The United Nations’ refugee agency has said UK government plans to expand a jointly run resettlement scheme for people seeking refuge in Britain are “not a substitute for the right to seek asylum”.
As government sources confirmed that Suella Braverman, the home secretary, hopes to extend a joint UNHCR programme as an alternative to opening “safe and legal routes” for asylum seekers coming to the UK, the UN body urged ministers to commit to alternative schemes.
Braverman defended the government’s record for accepting asylum seekers by referring on Wednesday to its successful partnership with the UNHCR.
There has been international criticism of the government’s latest asylum plans. The government said a bill published on Tuesday proposing an annual cap on the number of people entering via safe routes – to be set by parliament – would “ensure an orderly system”.
In a statement to the Guardian, the UK office of the UNHCR, the internationally recognised and UN mandated agency for dealing with refugees, said: “UNHCR’s resettlement programme with the UK is a lifesaving but severely limited pathway for the most vulnerable refugees to permanently settle and rebuild their lives in the UK. Resettlement is the exception, available to fewer than 1% of refugees worldwide.
“While we welcome the bill’s provision for resettlement to the UK, and would encourage that this be solidified as a commitment, rather than a cap, it is not a substitute for the right to seek asylum, which is why we continue to advocate so strongly for that fundamental right to be upheld.”
According to Home Office documents, the government works closely with the UNHCR to identify people living in formal refugee camps, informal settlements and host communities who would benefit most from resettlement to the UK.
“Our approach is to resettle refugees in line with the global need identified by UNHCR, typically from countries hosting large populations of refugees such as those bordering countries with conflicts, where resettlement may be the only durable solution. This provides refugees with a safe and legal route to the UK,” the department said.
A government source said the Home Office plans to extend the UNHCR resettlement scheme as an alternative to establishing other routes for asylum seekers. This expansion will only happen once small boats have been stopped from crossing the Channel, the source said.
Figures obtained by the Refugee Council show that 1,185 people arrived in the UK under the UN resettlement scheme last year, compared with 5,612 in 2019, before Covid.
The charity’s analysis shows that 3,594 Iranians crossed the Channel in small boats last year and just 10 Iranians were resettled in the UK. For Syrians the figures were 2,191 and 569, and for Eritreans it was 1,509 and 10.
Braverman was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme how an orphaned 16-year-old boy escaping religious persecution in Africa and who has a sibling in the UK could apply for asylum.
She replied: “Nearly 500,000 people in recent years alone have come here lawfully. We also have other schemes. We work with UNHCR around the world whereby people who are fleeing those kinds of circumstances can apply for humanitarian protection in the United Kingdom.”
The UNHCR said the government should consider alternative programmes to bring refugees into the UK, similar to schemes set up for Afghans and Ukrainians.
“Unique schemes currently exist for a certain number of both Afghan and Ukrainian refugees to come directly to the UK to access protection in particular circumstances. No other nationalities are able to lodge a claim for asylum in the UK unless they physically arrive in the country. There is no ‘asylum visa’,” the statement said.
Only 22 Afghan people, including eight children, have been resettled in the UK under a government scheme that promised to help vulnerable refugees. The number of Afghan nationals arriving in the UK on small boats rose to 8,633 last year – a sixfold increase on 2021.
More than 233,000 people have been granted visas under the Ukraine scheme, of which at least 154,500 have arrived in the UK, the Home Office said.