Late March 2021 saw the true veil of Brexit autonomy lift and the reveal of the UK’s anti-migration rhetoric in all its glory. Those fleeing from war and persecution who take illegal routes of entry to the UK, either by sea or land, are not deemed as “genuine” claims, according to the UK’s Home Secretary, and have no place in the UK.
Arriving without a visa to the ex-EU member state with the aspiration of applying for asylum could put many asylum seekers at great risk. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, announced that definite removal will be imposed on asylum seekers opting for illegal entry. Those who do manage to deposit an application can risk having their claim dismissed as inadmissible or if accepted, they will face severe limits on employment, governmental welfare and family reunification, which is particularly problematic for minors travelling alone. On the contrary, those who reach the UK within legal means could benefit from indefinite leave to remain.
According to the Home Secretary, to reach the UK by illegal routes, one must travel through another “safe country” wherein an asylum application could have been made, it is thus deemed illegitimate that the UK must face the burden of examining the claim when one was already in a safe country. Furthermore, the UK government want to crack down on smuggling and human trafficking, obligating visas and legitimate points of entry would therefore reduce the role of such groups in asylum procedures.
This proposal has generated a large amount of concern among international spectators, namely the UNHCR, who consider this decision to be a violation of international law. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for instance, guarantees an individual’s right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries.
It is not very clear how the UK plans to send back asylum seekers who enter the country without visas. As the UK has left the EU, to send claimants back to a European country, an agreement must be made by the two parties involved. The only other solution, in the instance where there is no accord, would be forcibly sending claimants back to their home country which is forbidden under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol non-refoulment principle in cases where an individual would face the risk of persecution or death.
The Home Secretary defended its proposal, assuring that international standards and conventions of human rights are being respected, despite evidence pointing otherwise. She also called upon Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention that states punishment against an asylum seeker or refugee is only banned if they come directly from a territory where they were threatened, present themselves without delay, and have good reasons for entry, which would not be the case if being sent back to a European country.
Patel seems to heavily rely on the Dublin regulation in her discourse, a regulation that only applies to EU countries. This EU treaty outlines that a claimant must apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter, but as is the case with many procedures and treaties, it has not taken into account the catastrophic effects of such a rule, which has led to a disastrous overburdening in countries that act as entry points for claimants, such as Italy, Greece, and Malta. The goal of the Dublin regulation is to limit dual applications in two or more European countries, thus in a broader interpretation, it only applies when an individual has already made an application in another country and then tries to come to the UK. As developed by the UNHCR, Article 31 only refers to refugees who had already settled in another country and then moved for personal convenience.
With the breaking of the EU chains, the UK seems to be set in its vision to rid itself of the seemingly European problem of refugees and asylum seekers. Yet, despite there no longer being a common treaty connecting the UK and the EU, that doesn’t mean that strong relations aren’t important. Seeing migration as “their problem” can have dire consequences. Patel has stated that the UK can’t help everyone, which is completely the wrong card to play as they have not been such a prominent player in welcoming asylum seekers in any case, not when we compare them with neighbors like Germany and France, who have in the past years faced the burden of applications. 2020, for example, saw the registration of 81,790 asylum applications in France whereas the UK had 29,456 for the same period.
Patel’s individualistic approach acts as a prominent barrier in resolving an issue that is related to so much more than borders. The refugee crisis is not the responsibility of only one country, but a collective responsibility that should be based on mutual support to ensure resources are not depleted from nationals and that asylum seeker are offered sufficient care and protection. Case studies of Greece and Italy have shown that overburdening one country with such a responsibility simply degenerates adequate protection that should be offered to those fleeing from conflict, resulting in increased detention as well as mistreatment and lower levels of asylum granted for those who needed it.
As stated by Refugee Action, “people fleeing for their lives have little choice in how they seek safety” so shouldn’t we respect the little choice that remains? Of course, an unrestricted right to choose does not exist, but we can’t obligate asylum seekers to apply in the first “safe” country they enter, what does “safe” really even mean? Life does not automatically get better for a refugee once they have obtained their status. Many recurrent problems manifest, such as isolation, which greatly impacts integration, a crucial next step in a refugee’s life. The choice, thus, of language and family links, is not only useful but imperative.