Migrant Crisis: They Could Be Turned Back in...
At least 27 people died on the 25th November, after a boat sank while attempting to cross the English Channel from France. Among those who drowned were three children, seven women – including a pregnant woman – and 17 men, in what has been named the biggest loss of life in the Channel since records began. The tragedy has sparked an outpouring of concern and anger about the issue.
According to the UN, ever-increasing numbers of people are attempting the journey in small, unseaworthy boats as they flee conflict or poverty or persecution in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea and elsewhere. According to the International Organization for Migration, since 2014, 166 migrants have been recorded dead or missing in the English Channel and 22,930 have been recorded dead or missing in the Mediterranean Sea. UNHCR says since the start of the year, well over 31,000 have attempted the dangerous crossing between France and the UK and 7,800 people have been rescued at sea.
Among the UN’s recommendations to States to prevent further tragedies, UNHCR has reiterated the importance of continuing to raise awareness of the risks posed by sea crossings and of the false information given by smugglers who exploit the distress of children, women and men who have left their home countries. The development of legal and secure channels such as family reunification visas is crucially important to ensure the safety of migrants, the UN agency insisted.
Can migrants be sent back to France?
Under international law, people have the right to seek asylum in any country they arrive in. They don't have to seek asylum in the first safe country reached. However, an EU-wide law called Dublin III, allows asylum seekers to be sent back to the first member state they were proven to have entered. Between 1 January 2019 and 1 October 2020, 231 migrants who crossed the Channel were returned to mainland Europe using Dublin III. However, the UK is no longer part of this arrangement since leaving the European Union. The UK has not agreed a scheme to replace it, making the transfer of migrants more difficult.
Could migrants in the Channel be pushed back?
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary of the UK, has authorised Border Force officials to turn back boats carrying migrants to the UK in limited circumstances. The UNHCR has criticised the bill, saying it “would penalise most refugees seeking asylum in the country, creating an asylum model that undermines established international refugee protection rules”. Also France is strongly against the plan, saying it breaks maritime law and accusing the UK of blackmail.
"Push back at sea" is a tactic that is used in Australia. However, France has not co-operated with the UK's approach. As soon as the boats leave French waters - which the UK authorities cannot enter without France's consent - and enter the UK's, they are subject to the protection of UK law, says Prof Andrew Serdy, a maritime law expert. "If France doesn't want to take them back once they have left, it cannot be forced to do so and a stand-off ensues." A boat can also only be pushed back if it's clear that doing so won't endanger lives, which could be difficult to prove with a small dinghy.
Is it illegal for migrants to cross the English Channel?
There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker, and it is not illegal to enter the UK to claim asylum. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country. The UN Refugee Convention also recognises people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means to escape and claim asylum in another country, and they cannot be penalised for doing so. It is also a requirement under International Maritime Law for states to rescue people in trouble at sea. What is illegal is people smuggling.
However, thanks to 30 years of anti-asylum measures taken by successive governments, Britain is already an overwhelmingly hostile place for asylum seekers. Those fleeing persecution and torture are forced to subsist on less than £5.50 a day – less than in France – and are not allowed to work while their claims are being processed, unlike in many other countries, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation by criminals. They are often housed in damp, dirty and vermin-infested conditions or disused army barracks. Many are trapped in this limbo for years thanks to long delays in the system. Unaccompanied and traumatised children are put up in hotels in Kent with virtually no adult care or supervision.
Europe is a popular destination for asylum seekers, though there are more than 26.2 million refugees around the world and 85 per cent of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. Also, despite the fact that some British authorities believe their country is the most popular destination for those immigrants, the UK receives less than half of the asylum applications which other wealthier countries get.
Patel gives the impression that there is an escalating crisis in terms of the numbers of people arriving in the UK and trying to illegitimately claim refuge. This is not true. There is absolutely a crisis for asylum seekers trying to reach British shores by making the treacherous Channel crossing in small boats and dinghies. The British government should be doing all it can to clamp down on the people traffickers making a fortune by charging desperate people to attempt the crossing. But the number of people coming to the UK to claim asylum fell by 4% last year and stands at less than half what it was in the early 2000s. The UK received 25,903 asylum applications in the year leading up to March 2021 – a small percentage of the global refugee number, which is much less than other European countries of similar wealth – over the same period Germany had 122,015 applicants, and France had 93,475.
Humanitarian groups like Amnesty International and the Refugee Council have called for the UK to provide safe and legal routes for migrants to travel to the UK.