A Sudanese boy was found dead off the coast of Calais, Northern France last Wednesday. Abdulfatah Hamdallah had reportedly attempted to cross the English Channel in an inflatable dinghy with shovels for oars in a bid for asylum. His death is a pertinent reminder of the deadly nature of the United Kingdom’s border policies.
To make an asylum claim in the U.K., one must physically be in the country. However, there is a total lack of safe, legal routes to reach the U.K. for the purpose of seeking asylum. As a result, displaced people are left with no choice but to risk their lives to make the journey. This commonly entails crossing the Channel in immensely overcrowded and ill-equipped dinghies. To arrange passage even on these, the displaced must pay large sums to people smugglers.
The Human Cost of Hostile Policy
Hostile border policies are compounded by anti-refugee sentiment festered in and spread by the British government. Last week, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced plans to make channel crossings “unviable” by sending navy warships into the Channel. These ships would be placed to intercept asylum seekers attempting to make the crossing. Pushbacks in this form would display a blatant departure from the U.K.’s obligations regarding asylum under international law as well as a glaring disregard for human life.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration have expressed that they were “troubled” by these proposals. The organizations stated that the numbers of those crossing the channel “remain low and manageable,” continuing: “People forced by wars and persecution to flee their homes and people on the move frequently embark on risky journeys in many parts of the world. Saving lives should be the first priority – both on land and at sea.”
As a further response to this alarming development, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants published a briefing which expressed the urgent need to create safe and legal routes of passage to the U.K. The Council highlighted the danger posed by employing the Royal Navy to intervene in the asylum process, writing that pushing back boats aiming to reach the British shores would be a clear breach of both international refugee and maritime law.
The only way to stop channel crossings is through the establishment of safe and legal routes of passage. Carrying out pushbacks through navy vessels will only serve to exacerbate the crossing’s danger. If this proposal is enacted, we will inevitably see the number of lives lost increase.
Is the U.K. Experiencing a “Migrant Crisis”?
The discourse the British government is spreading surrounding the channel crossings is simultaneously dangerous and divorced from reality. Priti Patel is only one of the British politicians calling the number of illegal crossings “appalling.” This deliberate fearmongering has created the widespread public perception that the U.K. is being “invaded” by “illegal migrants.” This notion is blatantly inaccurate. The United Kingdom hosts less than 0.5% of the global refugee population of 29.6 million, with developing nations hosting 85%. Additionally, only an approximate 4,000 asylum seekers have made the journey across the channel thus far in 2020.
These numbers do not align with claims that the U.K. is being overwhelmed by a “migrant crisis.” When compared with other European states, the U.K. clearly sits far below the European average in terms of asylum claims. According to the Commons Library, in 2019, the United Kingdom received 35,566 asylum applications. That makes around five asylum applications for every 10,000 residents in the U.K. Meanwhile, Germany received 142,500 applications, France received 123,900, and Spain received 118,300. Across E.U. countries, there were 14 asylum applications for every 10,000 residents. The perception that the U.K is experiencing a continuous “influx” of displaced people is therefore misguided. In reality, the country should step up its response.
Are These Channel Crossings Illegal?
Further misinformation is spread by the British government’s insistence that the channel crossings are illegal. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently described the crossings as a “very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do” – a comment which is completely fallacious. Under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is a fundamental human right to seek asylum. The 1951 Refugee Convention further establishes that refugees are not required to make an asylum claim in the first country they reach. As such, the fact that an asylum seeker has passed through other “safe” countries before reaching the U.K. does not render their claim invalid.
Asylum seekers have the intrinsic right to seek safety in any country. Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention establishes that refugees cannot be penalized for entering a country “illegally” if they are making an asylum claim. Therefore, channel crossings cannot be described as “illegal” when those crossing are seeking asylum and have been left without a viable alternative. There is a fundamental distinction between refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants. Boris Johnson has claimed that “[i]f you come to the U.K illegally, you are an illegal migrant.” This comment does not reflect reality. Those crossing the channel have primarily been forcibly displaced from their country of origin and seek to claim asylum in the U.K. As has been well established in international law, there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker.
In the words of Maddy Allen, field manager at Northern France-based charity Help Refugees: “It is immensely sad to know that whilst the refugees see the U.K. as a beacon of hope, freedom and justice, the government plays its populist card by presenting people as an invading threat.”
How many more needless, preventable deaths are required until safe and legal routes of passage are implemented? In the absence of these routes, entirely preventable loss of life will only continue. Despite what British politicians and media would have the public believe, asylum seekers attempting to reach the U.K. cannot be deemed a “crisis.” The only crisis we are seeing is that those seeking safety are losing their lives directly at the hands of the British government and its deeply inhumane border policies. There is no “migrant crisis.” What we are seeing is a crisis of empathy and human solidarity.
Seeking asylum is a fundamental human right. The irrefutable reality is that as long as there exists conflict to drive people from their homes, those forced to flee will continue to seek asylum in other countries. No amount of hostile policy or increased border security can change this. This latest tragedy on the U.K. border highlights the dire need for safe and legal routes of passage. Until this occurs, entirely preventable loss of life will only continue, and the British government will remain firmly complicit.
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