Since officially leaving the European Union (EU) on 31 January 2020, the UK has been navigating an 11-month transition period negotiated by Theresa May and later Boris Johnson. During the transition period, EU law still applies in the UK, even though the UK is no longer formally a member of the EU.
That transition period is set to end on 31 December 2020. On that day, various important changes happen automatically, because from 1 January 2021, EU law will no longer be directly applicable in the UK. For immigration purposes, the most widely discussed change following from that will be that on the 1st of January, free movement of people ends, and the rebranded points-based immigration system is coming into full force to replace it. Obviously, the end of free movement is a big deal. There will, however, be numerous other significant changes to migration as a consequence of Brexit. One such area is asylum.
Asylum regulation is based on a number of international, EU and domestic laws. The relevant international law is set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). The applicability of those texts will not be affected by Brexit, the end of the transition period, or any other event to do with the EU, as their legal basis is not in EU law. Despite the ECHR’s name, it is not an EU treaty, and the Strasbourg human rights court is not an EU body – so these laws will continue to apply.
EU law, however, is a different story. Due to the Common European Asylum System, the end of the transition period will heavily affect individuals claiming asylum in the UK, as the EU law relevant to asylum will no longer be automatically applicable in the UK. Some of it will be repealed immediately and replaced by domestic law, such as Home Secretary Priti Patel’s infamous Immigration Bill implementing the points-based system and end of free movement in practice. Another piece of legislation set to be repealed is the Dublin III Regulation. The purpose of the Dublin Regulation is to determine which State is responsible for examining an asylum application. The legislation is marked down for immediate repeal because it is meaningless without cooperation of other EU member states.
In very simple terms, the Dublin Regulation allows the UK to return asylum seekers to another EU country if they passed their on their way to the UK. In less simple terms, Dublin III sets out mechanisms determine which country should assume responsibility of asylum seekers within their borders, and to return them to those responsible countries. The Regulation is intended to ensure quick access to asylum procedures and reduce double handling of asylum claims by different States.
Important to note is that Dublin III does not allow for the UK or any member state to return asylum seekers to their country of origin, or outside of the EU. It applies to asylum seekers within the bloc, and determines which member state is responsible for processing their claim. The Dublin III Regulation utilises a host of criteria to determine where an asylum seeker should claim asylum, ranging from family unity, to possession of residence documents or visas and irregular entry or stay. The latter has become something of a hot topic in recent months, as reports of migrants crossing the channel in small boats from France have risen, and inflammatory remarks from the government has led to much commotion. At some point, Home Secretary Patel stated she wanted the British navy to patrol the seas in order to send illegal channel crossers back to France. This idea was quickly dismissed, as it turned out that it would only be legal under international law if the country whose waters the migrants would be sent back to (in this case France) agreed to the return, but the narrative presented has remained the same.
Ms. Patel has frequently justified returning channel crossers to France on the idea that their asylum claims in the UK are “illegal” because they arrived in France first, and then entered the UK illegally. This is not exactly true. There are limits, legally, to the extent irregular entry can be used as a reason for transfer back to the first point of entry. For example, the principle can be outweighed by other primary considerations such as family unity. Additionally, a Member State will be responsible for a claim submitted by a person who has been living there for at least five consecutive months, even when that person first gained entry into the EU by an irregular crossing of a border in another Member State. So, if an asylum seeker entered the UK via France, but has been in the UK for over five months since, they cannot be returned to France and the UK will automatically assume responsibility.
In 2019, statistics indicate that 714 individuals were transferred into the UK based on Dublin III rules, and 263 were transferred out to another EU country. Numbers have been steadily rising since the Brexit referendum, indicating a push to complete as many Dublin III transfers as possible before the Regulation stops to apply.
The government has given no indication that it plans on introducing a post-Brexit successor to the Dublin Regulation. Instead, it has proposed two draft agreements with the EU which relate to certain specific aspects of the Dublin Regulation. On the one hand, the government is looking to come to an agreement on the transfer of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children for family reunion purposes, and on the other, it has proposed a readmission agreement for accepting returns of irregularly residing UK/EU citizens and third country nationals. Both of these proposals are much narrower than the Dublin Regulation allowed for.
None of these proposals have been accepted by the EU, and the Government has said that it might pursue bilateral agreements with individual Member States if it cannot secure EU-wide agreements. It is unclear whether these individual agreements would be compatible with the EU’s exclusive competence/power over migration policy, and so whether they will be possible at all. The end of Dublin III hence leaves a gap in UK immigration law that is unlikely to be filled before the ever-approaching end of the transition period.
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On Monday, a group of 52 asylum seekers and refugees, including 16 unaccompanied minors, flew from Greece to Britain to be reunited with their families in the UK. The transfer had been delayed due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Under the EU Dublin III Regulation (the Dublin Treaty), family reunifications are facilitated if a close relative is already in the country of destination. As such, section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 provides that unaccompanied refugee children can lodge an asylum claim to come to the UK from another Dublin State if they have family in the UK to be reunited with. The burden of responsibility for those children lies on the State in which the child has family ties, in this case the UK, and it is up to that State to make arrangements to transfer the child.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, family reunification has been suspended across much of Europe as a natural consequence of closed borders and cancelled flights. After a six-week corona-related delay, a joint effort by the UK and Greek governments allowed a flight with over 50 migrants to go ahead and bring over 50 migrants to the UK from Athens on Monday. The individuals on the flight included people from Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. Many of them have been living in Greece’s overcrowded refugee camps for months, alone and in problematic sanitary conditions. There are currently 42.000 people on the Greek islands. Amongst these are at least 1500 unaccompanied minors, in addition to another 3500 unaccompanied children who are stranded on the mainland.
The UK and Greece recently committed to a Joint Action plan on migration in which they focus on family reunification, and specifically on the best interests of unaccompanied children in Greece. Monday’s flight can be considered a first direct product of this pact. Although this renewed commitment to family reunification efforts under the Dublin treaty is welcome, the pact comes with significant shortcomings.
On the one hand, the Action Plan is only valid for “as long as the UK remains bound by the Dublin Regulation.” In other words, it will only stay in force until the end of the transition period – which is less than eight months away. Once the transitional period ends, and the Dublin Treaty is no longer binding on the UK, there is no guarantee that unaccompanied minors will still be able to join their family members in the UK. Additionally, the pact only addresses unaccompanied children who qualify for family reunification. It does not satisfactorily deal with the relocation of other unaccompanied children stuck in Greece. In order to protect all children refugees adequately, relocation efforts for unaccompanied children in Greece’s refugee camps who do not have family members or relatives in the UK should be in addition to the UK’s pre-existing legal obligations under Dublin III. There is no mention of that in the Joint Action Plan.
The success of this particular flight was a result of intense advocacy by refugee families in the UK working with charities such as Safe Passage, a campaign group which fights for family reunification and two cross-party members of the House of Lords, Lord Alf Dubs (Labour) and the Earl of Dundee, a Conservative peer with responsibility for child refugees at the Council of Europe. Beth Gardiner-Smith, the CEO of the refugee charity Safe Passage International, said in a news release: “The British and Greek governments have shown real leadership in reuniting these families despite the travel difficulties.”
Let’s hope they keep doing so in the future.