UK and Scottish Parliaments must challenge Illegal Migration Bill, warns Children’s Commissioner

Bill is a clear breach of human rights obligations

Commissioner, Bruce Adamson responds to the introduction of the UK Government’s Illegal Migration Bill

“Human rights are universal. They apply to all without exception. Children are entitled to additional protections under international law to take account of their vulnerability and the imbalance of power between them and the State. The UK Government must not remove rights protections from children and families in vulnerable circumstances, including by seeking to disapply the courts from interpreting this piece of legislation in line with the European Convention on Human Rights.  

The UK is required to ensure that children seeking refugee status receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance, under Article 22 of UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UNCRC also requires the UK to ensure that children are protected from exploitation and abuse, and afforded support for recovery. This Bill violates those obligations and many others. Its enactment would place the UK in clear breach of its international law obligations under a range of human rights treaties.  

As the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency states, this Bill extinguishes the right to seek protection for refugees who arrive irregularly “no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances”.  

It is unacceptable that the Home Secretary seeks to blame and punish children and families in vulnerable circumstances for the consequences of decisions made by herself and her predecessors, including the ever-growing asylum backlog, and abhorrent use of hotel accommodation. The lack of safe and legal routes has resulted in refugees and asylum-seekers being forced into dangerous crossings and into the hands of criminal gangs. It will be equally unacceptable should the Home Secretary seek to blame lawyers or the courts when this Bill does not resolve any of the issues about which she is supposedly concerned.  

Parliamentarians must play their part in challenging this Bill, so it is not enacted. Parliamentarians in both Scotland and the UK are human rights guarantors, and an important part of their function is to ensure that the State complies with its human rights obligations, particularly when seeking to pass legislation. The UK Government’s inability to confirm that the Bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights obliges MPs to vote against it. 

It is also incumbent on Parliamentarians to challenge when degrading or dangerous language is used when talking about refugees and asylum-seeking people. The Home Secretary has been warned repeatedly that the language she has used, and which she continued to use in Parliament yesterday, recklessly places children at risk of harm by emboldening and encouraging far-right extremists.  

This Bill treats refugee and asylum-seeking children and young people as undesirable lawbreakers, as drains on local resources, and with less entitlement to human rights than other children.  

This is simply wrong. They are children. They are not illegal. Their rights must not be diminished.  

And in stark contrast to how the Home Secretary describes them, refugee and asylum-seeking young people talk to us passionately about their desire to belong, their commitment to contribute to their local community, and the pride they take in becoming full and valued members of Scotland’s society.  

This Bill will negatively impact directly on refugee and asylum-seeking children in Scotland, and on the powers and duties of the Scottish Government, local authorities, and other public bodies under devolved legislation. MSPs must withhold legislative consent when this comes before the Scottish Parliament. This attempt by the UK Government to undermine human rights protections must be challenged.  

Children’s rights need stronger protection in law, not further erosion. Scotland has made commitments to strengthen human rights protections but has not yet delivered. After 18 months of delay, the Scottish Government must bring the UNCRC Bill back to the Scottish Parliament for reconsideration as a matter of urgency and commit to immediate commencement.  

Children who have been trafficked are entitled to protection and support to aid recovery. Removing those who arrive in the UK through irregular means from the scope of these protections will condemn thousands of children to criminal exploitation and will play directly into the hands of serious organised crime gangs. It violates the State’s obligations under both the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the UNCRC.  

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children must be made looked after by a local authority as soon as they arrive in the UK and the necessary resource to ensure equal treatment with other looked after children must be provided by the UK Government. The Home Office’s history of neglect renders it an unfit parent for vulnerable children.  

The detention of refugee and asylum-seeking children and their families is entirely unacceptable. During the tenure of our first Children and Young People’s Commissioner, Professor Kathleen Marshall, Scotland refused to tolerate Home Office detention of children in Dungavel detention centre. Over 18 years later, the time span of a whole childhood, I am appalled at the prospect of these barbaric practices returning.” 

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