When I was a teenager, a shy young man took a long distance National Express bus down from Newcastle to stay with my family in Essex for a few days. He was a distant relative who had left lran and travelled to the UK by clinging to the underframe of a lorry a few years before, breaking all his limbs as he wedged them into gaps on the underside of the vehicle for hours on end. He was struggling to piece together a living from three part-time jobs in takeaways. I was awestruck that this bashful boy had made such a dramatic, treacherous journey on his own, and whenever he looked away I studied his arms and legs for signs of his traumatic ordeal.
Thousands of people undertake similar journeys to reach the UK every year. They are compelled by the UK’s inhumane asylum policy to hang under lorries, stack themselves in poorly ventilated cargo boxes, and pile into flimsy boats. Over the last bank holiday weekend, as Britons were treated to unseasonably warm weather, 244 people crossed the English Channel in dinghies, fleeing increasingly inhospitable conditions in camps around Calais, where they have diminishing access to food, water, and sanitation.
This was a new record, demonstrating that as coronavirus limits travel globally, many are still on the move, and the grim logic of desperation and inequality means it makes sense to fight tooth and nail to reach the second worst-affected place in the world.
The UK asylum paradox
The problem is that asylum applications must be made on British soil. Incongruously, in order to be permitted to even request to live in a place of safety, stability, and opportunity, you have to already be there. Asylum seekers can enter the UK in one of two ways. The first option is to fly in and claim asylum upon arrival. Yet for every country that an asylum seeker is likely to have travelled from, a visa is required to enter the UK. And the government advises against granting an applicant a visa if:
the political, economic and security situation in the applicant’s country of residence, including whether it is politically unstable, a conflict zone or at risk of becoming one, leads to doubts about their intention to leave the UK at the end of their visit
In other words, if it’s suspected that a person might be seeking entry to apply for asylum, their visa application will almost certainly be rejected. To be allowed in, the UK has to be confident you will leave. The upshot is that the only safe, legitimate way to enter the UK in order to seek asylum is blocked.
That leaves just one option: would-be asylum seekers must enlist smugglers, at considerable cost and risk, to help them to move across borders without detection. Their attempts to reach the UK necessarily require them to break laws, and hand over their life savings to criminal networks who can offer no certainty about whether they’ll arrive alive. The odds are never good.
In the last six years, around 19,000 people have died while seeking entry to Europe. Many drown when flimsy, overcrowded boats take on water in rough seas. Others are hit by vehicles. Some suffocate or die of malnutrition, hyperthermia, or of untreated medical conditions.
Amongst European politicians, there is no shortage of contempt for smugglers, and while this is presented as concern for the wellbeing of migrants, on the lips of those who have firmly shut all other doors, it reads more like irritation that anyone should find ways to cross their borders. Much is made of the fact that these migrants enter “illegally” while politicians are rarely challenged on the fact that there is no legal route to realising the human right to seek refuge. The UK forces asylum seekers into collaboration with smugglers, and then blames them for it.
When 39 Vietnamese migrants froze to death in a lorry in Essex last year, Home Secretary Priti Patel said that “what we have seen basically through the actions of these traffickers is the worst of humanity,” while Jackie Doyle-Price, local MP for Thurrock stated that smuggling the migrants in a “locked metal container shows a contempt for human life that is evil.”
Reading the comments under articles discussing this tragic case, it is chilling to note how many British people feel no compunction in blaming the migrants themselves, who, it is deemed, got what they deserved. Little wonder, when, remarking on this case, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the UK “should not be regarded as a place where you could automatically come and break the law by seeking to arrive illegally.”
Last week, Chris Philp, minister for immigration compliance and the courts, said: “We are all working night and day to dismantle and arrest the criminal gangs who trade in people-smuggling.” Yet pursuing smugglers does not save lives; their industry is bolstered by European asylum policies, which remain unquestioned. Instead, it is time that ministers worked night and day to ensure that the right to seek and enjoy asylum in the UK can be safely fulfilled.
UK asylum policy compels refugees to prove their desperation by leaving only one perilous option for reaching a place of safety and security. The assumption seems to be that if you are really deserving, you will face down any danger, expense, and violation of law to reach Europe. And if you die on the way, all the better for a country that is anxious about keeping you out. There is something grotesquely gladiatorial about the unnecessary hardships the UK expects asylum seekers to overcome before earning the chance to ask for help.
The need for reform
Charities are this month calling for a more humane method of seeking asylum. They are asking the UK for a commitment to resettling 10,000 refugees every year who have already sought asylum in another country. Ideally, asylum seekers would be brought safely to the UK before they begin their risky journeys into and through Europe, bypassing much needless trauma and death. Given the UK’s GDP, this is a modest request, and would bring it into line with similar states in terms of the number of people to whom it grants asylum.
Beyond this, more radical debate is needed to challenge the global economic disparities that necessitate migration, to question the intuition that people should stay in the places they are born, regardless of whether their needs can be met there, and most important of all, to confront the lessons of history. Almost all asylum seekers to the UK have left countries whose current fate was strongly determined by Britain’s colonial influence. Asylum is a human right, but it should also be seen as an avenue for reparation, not last because the UK’s riches were made far beyond its own shores.
Happily ever after?
Amongst those who crossed the Channel last month was a small child, looking dazed in pink pyjamas emblazoned with the slogan “Happily Ever After.” What is in store for her?
Asylum seekers in the UK are placed in cramped, unsanitary housing, must live on £37.75 per week, and are not permitted to work in order to supplement this allowance. Countries across Europe have long competed in the race to the bottom to be the least desirable destination for refugees, and the UK almost wins this dishonourable title, coming second only to Italy for offering the worst living conditions for asylum seekers.
Following a hostile, traumatising, and culturally-insensitive asylum process, half of applications are rejected, leading to detention and deportation. And the UK is the only European country that has no time limit on the detention of asylum seekers, who can be imprisoned indefinitely. Finally, those whose applications are successful have just 28 days to find their own accommodation and subsistence. Unsurprisingly, many become homeless. Even for those who find their way, there is the long road of contending with the racism of post-Brexit Britain.
She may have survived the treacherous journey imposed upon her by our asylum regime, but that little girl’s happy ending still looks a long way off.
This article is a guest posting. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the position of the International Observatory of Human Rights.