All 1 Baroness Helic contributions to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024

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Mon 12th Feb 2024
Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill
Lords Chamber

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Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill

Baroness Helic Excerpts
Baroness Hamwee Portrait Baroness Hamwee (LD)
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My Lords, I will speak mainly to Amendments 11 and 12 in the name of my noble friend Lord German. I cannot stop myself saying that it really goes against the grain to do anything that suggests that Liberal Democrats regard the Bill as requiring only some tweaking to be acceptable.

First, I would like to make a general comment about Clause 1. For many years, Governments have opposed amendments setting out the general purpose of a Bill on the basis of such a clause having no effect and being rather confusing. I used to find that understandable, although I signed such amendments; they have tended to be narratives describing hopes, rather than expectations or anything firmer. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, has commented on the changing fashion—of such measures being there to make the courts wary of the direction in which they might like to go. This problem applies to Clause 1.

There is a notable omission from the exposition of the Government’s policy—and that is tackling people smuggling, which is abhorrent in itself, not only because of the smugglers’ role in bringing asylum seekers to the UK. The Illegal Migration Act has a similar introductory section. Specifically, Section 1(3) says:

“Accordingly, and so far as it is possible to do so, provision made by or by virtue of this Act must be read and given effect so as to achieve the purpose mentioned in subsection (1)”.

It is important to be clear about the legal effect of Clause 1. If it is intended that the clause is to be relied on, it needs to be sharpened up—for instance, in the case of terminology such as

“the system for the processing of … claims … is to be improved”,

an objective of the treaty, which is a pretty low bar. But my central point is that we need to be very clear about the legal effect and status of this clause, because there will be little point in amending the clause on Report unless the amendment has an effect, either as a stand-alone or by subsequent reference, such as the Act not coming into force unless a provision in Clause 1 is met. This may seem a rather technical point but, looking ahead, I do not want to be tripped up on it.

Amendment 12—I am aware that it is an amendment to the clause whose effect I have been querying—therefore probes the definition of “safe country”. The Bill refers, in Clause 1(5)(b)(ii), to a person having

“their claim determined and … treated in accordance with that country’s obligations under international law”—

that is, Rwanda’s obligations. The amendment would leave out “that country’s” and insert “the United Kingdom’s”, changing it to being the UK’s “obligations under international law”.

The treaty is predicated on Rwanda being under the same obligations, and as observant of them, as is the UK, so that the transfer to Rwanda, as I understand it, means really only a change of venue. Dr Google did not really help me yesterday in finding what conventions Rwanda has signed up to and, importantly, ratified and observed. But we are proceeding with this on the basis that everything that we would do in this country will apply under the new regime, and I will be interested in the Minister’s comments.

Amendment 11 is related to this. Clause 1(5)(a) also defines a safe country for the purposes of the Bill. It refers to the UK’s obligations

“that are relevant to the treatment in that country of persons who are removed there”.

Surely, all our obligations are relevant to the treatment of persons removed there, not just in that country. So both amendments go to the issue of safety—that is, the Bill’s compatibility with the UK’s human rights obligations, which are the obligations that are crucial as part of this whole regime.

Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con)
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My Lords, it is a hard act to follow so many lawyers here: I hope that my compassion and conviction might help me where I am missing legal expertise. I support the amendments to Clause 1 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, which introduce an additional purpose of compliance with the rule of law and a role for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I apologise that I was unable to join your Lordships for Second Reading, as I was overseas. I have read the Hansard record of the debate, during which many noble Lords raised what I see as the fundamental issue at stake with the Bill and the Rwanda scheme more broadly: how it is squared with the rule of law and with the international agreements and obligations that are the bedrock and defence of our freedom and prosperity.

I come to this with a conviction that our best chance of solving the global challenges we face, illegal migration among them, is not through unilateral action but through international co-operation and standing up for the rule of law. Other noble Lords have explained how these amendments would help ensure that refugees really are safe, and the importance of this as a matter of humanity as well as of law. I suggest that recognising a role for the UNHCR is also important from an international perspective, and as a route towards the lasting solution the Government seek. It is right to want to reduce people smuggling, but, if the Bill is to have a positive impact, it will be only as part of a wider approach.

The preamble of the 1951 refugee convention is surely correct when it states that a “satisfactory solution” to the problem of supporting refugees in a fair and humane manner, without placing an undue burden on any one state,

“cannot therefore be achieved without international co-operation … the effective co-ordination of measures taken to deal with this problem will depend upon the co-operation of States with the High Commissioner”.

As I have argued in your Lordships’ House before, a lack of respect for international law and the weakness of international institutions lie behind the large number of people forcibly displaced around the world. While not the only cause, wars of aggression, indiscriminate or deliberate targeting of civilians, war crimes and crimes against humanity drive displacement. We will not reduce the number of displaced persons globally while wars and atrocities continue unchecked, and while international law is applied unevenly. At a time when we and the wider West are struggling to maintain any credibility when it comes to the rule of law and international co-operation, recognising in law a place for UNHCR in determining the safety of the Rwanda scheme would be a small step towards demonstrating our ongoing commitment to international institutions and agreements that are critical for global security.

It has become a bit of a trope to say that the refugee convention and UNHCR itself are outdated and unable to rise to the magnitude of the task at hand. In supporting a role for UNHCR in this legislation, I challenge that view. It is worth putting the scale of the refugee situation in some context. As a recent book, How Migration Really Works by Professor Hein de Haas, one of the world’s leading experts on migration, sets out very clearly, current refugee numbers are not in fact exceptional or unprecedented. There are 30 million refugees globally, but this is 0.3% of the global population, only marginally above the proportion of refugees in 1992. The vast majority of the displaced stay either in their country of origin or their immediate region; it is a small minority who come to Europe and to the United Kingdom.

We should be able to rise to this challenge. The refugee crisis is one of protection and political will, not only of sheer numbers. This Bill is all about signalling. The Government hope to signal that they are tough on illegal migration and to deter small boat crossings, but we are at risk of signalling that we are uninterested in the rule of law and in our international agreements and co-operation. That would be a very serious mistake for our ability to co-operate on refugees and other global issues, as well as for the international rules-based order.