James Brokenshire, until the dissolution of Parliament last week the Minister of Immigration [EDIT: I am reliably informed that he is still the Minister – thanks go to Alison Harvey!], has confirmed that the recent tightening of policy on granting British citizenship was not aimed at refugees. The change of policy was covered in January here on Free Movement: Good character citizenship criteria quietly tightened up. In short the good character requirements for naturalising as a British citizen were changed to penalise various breaches of immigration controls and prevent them qualifying for 10 years from when the breach occurred.
This appeared to be very bad news for refugees, who have no legal means of reaching the UK.
Brokenshire’s letter refers to the introduction of a general bar to meeting the good character requirement for a period of 10 years from committing an illegal entry and then goes on:
The instruction is that applications should “normally” be refused as there will, of course, be circumstances where it would not be appropriate to do so. One such example is where an individual enters the UK illegally, but is subsequently granted refugee status. Section 31 of the immigration and Asylum Act 1999 Act and Article 31 of the Refugee Convention provide a defence against prosecution for certain offences committed prior to a grant of Refugee Status where the individual showed good cause for his illegal entry or presence and brought themselves to the attention of the authorities without delay.
Similarly, where an individual enters clandestinely, but presents themselves to the authorities within a reasonable time period and has their asylum claim accepted, an application will not be refused solely on the grounds of the initial illegal entry.
The letter goes on to confirm that the change was indeed made as a direct consequence of John Vine’s December 2014 report:
As a result, swift action was taken and we set out clearer guidance to decision makers on what is considered ‘good character’ and how to take into account periods of non-compliance with our Immigration Rules when making decisions.
The letter will come as comfort to refugees, their families and those working with them. Many thanks to one of the latter, Jim Holloway, who took the time to explore this further and for sharing the results with me.