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 Scriven Excerpts
Tuesday 19th March 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Whatever the authorities decide, it cannot be stated that India is a safe country for anyone but Hindu nationals. This constitutes a breach of the UK’s obligations to help prevent future religious and other violence against minorities in any country, but most particularly in a Commonwealth country.
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.

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am afraid that I do not have that information. As I said, all the information we use is published on GOV.UK.

Regarding reporting from single sources, or drawing on isolated examples, these might not consider the situation in context or be reflective of the general situation, which is what we are required to consider. We consider evidence from a wide range of sources and source types, as I have said. We compare and contrast information across those sources to reach a balanced and, we believe, accurate view of the situation.

We recognise, of course, that groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International produce reports that are sometimes critical of human rights records. We also consider what sources are reporting as well as how, when and why they have reported. This assessment and the inclusion of these countries on the list will be regularly monitored and reviewed.

The noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, asked about the ongoing investigations by Canada and the US into alleged Indian state involvement in various activities. We remain in close touch with our Canadian and US partners about what are very serious allegations. However, I am afraid it would be inappropriate to comment further during the ongoing investigations by their law enforcement authorities.

Even if a country is generally considered safe, it is acknowledged that there could be exceptional circumstances in which it may not be appropriate to return an individual in their particular circumstances. That is why the consideration of exceptional circumstances, incorporated into the safe country of origin inadmissibility provisions, will act as an appropriate safeguard. Where the Secretary of State accepts that there are exceptional circumstances why the person may not be removed to their country of origin in an individual’s particular circumstances, they will not be.

Once Section 59 of the Illegal Migration Act is commenced, a national of a Section 80AA(1) listed country who is subject to the duty to remove or power to remove would not be removed there if it is accepted that there are exceptional circumstances as to why they cannot be removed there. They will instead be removed to a safe third country. For all other nationals of Section 80AA(1) listed countries, if there are exceptional circumstances why their claim ought to be considered in the UK, it will be.

I will deal with a couple of specific questions in terms of published guidance—

Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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I am sorry to interrupt the Minister in mid-flow. The exceptional circumstance rule is absolutely vital to understanding the operation of this statutory instrument. The Act refers only to two forms of exceptional circumstances: EU law or not signing up to the European Convention on Human Rights. Could he run through the Home Office’s view on exceptional circumstances for these two countries? What is expected to be in the operational notes, which he referred to?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I was just about to get to that.

These regulations seeks to add India and Georgia to the list of countries in Section 80AA(1) of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, as I have already said. They are not about the inadmissibility provisions, which already rely on the exceptional circumstances safeguard.

Section 80A already applies to EU nationals. Only when Section 59 of the Illegal Migration Act is commenced will the safe country of origin list be actionable in terms of its application to the revised inadmissibility provisions at Section 80A of the 2002 Act and to the removal provisions at Sections 4 and 6 of the Illegal Migration Act.

Section 80A(4) of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 sets out some examples of what may constitute exceptional circumstances in that context. Section 6(5) of the Illegal Migration Act sets out the same examples, but these are not exhaustive, nor do they purport to be. They will not be relevant in some cases. Exceptional circumstances are not defined nor limited in legislation, but will be considered and applied on a case by case basis where appropriate. When we commence and implement the wider Section 59 measures, we will provide updated guidance to assist caseworkers in their consideration of exceptional circumstances and the wider provisions.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked me to go into a bit more detail on Georgian asylum applications and grant rates. I am happy to do so. In 2023, there were 1,071 applications—23% fewer than in the year before, but more than four times higher than in 2019. For cases where decisions were made, the grant rate at initial decision was 12%—based on 24 grant decisions out of a total of 205. That was lower than the grant rate of 23% the year before, but higher than the 8% in 2019. Where withdrawals, which numbered 621, were included as part of the decision total, the grant rate was only 3%, compared to 5% the year before and 2% in 2019. The grant rate for Georgians is far below the average grant rate across all asylum claims. We should note that the number of Georgian applications with an outcome in each year before 2023 was low—120 cases in 2022 and 88 in 2019. I apologise for that blizzard of statistics, but I hope it answers noble Lords’ questions.

I hope that I have satisfactorily explained the Government’s position on the inclusion of both Georgia and India in the Section 80AA(1) list of safe countries of origin. I beg to move.