Immigration minister Phil Woolas, who recently attacked lawyers and human rights groups for helping asylum seekers claim justice, wants a ‘revision’ of the international convention on refugees – which campaigners fear means weakening it significantly.
Mr Woolas, who also criticised courts for backing asylum appeals, says the current convention – considered a cornerstone of global human rights – leads to “abuse of the asylum system.”
But critics, including refugee and church organisations, say that the government is allowing its agenda to be set by tabloid fear-mongering and that the convention on refugees needs broadening, not narrowing.
Mr Woolas says he wants to start a debate about the 58-year-old convention, which enshrines individuals' rights to asylum from state persecution.
But the Rev Vaughan Jones, who heads up the multi-agency organisation Praxis, which works with displaced people, said in response to the minister’s latest remarks that positive change is needed, not more attempts to restrict the rights of vulnerable people.
The Praxis CEO said: “The Geneva Convention on refugees needs to be broadened rather than narrowed in its scope. However many of those with greatest understanding of the challenges involved mistrust the motivation of politicians calling for this ‘debate’ and fear a downgrading of the convention’s noble achievement.”
Mr Jones, who is also a United Reformed Church minister and an Ekklesia associate, explained: “The Geneva Convention on refugees is limited in its scope and definition. It does not take into account many of the realities of modern conflict or the causes of forced migration. When civilian populations, as in Gaza, are targeted indiscriminately or mass violence erupts as in Rwanda or the Congo, then many of the people with no alternative but to leave their homes may not technically be refugees under the convention’s definition. As climate change becomes an increasing cause of displacement, the convention as it currently stands will play no part in protecting environmental refugees. These are the challenges that need to be faced.”
But the government’s agenda appears to be further restrictions. In the past, when he was home secretary, Jack Straw proposed that people should apply for asylum from within the countries they were fleeing or from neighbouring states. This kind of approach is being backed by Mr Woolas.
Those working with vulnerable applicants say that it is fantasy and delusion to think those suffering persecution can apply for asylum from the country they are trying to escape.
Mr Woolas declared on BBC Radio 4: “The Geneva convention was intended to protect individual people from persecution. A significant number of people who claim asylum are doing so for broadly economic reasons. So I think it is right we look at the framework, as indeed other European countries are doing.”
But Vaughan Jones of Praxis responded: “Mr Woolas is wrong to link the convention to the ‘threat’ of economic migration. If the UK government were to sign up to the International Convention on the Rights of the Migrants then we would have a rounded human rights approach in law for both migrants and refugees.”
“However, it might be worth noting the inconsistencies,” he added. “The threat of economic migration lies in ending it. If the British public (and the government) want to keep pushing prices down, then they will have to live with economic migration.”
Clothing company Primark is currently being investigated for allegedly producing cheap clothes by using ‘illegal’ labour and paying below-legal wages. It denies this.
But campaigners point out that the government seems unwilling either to regularise overseas workers or to increase and enforce decent minimum wages.
An ethical trading campaigner told Ekklesia: “Cheap clothes have to be paid for by someone. At the moment the real price is being paid by workers in virtual sweatshops. We either try to keep migrant workers out or we allow them to be treated inhumanly - the worst of both worlds.”
Woolas made his remarks about the Geneva convention on refugees on the BBC 's Beyond Westminster programme, which also presented unchallenged viewpoints from an anti-immigration campaigner and a spokesperson for the BNP, alongside a three-way discussion among the main party representatives.