Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (Amendment of List of Safe States) Regulations 2024 Debate

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Department: Home Office

Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (Amendment of List of Safe States) Regulations 2024

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Excerpts
Tuesday 19th March 2024

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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My Lords, very briefly, I wish to protest that the Home Office is, again, living in the world of fantasy and fiction when it comes to safe countries. We have had the charade over the Rwanda Bill, which is going through ping-pong at the moment, and we are here again.

The Minister says from the Dispatch Box very passionately that the Government have taken a number of sources into consideration when determining whether Georgia or India are safe countries. I have done quite a bit of research myself over the last few days; I have looked at reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Home Office’s own country report and the US’s country report, and the reports of Freedom House, the UN and the EU on both countries. All those sources raise considerations and concerns—in some cases significant—about the human rights position in both countries.

Can the Minister tell the House what sources the Home Office has looked at, other than the ones that I just read out? Would he lay before the House as a matter of urgency the content of those sources? I cannot find sources which state that both India and Georgia generally are countries that have and uphold international standards of human rights for the vast majority of their citizens.

For example, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, mentioned specific groups in India. There are 172 million Muslims in India—14.2% of the population—that are having constitutional rights significantly taken away from them. Is it generally safe for the 172 million Muslim citizens of India? Would the Minister like to comment on whether it is seen as generally safe?

I believe that the Home Office has, again, gone down the rabbit hole of believing the fantasy and fiction, rather than giving us specific facts and sources. As I say, I have looked, and I cannot find sources which would determine that these countries are generally seen as safe for human rights. It is particularly galling when the Home Office’s own country report talks about “widespread” abuses in India. Could the Minister explain the difference between general and widespread, and how the mention of widespread abuses in the Home Office’s own country notice brings it to then say that generally India is safe? It is preposterous that this has happened.

It seems to suggest that the numbers of claims determine whether the Government now look at whether a country is safe. Surely the fact that cases are rising may determine that conditions are actually getting worse, and more people are seeking asylum based on genuine issues and genuine fear for their own safety back in the countries where they lived. I am not clear what the correlation is. At the Dispatch Box, the Minister said that the numbers seem to determine whether countries are looked at by the Home Office and decided to be safe or not. If I got that wrong then I apologise to the House, but numbers have absolutely nothing to do with determining whether a country is safe, and the reverse of what the Government seem to be suggesting is that conditions could be getting worse.

I look forward to the Minister giving us the sources that the Home Office has looked at, and the evidence of those sources, to determine that India and Georgia are generally safe countries.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, these regulations mark a step towards the implementation of the few parts of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 that have come into force since it received Royal Assent. The key sections on the duty to detain and remove asylum seekers arriving by small boat, among other provisions, have apparently been accepted as unworkable by the Government, at least for the time being.

The current list of safe countries of origin from which it is expected that, in general, people will not have grounds for asylum in the UK is set out in Section 80AA of the 2002 Act, as amended by Section 59 of the Illegal Migration Act, as was explained by the Minister. Historically, during the time in which the UK was part of the EU, the designation of safe countries of origin applied mostly to other EU and European Economic Area member states. Those countries remain on the list, with the more recent addition of Albania, and with Georgia and India now marking the first significant expansion of that list beyond the EU and the EEA.

We support these changes in principle, notwithstanding a few important questions. It is right that the Government go into some detail about how these changes would work in practice and how Indian and Georgian nationals, who under exceptional circumstances face harm or death, can still seek refuge in our country. The grant rate for Indian asylum seekers has stayed at under 10% in recent years, but for Georgia it has swayed between 15% and 30%. I understand that there are fewer applications from Georgia in numerical terms, but it would be useful to hear from the Minister how those successful applications translate into appropriate cases of exceptional circumstances in the future.

There is little detail on how exceptional circumstances would apply. The example tests for exceptional circumstances set out in the 2002 Act will not apply to India and only one—the ECHR test—will apply to Georgia. The Government have stated to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that guidance will be published to caseworkers in due course. Do the Government mean to say that the guidance does not currently exist? How are decisions made now, before that guidance is in place?

As others, including the noble Lord, Lord German, have pointed out, given that the Home Office’s own policy notes on India speak of the existence of serious human rights abuses, including rape, torture and death—and, for Georgia, they note politically motivated prosecutions —it is vital that discretion can be exercised for individuals in those countries in appropriate circumstances.

I hope that the Minister can outline today how this guidance will work, whether it will be in place when these regulations come into force and whether it will be published. Can he also outline what is being done to improve returns rates for both Indian and Georgian nationals? The UK has migration returns agreements with both countries, but the current returns rate of Indian nationals seeking asylum stood at less than 7% in the year to September 2022. Can he outline what the returns rate is so far for Georgia, given that it has been a year since the bilateral returns agreement was signed? Depending on his answer to that question, and given the low rate of Indian national returns, can he outline what the Government are doing to improve returns rates for both countries? Finally, can he say how the introduction of this list impacts outstanding claims? Will it apply simply to new claims, or will it be retrospective? I look forward to his replies.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this relatively short debate. These regulations, by themselves, do not introduce a new process or policy. It is not for us to debate today the safe country of origin inadmissibility provisions; those provisions have been a long-standing part of our asylum laws and have been expanded via the Illegal Migration Act 2023. These regulations seek to expand this list further to incorporate Georgia and India as generally safe. I acknowledge that, in considering whether it is appropriate to do so, questions have been asked today about how the list will be used.

The inadmissibility of asylum and human rights claims from nationals of safe countries aims to deter abuse of our asylum system from those who would seek to abuse it and do not need to seek protection in the UK. It will reduce pressure on the asylum system and allow us to focus on those most in need of protection. Treating asylum claims from EU nationals in this way is not new: it has been a long-standing process in the UK asylum system that is also employed by EU states. But EU states are not the only countries that are safe countries; therefore, it is right that these provisions have been expanded through the Illegal Migration Act 2023.

Once commenced, Section 59 of the 2023 Act introduces the new Section 80AA(1) safe countries of origin list, so that these provisions would apply not only to EU nationals but, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, to those from the other EEA states of Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein, as well as Switzerland and Albania.

For a country to be added to the list of safe countries of origin, it must be assessed as safe as per the criteria set out in the new Section 80AA(3) of the 2002 Act, as inserted by Section 59 of the Illegal Migration Act. The test sets out that a country may be added to the list if

“(a) there is in general … no serious risk of persecution”

there for nationals of that country,

“and (b) removal … of nationals of that”

country

“will not in general contravene the United Kingdom’s obligations under the”

European Convention on Human Rights.

We do not draw conclusions on the general safety of a country based on information from single sources or isolated examples. Whether a country is safe for the purposes of inclusion in Section 80AA(1) is an assessment of whether the country in general is considered safe. Our assessments of the situation in the respective countries are set out in the relevant country policy and information notes, which I will come back to in more detail. Those are available on the GOV.UK website and are kept under constant review and updated periodically.