Campaign groups laud NI Human Rights Commission for opening up a court fight against the Tories' Illegal Migration Act

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A string of Northern Irish campaign groups have praised efforts by the NI Human Rights Commission to combat a new law which seeks to curb ‘small boats’ immigration.

Alyson Kilpatrick, chief commissioner at the NIHCR, said she was going to fight the Illegal Migration Act on the grounds that it will “make it impossible for people who arrive in the UK irregularly to present as refugees”.

If successful, her efforts would deal a crushing blow to one of the UK government’s flagship pieces of law.

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The Committee for the Administration of Justice said it “welcomes and supports this challenge” – words echoed by the North-West Migrants Forum – while End Deportations Belfast called it “a necessary step”.

A small boat, pictured by PAA small boat, pictured by PA
A small boat, pictured by PA

Paddy Corrigan of Amnesty International NI likewise applauded the move, saying “disqualifying people’s asylum claims en masse, regardless of the strength of their case, is a blatant assault on international law”, and Dr Rebecca Stevenson of CARE (primarily an anti-abortion group) said the legal challenge “reflects the profound concerns raised by anti-trafficking and modern slavery organisations”.

The Illegal Migration Act became law in July.

In its own words, it exists to "prevent and deter unlawful migration, and in particular migration by unsafe and illegal routes, by requiring the removal from the UK of certain persons who enter or arrive in the UK in breach of immigration control".

They can be removed to their native countries or a third country.

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Among the act's clauses are ones barring anybody who is deemed "a threat to public order" from using anti-human trafficking laws to fight deportation;

Barring asylum claims from nationals of "safe states" (including, crucially, Albania);

And requiring the government to specify "the maximum number of persons who may enter the UK annually using safe and legal routes".

The law is linked to the government's "Rwanda plan": a policy of shipping illegal immigrants from the UK to that east African nation where they could apply to settle instead.

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That plan was meant to enter force in summer 2022, but stalled and was then ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal in June 2023, though the government is still hopeful of making it work.

From the start of 2018 to now, the government says about 105,000 people have entered the UK illegally on small boats (equivalent to roughly 0.16% of the UK population).

That is only the number of those who have been "detected"; there is obviously no estimate for how many have arrived unnoticed by sea or other routes.

It is the government's "longstanding principle that those in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach," and it argues that "irregular migration from those already in safe countries undermines efforts to help those most in need".

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In the last quarter, most of those taking small boats to Britain were from (in this order): Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran, Eritrea, Iraq, Syria, and Vietnam.

Many, but not all, then apply for asylum (refugee status), claiming persecution in their home nations.

Whilst the number of Albanians coming has dropped over the last several months, in the whole year to June 2023 Albanians were the top small-boat-arriving nationality applying for asylum, making up 24% of the total such claims.

This time last year, Home Office security advisor Dan O'Mahoney estimated that up to 2% of the entire male population of Albania (roughly 10,000 males) had arrived in the UK in small boats in the preceding 12 months. Several thousand more have arrived since then.

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Setting out her reasons for fighting the act, chief commissioner Ms Kilpatrick said: "We are concerned that the act will effectively make it impossible for people who arrive in the UK irregularly to present as refugees.

"Displaced people often face perilous journeys and are denied access to fundamental rights while trying to find safe pathways to protection.

"Safe and legal routes of migration are rarely available. This law further denies them basic protections."

She argues that the act breaches the European Convention of Human Rights, to which the UK remains a signatory despite Brexit, and the NI Protocol (which the commission confuses with the Windsor Framework – for example, making reference to ‘Article 2 of the Windsor Framework’, which does not exist; instead it means ‘Article 2 of the NI Protocol’).

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Article 2 of the Protocol commits the UK to ensure that Brexit will not lead to "any diminution of rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity" as set out in the Belfast Agreement.