Earlier this week Rasoul Iran-Nejad, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, Anita and Armin drowned in the English Channel, attempting to cross from France in order to seek asylum from Iran.
Home secretary Priti Patel issued a statement.
“I am truly saddened to learn of the tragic loss of life in French waters this morning. My thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones at this time… This tragic news highlights the dangers that come with crossing the Channel and I will do everything I can to stop callous criminals exploiting vulnerable people.”
There is a political and policy response to this, but first lets pause and remember 4 people -two adults and 2 children, dead. Underlying all of this is a human tragedy.
I’m sure Priti Patel genuinely mourns them too. She’s no cartoon monster. This tragedy, to an extent, demonstrates the broken asylum and immigration system that she has often spoken of. She has committed to making the channel crossing route unviable. No sane person can argue that the route that claimed those 4 lives should be encouraged. No one with an ounce of humanity can advocate on behalf of people traffickers making fortunes from misery and death. So how should we respond? How should we make it unviable?
First we have to be clear what exactly the problem is, because there are two very different ways of framing it. One aims to find safe ways for people to have a claim for asylum assessed. The other suggests that the act of coming to the UK to seek asylum (perhaps other than via a resettlement scheme) is inherently wrong. Unsurprisingly I take the former view. People who take the latter view might be dyed-in-the-wool racists, wanting to keep all foreigners out at all costs, but they are more likely to be concerned that Britain is being overwhelmed by asylum seekers and that we are taking ‘more than our fair share’ of the worlds refugees. I think they’re wrong and explain why here including an analysis of the numbers https://darkenedroomweb.wordpress.com/2020/08/10/gunboats/.
Britain, as the Home Office frequently tell us, has a proud tradition of asylum. So how does such a tragedy come about? Are people simply accessing the asylum system in the wrong way? Trying to ‘jump the queue’?
So how does the queue work? What are the routes to claim asylum in the UK
Firstly there are refugee resettlement schemes. ‘Mandate’, ‘Gateway’, the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme and the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme. (The latter 3 are due to be combined into a single scheme). They work with UNHCR to select people from refugee camps and bring them into the UK. They bring about 5000 per year to the UK, or they did until they were all halted in spring 2020 due to Covid-19. When business and holiday traffic was resumed, resettlement wasn’t and there is no date for resumption. These are great schemes, but the numbers are small. There are 26 Million refugees in the world, mainly in camps, among 79.5M people of concern to the UNHCR (most of the rest are in displacement camps in their own countries). Last year just over 35,000 people claimed asylum in the UK (compared to 154,000 in France). Resettlement is great but it’s very niche even when it’s not suspended.
Then there is the Dubs scheme. Alf Dubs is a genuine hero. Look him up if you want to find someone British you can be proud of. As a result of his and other’s efforts a scheme was introduced to allow unaccompanied asylum seeking children in Europe who have close relatives in Britain. This route was, however, closed down in 2017.
Other than these schemes, there is a general principle of refugee law. You cannot claim asylum in a country unless you are in it. And you can claim asylum wherever you feel safe. Contrary to popular belief it doesn’t have to be the first safe country you enter. There are quite complex rules which say you can be transferred to another European country for your asylum claim to be considered in certain circumstances (called Dublin 3). If you are going to talk about the Dublin conventions in this context, read up on them first. You can do that here. https://ukandeu.ac.uk/the-dublin-regulation-an-overview/
You cannot get a visa to claim asylum. So to get to the UK in order to exercise your claim on our ‘proud tradition of asylum’ it has to be initially by some other means. A tourist or student visa, real or forged, or an attempt to enter the country without a visa – such as the channel route. A route that is now being patrolled by gunboats.
And this is the heart of the problem. If you are not in the UK there is currently no way of claiming asylum without doing something that at least seems to be in some way ‘illegitimate’. Either you are using false documents, or using real documents but you’re substantive reason for entering the UK is not that stated on them, or you are trying to enter without documents. There are no alternatives. And of course, all of these are used by some politicians and some press to cast doubt on the legitimacy of those claiming asylum. These are not ‘real’ asylum seekers – they are ‘illegals’. I is worth noting that last year well over half of the people who claimed asylum in the UK were recognised as refugees – that is to say the Home Office or the courts agreed that they had a ‘well founded fear of persecution’ if forced to return.
And so back to the boats. Where there is no legal means of obtaining safety people will, in desperation, find other means. Where people are desperate, bad people will find a way of turning that desperation into money. You can argue whether it is smuggling or trafficking (like in anything, informed consent is not just a detail) but either way it is deadly. The only way to end it, to make this route unviable, is to provide a legitimate, controlled alternative. A way for people to say ‘I believe my life is in danger in my own country. Please look at my case and, if you believe me, let me build a new life here’.
Is that too much to ask?