In March 2016 the French authorities began bulldozing the so-called Jungle migrant camp in Calais, northern France. The rationale was that it was the “humane” thing to do – an entirely nonsensical justification. Of course, no one wanted to live in the squalor of Europe’s largest slum; no one wanted it to be there. But there was nowhere else for the displaced people to go.
When I visited the camp during its demolition, I witnessed this false logic. Shipping containers erected by the French government as an alternative to the Jungle had limited space and were temporary, while people felt threatened by the requirements for personal information.
The brutal demolition of people’s last vestiges of safety simply encouraged them to make dangerous attempts to travel to the UK, or to flee – undocumented – into other parts of France and continental Europe.
It is this warped approach that Priti Patel is emulating in her latest attempt to grandstand as “tough” on migration. The Home Secretary wants to make it more difficult for asylum seekers to stay in the UK if they come via a route that isn’t encouraged by the British government – ie, if they cross the channel or stowaway on a lorry then this will count against their asylum claim.
Of course, no one wants to put themselves in this danger. The government does not want bodies washing up on the Kent coast, just as refugees would rather avoid that outcome. Stressing that “safe and legal” routes are a surer path to indefinite leave to remain in the UK may sound fair, but if such routes were possible beyond the government’s existing resettlement programmes then asylum seekers would already be using them. People take risks to make the journey to UK shores because they are desperate.
There are a number of safe and legal recourses to settlement in the UK that have been degraded by successive governments: the end of the “Dubs amendment” scheme to take in unaccompanied child migrants in 2017, and the abandoment of family reunification provisions for refugees in Europe this year, for example.
The 1951 UN Refugee Convention states that countries “shall not impose penalties” on refugees on account of their illegal entry or presence, provided they have good cause and present themselves to the authorities without delay.
“Often there is simply no way for people to become a refugee through regular means,” says Marley Morris, associate director and head of migration work at the IPPR think tank.
Indeed, all those years ago in Calais, refugees were stuck in a Catch-22: they could not officially apply for asylum in the UK until they reached the country, but the only way to do that was through illegal routes.
The Home Office would argue that people should settle in the first safe country they reach. But this not only ignores family ties, language barriers and poor responses in the countries people arrive in – it ignores that the UK has chosen via Brexit to leave the European scheme that made returning people to the continent possible.
“The UK used to be a world leader on refugee resettlement, resettling the third largest number of refugees after the US and Canada. Now we are barely in the footnotes,” says Tim Naor Hilton, interim CEO at Refugee Action. “The asylum system needs reform, but these are hard-hearted and cruel proposals. There is nothing ‘fair’ about them… Contrary to what the government claims, these proposals do nothing to strengthen safe routes for refugees.”
Faster and more competent processing of asylum claims (at the moment the backlog is eight times higher than a decade ago) and a system of humanitarian visas would be a more viable means of making it safer for people to enter the UK for asylum.
“Once again the Home Office is presenting us with many failed ideas and a false pretence of fundamental change. But don’t be fooled,” warns the Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen.
“The Home Secretary is clearly more concerned with appearing tough – regardless of admitting to a dreadful culture that continues to ignore the injustices and harms done to women, men and children who have suffered widespread denial of their human rights.”