The United Kingdom and France’s Dispute Regarding Asylum-Seekers

In September of 2021, Reuters documented the story of Mustafa Suleiman, a 21-year-old asylum-seeker fleeing from the ongoing Darfur conflict in Sudan. Suleiman stated that he “won’t be deterred [by] London’s threats to intercept boats illegally carrying migrants” from northern France to the United Kingdom (UK), stating that he had “no choice” but to do so. Suleiman is one of the thousands of asylum-seekers in this region, many of whom include “unaccompanied children,” according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). However, Suleiman, and many like him, face increasingly worsening conditions in France due to police brutality and the removal of pathways for achieving refugee status mentioned in UNHCR’s 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol. 

Asylum-seekers found in northern Europe are often escaping persecution based on political, sexual, and racial pressures, in addition to the threats of “war and famine.Euro News states that some of the nations generating many asylum-seekers include Iran, Albania, Eritrea, Sudan, and Iraq. Swathes of migrants have traversed throughout the European Union (EU) to reach France within the past five to six years. Migrants often go to northern French cities such as Calais, in the state of Pas-de-Calais, and Grande-Synthe, in Nord, which serve as a “launching point[s] to reach Britain.” Some migrants attempt to go to the UK from these cities by using small boats or paying smugglers, while others set up camps in France. Around 14,000 migrants are estimated to have crossed French-British aquatic channels in 2021. HRW states that camps in France, particularly in Calais, have grown to “2,000 people, including at least 300 unaccompanied children.” 

The UK has expressed criticism toward France for an “inept” response in preventing migrants from crossing the channels to Britain. Ongoing disputes between France and the UK regarding the influx of migrants have caused great tension. One reason for this problem stems from the consequences of Brexit. Due to the UK’s departure from the EU, UK policies are not obliged to align with “EU rules” that provide legitimacy to asylum-seeking claims. One example includes claims by unaccompanied migrant children seeking to join family members in another state. As a result of Brexit and its subsequent legal shifts, these minors seeking asylum in the UK are now unable to apply.

The UK has also received severe criticism from civil society groups and human rights organizations for its response to asylum-seeking groups. The Euro News writes that the British government announced plans to “turn back migrants crossing the English channel,” despite the hazardous travel conditions. For instance, BBC reports that in 2019, the most common cause of “migrant death” was drowning, with an estimated 17,480 people dying due to incredibly dangerous water travel. Asylum-seekers also travel by sneaking onto trucks or lorries. BBC reported another incident in 2019 where “39 people [were] found dead in a lorry container in Essex.” Many speculated that these were asylum-seekers. Britain’s recent response to returning asylum-seekers poses an immense threat to migrants’ safety and well-being. Despite receiving the fewest asylum claims compared to other European countries, Britain must reconsider its policies on asylum seekers’ human rights, given its status as a destination nation for many migrants.   

Like Britain, France’s response to migrant activity has come under scrutiny. Refugee encampments in Calais have turned into destitute living environments with little access to needed resources. Inhabitants of these encampments have reported instances of police violence and maltreatment at the hands of French officers. These conditions are outlined in a 79-page report released by the HRW on October 7, 2021, called “Enforced Misery: The degrading treatment of migrant children and adults in northern France.” This report documents the treatment of asylum-seekers approximately five years after “French authorities” first attempted to “dismantle” this site in 2016

HRW’s report draws on observations made by human rights groups such as Human Rights Observers (HRO) and Utopia 56, who have pointed to inhumane practices by the French police. The report states that the police habitually held “mass eviction operations” where they seized thousands of “tents, tarps [and] hundreds of sleeping bags and blankets” to deter migrants from staying. According to accounts given by roughly 60 migrants, there were common occurrences of “police harassment” and government inaction in providing necessary support, such as housing or food. Human rights groups also argue that government services are failing the needs of women and young girls, who receive no hygienic products for menstruation.

Similarly, NGO groups have expressed frustrations with police, who regularly enforce local “restrictions” on providing humanitarian assistance in the form of food and water distributions at migrants’ campsites. These organizations mention that journalists and activists are actively barred from visually documenting police harassment in camps, further limiting accountability. Ultimately, more effective strategies need to be implemented to protect the human rights of asylum seekers and hold the perpetrators of such abuse accountable. 

As signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, both the United Kingdom and France have the responsibility to uphold the safety and interests of asylum-seekers. However, this Convention, alongside its 1967 Protocol, has certain limitations. These limiting clauses are found in Article 9, which states that “provisional measures” can be taken should asylum-seekers undermine “national security.” Furthermore, countries have the power to contest that they do not have the “obligation” to support migrants, making these populations more vulnerable.

HRW’s recent report posits some helpful and thorough recommendations for France regarding asylum-seekers in its northern region. First, HRW proposes that, in addition to legal assistance, adult and child migrants be provided with temporary housing and food provisions, especially during winters. Additionally, the HRW supports the United Nations Rapporteur’s suggestion of allowing local NGOs to keep police accountable through observations and visual documentation of harassment. Lastly, HRW recommends that the practice of local ordinances stripping migrants of personal possessions, such as their tents and blankets, must be stopped immediately. 

HRW also provides ways for the United Kingdom to address its migrant issues. First, the UK must “create safe and legal means for migrants” to enter, instead of refusing claims or criminalizing migrants upon entry into Britain. Another recommendation involves reforming domestic law that prevents asylum-seeking unaccompanied minors from reuniting with relatives in Britain. These legal reforms can serve as a baseline effort in committing to the safety and interests of asylum-seekers. 

The migrant situation in France and Britain is just one example of a much broader global issue. Though France and Britain are the focal points of this article, we as an international community must remain vigilant about the preservation of the human rights of migrants and asylum-seekers wherever they may be. This vigilance must take the form of pushing for fair legal processes and effective accountability measures guiding police conduct.



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