“A question has to be asked: if you are a genuine asylum seeker why have you not sought asylum in the first safe country that you arrived in?”
So said the home secretary, Sajid Javid, during a visit to Dover at the start of the year, before deploying Navy ships to the Channel to ‘deter’ people from taking the crossing. He was echoing an objection which comes up frequently in discussions about people seeking asylum in Britain.
Unfortunately, it’s based on a few misconceptions. The first is that, the Dublin Convention, an EU agreement on sharing responsibility between member states for people seeking asylum in Europe, says that people should stop in the first EU country they reach.
In reality, it says no such thing. In fact, according to the Dublin rules, the most important factor in deciding in which country someone looking for asylum can rightly claim it is family.
And when I spend time talking to the people in Calais about why they are trying to reach Britain, which I do often, the reason that comes up again and again, is family. In fact, in January we asked 48 people in Calais this question, and half said they have family here. People want to get to Britain because, having fled their home country in the face of war, persecution or whatever other horror, they want to be with their own family who they know, trust and love.
I know if I was in their shoes, my instinct would be the same. Staying in a country where I don’t speak the language, where the culture is alien, and where I know no-one would be torment when I know my family is waiting for me.
Our esteemed home secretary went on to suggest that he could deny people’s asylum claims to deter others from attempting to cross the channel.
Well, unless Mr Javid intends to remove the UK from the list of signatories to the Geneva Convention – and to run foul of the Dublin rules too – he may find that international law will prevent him from doing so.
If you claim asylum in another country, you have the right, enshrined in international law, to have that claim assessed on its individual merits – not according to the petty politicking of the home secretary of the day.
Indeed, what other way is there to establish, in Mr Javid’s words, whether an asylum claim is ‘genuine’ or not? The Home Office has asylum case workers and a long-established (albeit imperfect) system for deciding exactly that. Mr Javid should not interfere.
So what should our home secretary do instead? Because he was right in a sense to say the situation is a ‘crisis’. It is a moral crisis and a crisis of responsibility that the UK government’s policy decisions have left people feeling that they have no other way to find safety in Britain than to take dangerous risks in dinghies and on lorries.
The root of the problem is that there is no practical way for people to make a UK asylum claim without physically being in Britain – and to get to Britain, they need to break the law, because no legal route currently exists.
So the simple answer is that the UK should make it easier for people to make UK asylum claims from northern France. Britain has spent copious amounts of money on fences, razor wire and other security in the region – those funds would be better used working on a humane and responsible system for processing UK asylum claims from Northern France.
We need a system which is accessible, so that if you have family in the UK you know there is a safe, legal and fair way for you to make an asylum claim; and which functions smoothly, so that once you’ve lodged a claim you won’t be stuck in limbo for months or years while it is decided.
And there are other things the government could do which would have an immediate impact too: expanding the definition of family for the purposes of family reunion to include siblings, grandparents and uncles; putting pressure on the French authorities to rein in the brutal behaviour of their police towards refugees.
This is neither visionary nor out of reach. But it will take some political leadership – and a Home Secretary who is prepared to base his approach on practical and principled solutions to real problems rather than peddling dangerous misconceptions.
Clare Moseley is the founder of Care4Calais, a refugee support charity