Illegal Migration Bill: Bishop of Chelmsford supports amendments to ensure compliance with international legislation

On 24th May 2023, the House of Lords debated the Illegal Migration Bill in its first day of Committee. The Bishop of Chelmsford spoke on the details of the bill concerning “safe and legal routes”, in support of two amendments:

  • amendment 4, tabled by Lord Paddick, Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate, Lord Etherton, and Baroness Chakrabarti, which would replace clause 1 of the bill with a requirement that bill not violate any international legal obligations
  • amendment 84, tabled by Lord Alton of Liverpool, aimed at ensuring compliance with international legislation against human trafficking

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I support Amendments 4 and 84; I also have a great deal of sympathy for Amendment 148. I declare an interest as vice-chair of the independent Commission on the Integration of Refugees. I have been listening with great interest to the expert points raised by particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, but also other noble Lords.

I am sure noble Lords will be aware that Clause 1, as it stands, is a narrative introduction that sets the scope and intent of the Bill as a whole. Crucially, it defines the purpose of the Bill as

“to prevent and deter unlawful migration, and in particular migration by unsafe and illegal routes”.

I am sure we can all sympathise with the desire to make the migration system thoroughly orderly and predictable in nature, but I question whether this is plausible and whether what it entails is indeed desirable, particularly if it cannot guarantee compatibility with those international treaties, as we have heard. The sort of circumstances of catastrophe and persecution that drive refugees do not tend to allow for orderly or safe departures. I know this from my own personal experience but also from having spoken to many asylum seekers and refugees over the years.

The Government deserve credit for the design and delivery of the Homes for Ukraine scheme. My diocese has been delighted to welcome more than 50 Ukrainian guests into our scheme and to hear many incredible stories of welcome and community building. However, we should not forget the huge amount of effort and time that went into getting that scheme off the ground. It was not swift, and to be delivered at all it required an enormous redistribution of Civil Service and local authority capacity, to say nothing of the vast civil society contribution that needed to be harnessed. It is an incredibly labour-intensive model in its administration, neither sufficiently swift nor flexible to account for sudden or immediate crises, of which we are bound to see many more.

Refugees fleeing crisis, persecution and conflict do not have the time for the UK to develop a bespoke model—assuming that such a model would ever exist. The great majority of those in need who seek to come to the UK do not have a safe or regular route available to them. I deliberately say “regular” rather than “legal” because I want to underline what we have already heard said very clearly: according to the refugee convention, there is no such thing as an illegal route. This is a really important point that needs to be underlined and repeated. Anyone arriving at a country by any means has the right to claim asylum. This point has been well made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope. The shorthand of “safe and legal”, which has become all too common, is misleading and leads to scaremongering. We should be much more careful about our use of language.

The Government’s answer seems to be that every refugee must stop in the first safe country. This sounds very easy in principle and is what the majority of the world’s refugees do, but safety is a relative concept. For example, for Christian converts in Iran facing terrible persecution, who have no safe or regular routes to this country, which neighbouring state would noble Lords recommend as a safe and secure place in which to rebuild their lives with the freedom to practise their religion, as is their human right?

Proximity is no guarantor of true safety. In the UK, there are many Iranian Christians who have settled and rebuilt their lives. There is an established community, and many have friends or family members here who can help and support them. In my work with the Commission on the Integration of Refugees, I have heard repeatedly of the importance of family, friendship, community and historical ties, and of activities and structures to help refugees integrate better. This is what safety means to people who have lost all those things in their home countries. They are not “asylum shopping”, to use the offensive and disparaging term used by the Immigration Minister. Rather, they are choosing to come as directly as they can to the place where they feel they will be safest.

This is why Amendments 4 and 84 are so important. They look to establish a guarantee to abide by the international treaties to which we as a nation have already committed, as we heard said so articulately by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. These treaties exist not to frustrate orderly migration policies but to establish a baseline of protection and commitment that is shared across nations. They are designed for individuals for whom the normal, orderly means of migration are not possible but who urgently require humanitarian assistance. They create proper structure for people to depart and to claim status in a place where they will be safe.

These amendments are a commitment to the vulnerable and a commitment on the part of states to be held accountable for their actions towards the vulnerable. If the Government cannot commit to that accountability, I cannot accept that the stated purpose of Clause 1 is either appropriate or desirable.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Horam (Con): My Lords, I want to comment on the speech made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford just now. She made a very important point which the Committee should take note of. She said that the amount of work that went into the programme to deal with people fleeing Ukraine was significant and she praised that. She understood from her experience the amount of effort that the Home Office made in that particular case.

I would like the Committee to understand that this Bill and all that surrounds it—as it is merely part of a package—is a serious attempt to answer a serious problem. It is not a problem which is faced just by the United Kingdom. I was a member of the European Affairs Committee several years ago when we were looking at the traffic coming across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. The European Union had and still has a programme called Operation Sophia designed to stop ships coming across the Mediterranean in that way and to deal with them when they come to Italy, Lampedusa or Sicily. Similarly, the European Union has a plan dealing with people coming from Turkey to Greece, and the Spanish Government have dealings with the Moroccan Government.

Baroness Hamwee (LD): I have added my name to Amendment 84. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, is not in his place; I did not expect to find that the debate on this would come today, and possibly neither did he. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for highlighting compliance with the anti-trafficking conventions. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that we need to come together with a single list that we can gather around.

I do not want to pre-empt debates on the substantive issues regarding trafficking and slavery—I say that without intending to suggest that the conventions and directives are not significant; they are—but will simply say that I expect the term “world-leading” to be used quite a lot with reference to the Modern Slavery Act when we get to that part of the Bill. The international nature of trafficking means that the UK has to consider it internationally and comply with conventions and directives—which brings us directly back to the point that many other noble Lords have made.

Lord Murray of Blidworth (Con, Home Office): As regards the early intervention in the debate from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, a point repeated by both the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Hamwee, as well as my noble friend Lord Kirkhope and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, I remind your Lordships that the Immigration Act 1971 was recently amended by the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 with regard to the criminal offences relating to illegal entry and arrival. This includes people who enter the UK without leave or arrive in the UK without permission: for example, without a visa where that is required under the Immigration Rules. This means that such persons are illegal migrants whether or not they go on to claim asylum. This, if I may say, answers the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, of what makes a route illegal. The answer is: legislation, passed in the normal way, and scrutinised and passed by this House.

The suggestion by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that anyone making claims under the refugee convention can never be illegal, represents, with respect, a muddled reading of the convention. The convention is clear that states can still operate controls on illegal migration and, under Article 31, it is expressly permitted to disadvantage those who have arrived illegally from safe countries—which is true of all who come from France. This embodies the first safe country principle in the sense that Article 31 protections apply only to those who have come directly from unsafe countries—a point made by my noble friend Lady Lawlor.

The first safe country principle is also widely recognised internationally, including in the Common European Asylum System, a framework of rules and procedures operated by EU countries together, based on the refugee convention. I would add that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, may have overlooked the fact that, under Clause 2(4) of this Bill, the “duty to remove” does not apply to those who have come directly from unsafe countries, in line with the refugee convention.

The refugee convention seems to be raised to support statements that are not all borne out by its terms. We must interpret the convention as it is written, not as others would wish it to be written.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab): Calling those affected “illegal migrants” does not alter the fact that the majority are exercising their right in international law to seek asylum. That goes back to the point that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford made earlier. In the words of the UN rapporteurs that I quoted earlier,

“the act of seeking asylum is always legal, and effective access to territory is an essential precondition for exercising the right to seek asylum”.

When she first introduced the Bill, the Home Secretary accused critics of naivety in suggesting that

“everybody coming here on a boat is a genuine asylum seeker fleeing for humanitarian reasons. The reality is that many of these people are economic migrants who are abusing our asylum system, and that is what this Bill aims to stop”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/3/23; col. 174.]

Could the Minister give us the evidence on which that assertion is based? It has been reported that the Home Office does not have that evidence, but, if it does, now is the opportunity to provide it.

No one is suggesting that everyone who comes here on a small boat has a genuine case for asylum, but we know that the majority are likely to have such a case. According to the Refugee Council’s analysis of official data, six out of 10 of those who crossed the channel in small boats last year stood to be recognised as refugees—yet they will no longer be able to make their case.

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