugee agency says the bill is “fundamentally at odds” with the UK’s obligations under the convention. Is this Global Britain?

Impatient with criticism, ministers say they will choose which bits of the convention they will or won’t respect. According to Home Office minister Baroness Williams: “We disagree with the [UN refugee agency] and we feel that, as a sovereign nation, it is up to us to interpret the 1951 convention.”

All this has had surprising consequences. Historically, the House of Lords plays only a “tidying up” function in legislation — rightly so, since it is an unelected chamber. But with a government that spurns legalities and obligations, this is not the first time peers have had to perform a more active role. To take just one example: proposals that would have provided de facto impunity for British troops committing torture and other war crimes abroad were only overturned after peers objected. Despite the government’s 80-strong Commons majority, international law prevailed and ministers backed down.

We need that common sense outcome again. The prime minister has repeatedly talked in recent weeks of the importance of international law. It must be true in all contexts.

The government is entitled to take steps to control immigration and our borders. But it should not underestimate the damage if Britain tramples over its international responsibilities, encouraging others to do the same. As a life-long Conservative, I know Britain can do better than this. Refugees are entitled to protection, not criminalisation. If this bill passes unchanged, the harm will be with us for years to come.


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