25 March 2016

On 22 March, a number of concerns were raised about the negative human rights impact of restrictive policies on asylum and immigration in the UK by Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. These were published in a Memorandum which follows up on his visit to the UK earlier this year. He states that, “the treatment afforded by states to immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees constitutes a litmus test for states’ effective observance of and respect for fundamental human rights principles.”

The Commissioner welcomes the UK’s commitment to providing international aid to Syria and neighbouring countries, as well as its pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees and ongoing efforts relating to unaccompanied children in conflict areas and in transit in Europe. However he is critical of the UK’s failure to participate in the EU emergency relocation scheme, which shows a lack of solidarity with other European countries. In this context, he notes the comparatively small number of asylum applications received by the UK in 2015 with per capita applications lower than in 16 other EU member states and the EU-wide average.

Muižnieks also raises serious concerns over the long-standing plight of 67 refugees and asylum seekers who have been in a precarious situation since their arrival on a UK sovereign base area in Cyprus in 1998. An agreement between the two countries means that this is under UK’s effective responsibility and control, but their legal status is unclear which has negatively affected their rights to welfare and healthcare and led to many suffering from serious psychological problems. He calls on the UK to resettle them, but the government, in its response has denied any legal obligation to do so.

In his Memorandum, the Commissioner denounces the alarmist political rhetoric and language of criminalisation used to describe migrants by politicians and reproduced or distorted by the media, which contributes to the public opinion that they are a threat to society. He underlines that claims often made about the negative impact of migrants are imbalanced and not backed up by expert evidence. He urges leaders to reflect on the language they use and avoid the term ‘illegal immigrant’, to promote a more nuanced and careful public narrative.

The Commissioner also adds his voice to concerns raised by a number of stakeholders about the length of immigration detention in the UK, where there is no time limit or automatic right to review of detention by a court.

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This article will appear in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 25 March 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.