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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Brexit has led to more dangerous migrant crossings, its time to stop the lies and save lives

By Anna Noble

One of the biggest influences on voter behaviour in the 2016 Brexit referendum was immigration. The Vote Leave campaign and the likes of UKIP promised that without the EU’s lurking presence, the UK would be able to limit the amount of people seeking asylum in the UK. Therefore, it is with a great sense of irony that as widely predicted by legal experts before the referendum, in fact the opposite is true.

In reality, leaving the EU has opened up the legal opportunities for people to seek asylum in the UK. We are no longer a part of the EU’s common asylum system and “Dublin arrangements” whereby refugees could only seek asylum in one EU nation, and we could return refugees to the first ‘safe’ country they entered through. Instead, the government has had to resort to paying France £54 million[1] to help combat Channel crossings.

So far this appears to be unsuccessful. Last year alone more than 28,000[2] asylum seekers crossed the English Channel in small boats and November saw the worst disaster in the English Channel on record (UN migration agency IOM, began recording data in 2014), whereby at least 27 people tragically drowned in the English Channel.

It is important to remember that no one is making such dangerous journeys for fun. These are people fleeing conflict, poverty, and persecution, and need our help. Yet, we have been informed by sections of the media and our government, to believe they are dangerous, illegal, invaders.

The government has repeatedly lied on the topic of immigration. Priti Patel has stated that those seeking asylum are illegal immigrants, yet the Refugee Convention 1951 which the UK is a party to, gives every person the legal right to enter and apply for asylum in any country which is party to the convention. Sajid Javid claimed last year that the UK takes in the highest number of refugees in Europe, having accepted over 25,000 since 2015, this is blatantly false. Germany, in this period has accepted over one million refugees, in fact the UK is 17th[3] in the list of countries who have accepted the most refugees. Priti Patel and co have also argued that refugees legally should stay in the first ‘safe’ country they arrive in (something which is not a requirement of international law, nor UK law since we left the EU and Dublin conventions).

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard spoke in the House of Lords to directly challenge this narrative. He started by dispelling the notion that refugee numbers were the highest ever, reminding us all that they were actually “running at half of what they were twenty years ago” and that the UK was not in fact “the preferred destinated in Europe, we are in fact well down the list”. He also pointed out that whilst the number of people crossing the Channel attempting to get to the UK in small boats has risen, this is a direct consequence of official safe routes to claim asylum are shut, or no longer exist. He cited the Syrian scheme having closed and speaking to the fact that as of, yet we do not have a scheme to help those fleeing Afghanistan. Lord Kerr continued that the largest percentage of people arriving from small boats in the past 18 months were of Iranian nationality - 3,187, in the same period only “one Iranian got in by the official route”- not one person successfully managed to use the official routes to asylum from Yemen despite the civil war and famine raging in the country. His point, people are crossing in small boats and being exploited by people smugglers, because the government have failed in their obligations under international law to provide safe routes.

Finally, he responded to Priti Patel’s claims that 70% of those making the perilous crossing of the Channel were “economic migrants not genuine asylum seekers” stating “that is plainly not true” and the Home Offices own statistics show “out of the top 10 nationalities arriving in small boats, virtually all claim asylum, 61% are granted it and 59% of the rest are on appeal” and that the top four countries people come from are Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria thus are fleeing “persecution and destitution”. Lord Kerr closes his speech that unless the government provides safe routes for asylum they are “complicit with the people smugglers”.

Channel crossings are dangerous and do need to be stopped but Patel’s proposed Nationality and Borders Bill, which would criminalise those seeking asylum for entering the country illegally (provisions that have been criticised internationally including by the UN) is not the way forward. Whilst more action should be taken to combat people smugglers, we must also act to combat the need for people smugglers and dangerous Channel crossings by creating more accessible safe routes for refugees, who are in desperate need of our help. The UK has an international obligation to house refugees and above all else we should want to. After all what separates any one of us from refugees is luck alone, if our luck were to change, we too would hope other countries would help us.


[1] R. Syal et al. ‘UK and France reach arrangement to prevent 100% of Channel crossings’ The Guardian, 15th November 2021. [2] BBC News, ‘Channel migrants: Crossing numbers in 2021 triple 2020s figure.’ 5th January 2022. [3] S. Sodha, ‘Asylum in the UK: the key numbers.’ The Guardian 27th November 2021.

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