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Alf Dubs

December 11th, 2023

Stepping away from international human rights commitments would be a terrible outcome for the UK

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Alf Dubs

December 11th, 2023

Stepping away from international human rights commitments would be a terrible outcome for the UK

0 comments | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

A hard-line approach to asylum policy has been a core element of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government – summed up in his pledge to “stop the boats”. But in November, the Supreme Court ruled the government’s plan to send those arriving in small boats to Rwanda was unlawful. Lord Dubs has been working on these issues throughout his long political career. He arrived in the UK as a child refugee himself, fleeing from the Nazis in 1939. His commitment to a humane, open approach to migration has put him at odds with the government over legislation several times in recent years, notably on the Illegal Migration Bill earlier this year, where peers fought for several amendments to soften the legislation but were ultimately defeated. In this Q&A with Bea White, he reflects on the latest developments and the current public debate in this area.

What do you make of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Court of Appeal’s ruling that said the government’s Rwanda policy could breach migrants’ human rights?

I think it’s a terrible policy to send people to a different country in that way. It breached the UN Geneva Convention and I think it’s wrong in principle. But I am worried the Supreme Court’s decision might increase pressure for us to distance ourselves from the European Convention on Human Rights, which would be a terrible outcome.

The government’s initiative to house asylum seekers on barges or in other unsuitable accommodation has led to much controversy. The justification from the Home Office centres around the idea of “deterrence” – that prospective migrants or refugees will be attracted to the UK if it is seen as too welcoming. What do you make of this argument?  

The most recent figures I saw showed that it costs more to keep people on the barge than in hotels. And I think their Rwanda policy has been incredibly expensive, so far with nothing to show for it. Well, the government keeps saying it will deter people from coming here. I don’t think there’s any evidence it works like that. I think that people who have worked their way to Calais from miles away – from Afghanistan, or the Horn of Africa and so on – have come a long way and have good reasons why they want to come to UK, for example to join family they might have here. And I don’t think they’ll be deterred by that strategy.

Suella Braverman may have now departed as Home Secretary, but does there remain a real substantive risk there that the UK could move away from its obligations under international law?

I suppose there might be another position, which is that they might distance themselves from some of the decisions of the European Court without moving away totally. Decisions about asylum seekers and so on. I think it would be a disaster. I’ve been twice to the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, and they view the British very positively – because we helped set it up, and because the relationship between our courts and the European Court is among the best of any country’s, in that we adhere to more of the decisions. And if we distance ourselves from the European Convention, then the notorious abusers of human rights will say: “well if the Brits don’t go along with it, why should we?” So it’ll have a wider knock-on effect.

But also, it’s a sign that we’re opting out of international agreements, human rights agreements. I think if we opt out of these things, we look like a country that is no longer willing to adhere to international principles, and I think that would be very bad for us.

How is this shift, or proposed shift, away from such international structures and agreements affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU?

It has had an impact, because it meant we lost the Dublin III regulation. I think the government have tried to move away from international obligations right across the board. So although the Brexit issue had a sharp resonance in terms of the Dublin Treaty, it’s symptomatic of a wish to distance ourselves from other international agreements and international cooperation. It’s become almost a cult thing, which no longer has any logic to it.

But of course we’re not going to stop the boats coming unless you have an agreement with the French and the Belgians. But then we have someone like Liz Truss suggesting [French PM Emmanuel] Macron might be the enemy. It’s difficult to repair the damage that’s done. We can’t deal with the issue of asylum seekers unless there’s international cooperation. Yet nobody in our government seems to be quite keen on that.

We can’t deal with the issue of asylum seekers unless there’s international cooperation.

These arrivals are such a tiny proportion of net inward migration. And the main problem is that there are no safe and legal routes to come here – unless you are from Ukraine or Hong Kong.

How do you assess the current resettlement programmes that have been put in place?

The Afghan policy seems to have got stuck – there are people in Afghanistan and Pakistan who ought to have a claim to come here because of their work with the British government there. But they’ve just been left to fend for themselves. And given that Pakistan’s now threatening to return them all to Afghanistan, that’s a pretty dire situation. So I think Afghanistan has been a terrible failure.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, it was ok for the first few months, but then people became homeless because of a lack of housing. And there have been instances of unaccompanied minors being stopped from coming, supposedly for safeguarding issues, even though all the vetting had been done and the local authorities were prepared. At least we opened the doors for a time, but the problem is what happens afterwards to these people.

Why do you think there was such a contrast between these two cases?

I suppose, partly because the television cameras showed what the Ukrainians were going through – so British people saw what was happening in Ukraine in a way they didn’t see what happened in Afghanistan, which made their sympathy much greater. When people can see what it is that people are fleeing from – or images like that boy who died in the Mediterranean, Alan Kurdi – it makes a difference to public opinion, rather than if they just see them arriving in boats. And this can really influence governments.

You suggested a similar scheme could be envisaged for Palestinians fleeing the conflict there.

It would be very limited, and only for those who wish to use it, to avoid any suggestion or fear of ethnic cleansing. But if there were instances such as family reunion or medical need and so on – then we could offer to help. But the wider issue is that we should have an arrangement where we are ready for emergencies rather than dealing with them after it’s happened and it’s almost too late.

We should have an arrangement where we are ready for emergencies rather than dealing with them after it’s happened and it’s almost too late.

You’ve said before there is a battle for public opinion going on at present over migration and asylum. What do you think can be decisive in influencing people’s views?

When I speak in meetings, I always tend to talk to the converted, because that’s the people who usually invite me. And that’s okay, as long as they then talk to other people. But I think, I think we have to spread the word more. I think if we can get people from different areas and backgrounds, who might not usually talk about these issues, that can be quite powerful in terms of influencing public opinion. Like Gary Lineker, for example, we need many more like that! People who are not just the usual politicians who are arguing in favour of human rights.

Do you foresee refugee and asylum policy being a big issue going towards a next general election?

I hope not. Because think it would polarise opinion, and we want to unify it instead. I think some of the Tories would like it to be, but I think most people are worried about the cost of living, housing, the health service and so on.

You can watch or listen to Lord Dubs discussing these issues further in the recording of the event “Refugees: Britain’s response and the global situation” which took place on 16 November, organised by the LSE Library.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: House of Lords 2023 / photography by Roger Harris

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About the author


Alf Dubs

Lord Dubs is a Labour politician and refugee rights advocate. He was MP for Battersea 1979-1987. After leaving the Commons in 1987, he became the Director of the Refugee Council and was appointed as a Labour life peer in 1994.

Posted In: Immigration | Law and Order | Parliament
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This work by British Politics and Policy at LSE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.