Immigration Bill: Bishop of Chelmsford supports amendment on asylum for victims of genocide

On 21st March the House of Lords considered the Government’s Immigration Bill at Report Stage. Lord Alton tabled an amendment seeking to secure automatic asylum rights for members of groups subject to genocide and which gave power to the UK Supreme Court to determine whether a genocide had occured. The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, spoke in support of the amendment, and Lord Keen of Elie responded on behalf of the Government. In a subsequent vote the amendment was not passed, by 111 votes to 148. .

Chelmsford 251115

 Amendment 121

Moved by Lord Alton of Liverpool
121: After Clause 63, insert the following new Clause—

“Conditions for grant of asylum: cases of genocide

(1) A person seeking asylum in the United Kingdom who belongs to a national, ethnical, racial or religious group which is, in the place from which that person originates, subject to the conditions detailed in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, shall be presumed to meet the conditions for asylum in the United Kingdom.

(2) The adjudication of whether the group to which the person seeking asylum belongs meets the description specified in subsection (1) shall be determined by a referral to the High Court after consideration of the available facts.

(3) Applicants for asylum in the United Kingdom from groups designated under this section may submit their applications and have them assessed at British missions overseas.”

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I have two concerns in relation to this issue, to which I will speak briefly. First, in our prayers in this House and in homes across the country, we cry out to God that this terrible violence will cease and we look for any small contribution we can make to hasten its end. Secondly, we are determined that those inflicting such terrible suffering will be brought to justice before the International Criminal Court, where such atrocities are properly dealt with. There is, as we have heard, a growing consensus that the systematic violence of people operating in the name of Daesh is rightly described as genocidal. This is what people outside this House call it, whether they know or understand the legal definitions or not, and we need to be very mindful of what would be heard were we not to pass this amendment.

Legally, the matter turns on whether we are confronted by,

“acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

I understand the caution of the Government and other experts about applying the word “genocide”. There are risks. Some worry that the strength and clarity of the legal definition of genocide could be somehow devalued if it is applied to such a complex set of conflicts as prevails in the countries involved. Some worry that the genocide label could encourage false understanding of the situation as conflict between different ethnic or religious groups. There is also the risk of removing Christians and members of other minorities from the area to a point where those minorities, with a long history and characteristic identity in that place, could become unviable. I smile at that—if not I would weep—because this is, of course, precisely what is happening at the moment. However, it is obviously something that we wish to avoid. Only last week, the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Coventry, Southwark and Leeds visited these places and this was their primary concern.

However, we can live with those risks while trying to mitigate them. Our urgent prayer is for Christians, Yazidis and a variety of other identifiable groups against which the hatred of Daesh is directed, and, supremely, for each individual—each of them precious to God. Therefore, can the category of “genocidal acts” help to stop the killing and help to bring the perpetrators sooner to account for their crimes? Yes, I believe it can.

The role of the Supreme Court is a matter for those with expertise in legal and constitutional matters. However, I note the support of a number of distinguished jurists for applying the label of genocide. The ability of people in this category to submit asylum applications at British missions overseas offers a reasonable additional route, alongside the work of the UNHCR, in identifying and bringing for resettlement those at greatest risk.

The General Synod of the Church of England has declared that it wants the Government to work with the UNHCR to ensure that vulnerability to religiously motivated persecution is taken into account when determining who is received into Britain. It calls on the Government to work with international partners to help establish safe and legal routes for people to come to this country who are so at risk.

The force of this amendment, whatever the issues of detail, is simply that the word genocidal is not too strong for what is happening. The seriousness of the national and international response needs to take that into account.

Perhaps I may briefly quote a passage from scripture—not an obvious one on this occasion for this situation. I have always been very moved by what Jesus said after the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. After they had all been fed, he said to the disciples: “Gather up the fragments. Let nothing be lost”. I believe that this amendment can help in a small way to address this situation, so that those who are most in danger of being lost could—maybe a few of them—be found.


Lord Keen of Elie: My Lords, no one could but be moved by the strength of feeling and concern that has been expressed in this House with regard to events in the Middle East. Several of your Lordships have eloquently articulated the terrible threats that Daesh or ISIS poses to the populations of the Middle East. Who could gainsay the ghastly evidence of some of the events that have been reported?

All of us want to do everything that we can to support the victims of such terrible violence. All of us want to alleviate the suffering experienced in Syria and Iraq at present. But to do that, our primary priority must be to secure an end to the conflict in Syria and Iraq, in order that people can return to their communities and their lives. That is what this Government have been committed to achieving, and I shall not repeat the points made earlier about the steps taken in that regard.

I urge your Lordships to read the amendment to see what, on the face of it, it is intended to do. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, finished by saying that the intention was to bring those individuals responsible to justice. That, with respect, is not the objective of the amendment. Indirectly, it might achieve that, but let us remember to emphasise individuals. We cannot bring Daesh to justice; we must identify the individuals within ISIS and Daesh who have been responsible for these terrible crimes. That is not the objective of this amendment at all.

The amendment deals with three matters. Essentially, proposed new subsection (1) is a presumption that if a person is a member of a certain grouping they have been a victim of genocide. Secondly, there is an adjudication and, thirdly, there is an application process by which an individual who is a member of a group that has been subject to genocide can secure asylum in the United Kingdom but, more importantly, can secure that by means of an application form outside the United Kingdom—a unique and quite unprecedented step in the context of refugee law. Indeed, I would respectfully adopt the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, when he said that he had much more difficulty with the substance of the amendment. With respect, so have we, because if we look at the substance of the amendment, we have to consider the background to what is being addressed.

No country in the world has an open-door immigration policy of the kind proposed by this amendment. More particularly, no country in the world has an open-door immigration policy that would involve persons who were not strictly refugees under the convention being able to apply in the place of their residence for asylum in the UK. It has always been the practice that an asylum seeker is a person who presents themselves in a safe country and seeks to establish refugee status. What is suggested in this amendment, as I read it, is that a person from within Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or elsewhere would be entitled to approach a British consulate or embassy and make an application for asylum in the UK from that point. That would not be limited to the Middle East, either; it would apply across the world because, again, you could not distinguish between one set of refugees and another. That would not be possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, introduced the idea that somehow this amendment was subject to a cap. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, observed, though, that is simply not the case, and it is difficult to conceive of how it could be. Still, let us suppose that it was going to be subject to a cap of, say, 5,000 applications. How would that be dealt with? Are we to send 5,000 visas to the consulate in Baghdad? Are we then to say that first come are first served—that those who arrive and apply can have one while those who arrive too late cannot? With great respect to your Lordships, that is not an immigration policy, it is a lottery, and that is not what we are about. We are trying to achieve an objective and fair result.

When we address this, we have to remember also that refugee status applies not only to those who may have been, or threatened with being, the victims of genocide but to those who have been the subject of, or threatened with, persecution. On what basis can we rationally and reasonably distinguish between those two groups when they all constitute refugees?

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My noble and learned friend is making quite heavy weather of the inadequacies of the amendment. Can he tell us—he has had quite a lot of time to think about this because a similar amendment was tabled in Committee—what exactly the Government are going to do for those Christians and other groups who are facing genocide?

Lord Keen of Elie: I believe that we are already doing all of that. This was addressed by my noble friend Lord Bates earlier when he spoke of the steps that we are taking regarding diplomatic efforts to try to secure peace in the Middle East. He spoke of the Government delivering a robust and comprehensive strategy to defeat Daesh in Syria and Iraq as a member of the global coalition of 66 countries. He spoke of the fact that there was effectively a cessation of hostilities on 27 February that we will build upon and hope to develop. He spoke of the fact that we have pledged over £2.3 billion, our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis, which is delivering vital assistance to refugees in neighbouring countries on the ground right now. We are also working through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees with three schemes—the Gateway Protection Programme, the Mandate Refugee Programme and the Syrian resettlement scheme—in order to reach out to the most vulnerable people at risk, such as women and children. All that is being done.

We have to be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve. What we cannot achieve is a policy whereby 4.8 million or more people are invited to make an application at a local level for a visa to bring them to the UK. We know that we could not cope with the consequences of such a policy, and we know the potential disaster that could follow from attempting to impose one. We know that at the end of the day we would be expressing hope that could not be delivered. We would be expressing hope that these people might be helped when in reality we knew that their prospects would actually be dashed to pieces on the rocks of reality. We could never cope with such an immigration policy. I say to your Lordships in conclusion—

Lord Elton: My Lords, before my noble and learned friend sits down, he has heard considerable argument in favour of the Government using the opportunity pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, to bring before the Security Council a proposal that this be recognised as genocide. Can he tell us what he is proposing to do about that?

Lord Keen of Elie: I am obliged to the noble Lord. Respectfully, it appears to me that the proper course of action in those circumstances, where we are putting to one side an amendment that even my noble friend Lord Forsyth would appear impliedly to accept is not workable, the appropriate way forward would be to consider a Motion of this House, directed to Her Majesty’s Government as to how they should address or not address the issues that pertain here with regard to whether there has been genocide. Noble Lords have heard already what the present government policy is. The Government believe that recognition of genocide should be a matter for international courts and that it should be a legal rather than a political determination. That remains the position.

In conclusion, this amendment does not even address the objective set out by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Although I fully understand his concerns about what is going on, the amendment creates a mirage of false hope. It might salve our conscience, but it will not solve the problem. I urge the noble Lord to withdraw it.


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