Nationality and Borders Bill: Bishop of Durham opposes differential treatment of refugees

On 28th February 2022, during a debate on the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Bishop of Durham spoke in support of an amendment to clause 11 of the bill tabled by Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, to remove the differentiation of refugees within the clause. The Bishop further expressed opposition to clause 11 in its entirety:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, if the names had not been filled on Amendment 28 then I would have added my name to it. I remind the House of my interests as set out in the register, both in RAMP and Reset.

In Committee I laid out the understanding of the two groupings proposed and argued that almost no one will actually qualify as being in group 1. I had no repudiation offered to that argument. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, Ukraine is currently illustrating the problem precisely. I was also concerned in the response to the debate in Committee by some of the language of discretion within the two groupings.

We need a simpler, more efficient asylum system, and I continue to be convinced that what is proposed will provide a more complex, slower process. Fundamentally, I am with all those who oppose the two-group system, as it creates a fundamental injustice for fair treatment of all refugees, regardless of how they arrive.

Today, a letter signed by over 1,000 leaders from all the major faith communities of this country was delivered to the Prime Minister. I quote from that letter:

“Dear Prime Minister, As leaders within faith communities across the UK, we are horrified and appalled about the potential repercussions of the Nationality and Borders Bill. We urge you to reconsider the proposals even at this late stage.”

It goes on later to say:

“Currently, Clause 11 sets out the differential treatment of refugees. This separation of refugees into ‘Group 1’ or ‘Group 2’ undermines the longstanding and widely understood expectation that a person’s asylum application is decided on the individual merits of their case and whether they would face serious threats to their life or freedom if they were not to be granted refugee status. The artificial manufacture of a two-tier system creates two different classes of refugees. This would not be based on needs or merits but would depend on the ability of a person to arrive in the UK via a ‘regular’ route of travel. This is a clear breach of the principles of the Refugee Convention, and we have seen no credible evidence that it will stop irregular migration across the English Channel; it is therefore, policy made without a basis in evidence or morality. Criminalizing and punishing vulnerable asylum seekers who have little choice but to arrive in the UK through ‘irregular routes’, when the majority are subsequently able to prove that they have a legitimate basis for their asylum claim, is a disgraceful and dishonourable policy, and should be abandoned.”

The letter says some more about other clauses, but concludes:

“What we need now, is political leadership which acknowledges and allays the concerns of the public while promoting the importance of compassion, human life and dignity. We remain willing to assist in any way we can to this end, and ask that key representatives on this issue from the government would agree to meet with faith representatives to explore what both we, and the government, can do to help address some of the concerns we have raised.”

Just to be clear, Members on these benches who are engaging in the debates during the progress of the Bill made a conscious decision not to sign that letter because of our privilege of being able to speak here. If we were not here, we would have all signed it. It has over 1000 signatures of those from all major faiths. I doubt the Minister is going to agree to withdraw all of Clause 11, but I sincerely hope that she will ask the Prime Minister to respond positively to the letter and recognise that faith leaders representing faith communities across the land should be heeded and not ignored.

If I may add that, on the Australia example, it is not as simple as the noble Lord, Lord Horam, has suggested. There are many in Australia who will tell you that the system is not working and has not stopped the problems; indeed, I think Novak Djokovic might tell you of his own personal experience of how it is not working because of the people he met in the hotel that he was held in, some of whom have been held for a very long time. There is another simple reason it does not work: geography. The United Kingdom is in a very different geographic setting from Australia. I long that we remove Clause 11.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Dubs (Lab): My Lords, I very much agree with the right reverend Prelate, and I am totally in support of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and his amendment.

I agree with the right reverend Prelate: all the evidence we have from Australia is that it is not working. I have talked to people in Australia who say that we should not go down this path because it is not sensible and it does not work.

I shall be extremely brief. The idea that, at this stage, we start renegotiating the 1951 Geneva convention—presumably on the basis of clauses such as Clause 11—is a frightening prospect. This is no time to be tearing up one of the most fundamental human rights documents that we have, which protects vulnerable, innocent victims of war and persecution. This is no time to be saying that we will change that. If the Government are not proposing to do it that way, why have this clause?

It seems to me that there are too many examples—whether it is Afghans who have got to neighbouring countries but cannot get any further, or Ukrainians who have got to neighbouring countries—that give the lie to the idea that, somehow, you can get here by the sort of route that the Home Office approves of. It is complete nonsense. It is not workable and it diminishes this country in the eyes of the world.

Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con, Home Office): Distinguishing between different refugees forms part of the refugee convention itself. For example, the entire structure of entitlement under the refugee convention rests on different levels of attachment, with physical presence and lawful presence distinguished for the purposes of various entitlements. Article 31 does not contain a blanket prohibition on the imposition of penalties on refugees who enter or are present illegally. Article 31 prohibits penalties only in respect of refugees who either are coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened or present themselves without delay to the authorities, and who show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

We think that differentiation is not a penalty, taking into account that the convention does not explicitly define “penalty” and the fact that there is no unanimity on the definition of penalty. In any event, the convention does not prohibit differentiation and the clear implication of Article 31 is that states are entitled to impose penalties on refugees who enter their territory illegally when the three conditions are not satisfied. I have already spoken at length about the broad and flexible nature of the powers under Clause 11, which I have consistently argued enable the Secretary of State to exercise sensitive and compassionate discretion in each and every case.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham stated that nobody would be in group 1. That is not true. Those who could not be reasonably expected to claim in another safe country may well be in group 1 if, for example, they were trafficked. This goes to my noble friend Lady Stowell’s point: despite a number of misleading media and NGO reports, there is a vanishingly low risk that anyone who has, for example, suffered sexual or gender-based violence, is coming to terms with their sexuality or is the victim of trafficking will face differentiated entitlements.

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