Turk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, attends the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva
Volker Turk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, attends the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland February 27, 2023. Reuters

The United Nations human rights chief said on Tuesday he has formally conveyed his concerns over a new British migration law to the government, saying he was worried it would bar people from seeking asylum.

Stopping small boat arrivals across the Channel from France is a priority for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Illegal Migration Bill was approved by parliament's lower house in April.

If passed by the House of Lords, it would allow for the swift detention and deportation of those arriving in the boats back home or to so-called safe third countries such as Rwanda.

"We have very serious concerns from an international refugee law and from an international human rights law perspective, because it (the bill) would essentially bar people from seeking asylum in the UK if they come through a certain way," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in an interview in Geneva, adding that he had "formally raised" this with London last month.

It is the U.N. rights chief's job to communicate with governments on their perceived failings, but some rights experts told Reuters it is less common for Western democracies to receive formal rebukes.

A spokesperson at the British diplomatic mission in Geneva said: "We continue to engage with the High Commissioner on the Illegal Migration Bill," adding that it was confident that its policies, including the plan to deport migrants to Rwanda, were lawful and complied with a U.N. refugee convention.

Turk, a seasoned U.N. diplomat who worked for many years boosting refugee protections, said that anti-migrant laws and narratives were being perpetuated by wealthier countries even though they took in far fewer migrants and refugees than many poorer ones, naming Uganda and Bangladesh as examples.

"I don't understand how in the Global North when the numbers are much less, I mean significantly (less than in the Global South) ... there is all this kerfuffle about or hysteria about it when frankly, it shouldn't be the case," he said, calling instead for more action on people smugglers and promoting regular migration routes.

The legal rights of refugees are enshrined in a 1951 refugee convention, ratified by Britain and some 150 other countries.

"Now what I see is that framework is thrown to the wind," Turk added.

In the same interview, Turk said new U.S. migration rules would make it "very difficult" for people to seek asylum at the border. But he praised the administration of President Joe Biden for work on creating safe and regular pathways.

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesperson defended Biden's policies, saying the administration had created a new system that offered migrants "a far better alternative" than "putting their lives in the hands of criminal smugglers".

Austria's Turk, whose job it is to speak out against the backsliding of freedoms, became High Commissioner in October 2022. Since then, he has visited over a dozen countries including Sudan and Ukraine to review their rights records.

Asked about the Sudan conflict, he described as a "big worry" the prospect that the violence that began in the capital Khartoum last month could take on an "inter-ethnic dimension which would be terrible". He also said his office had begun receiving reports that human rights defenders were disappearing.