This weekend, I saw a tweet sharing the few details journalists had been able to glean about the first identified victim of Friday’s boat accident in the Channel, in which 27 people died on their way to seeking asylum in England. Maryam Nuri Hamdamin was a Kurdish student from Northern Iraq in her early 20s. She was on her way to reunite with her fiancé in the UK.
The comments made me see red. “It’s sad but she should have waited her turn and crossed legally” was the most compassion many could muster. Others were much worse. Some people just have too much hate in their heart to be changed by a newsletter. (KentOnline editor Ed McConnell bravely confronted their Facebook followers who had laughed at the news of the asylum-seekers drowning. The article doesn’t fill you with hope for humanity.)
But many are also confused by sensationalistic headlines, coverage that lacks context, words used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be and politicians with a rather loose relationship to the truth.
You, dear readers and listeners, are better informed than the average Joe, I know. But even I got a few misconceptions corrected in my conversation with Daniel Sohege this week. Did you know, for instance, that most Channel crossings are not arranged by smugglers or traffickers? Increasingly, family or friend groups get together to buy a dinghy and steer themselves across the sea.
I asked Daniel, an expert in international refugee law, to bust some common myths about asylum-seekers and tell us what’s really happening in the Channel and at Europe’s borders. Here are a few of his answers. Listen to the latest episode for the full picture.
1. “We're being overrun by asylum seekers.”
Daniel Sohege: “Over the last year and a half, overall asylum applications have actually been down on previous years. Even though they are increasing now, we're still nowhere close to previous numbers that we were seeing ten, 20 years ago. These aren't numbers that are insurmountable.
2. “They're jumping the queue. They should wait their turn to come in.”
DS: “There's no queue for an asylum seeker. They are all justified in coming across. We've previously had family reunification routes. They've been suspended. People can't apply for asylum outside of the UK. They can't apply for a visa to come here. If you're fleeing war and persecution, you're not liable to be able to get a visa from the country you're fleeing from. So there's all sorts of good reasons why people have to make the Channel crossing. No one's jumping a queue for this, they're using the only route really left to people to try and find safety in the UK.”
3. “You must apply for asylum in the first safe country you enter.”
DS: “It doesn't exist anywhere in legal instruments. If we say, France should take them, that's the first safe country. Then France says the next country should have taken them. We already see 86% of refugees in developing nations. This would just force everybody into a handful of countries. The idea that people should stay in the first safe country they arrive in has got no basis in law and not basis in common sense.”
4. “They are entering and staying in the UK illegally.”
DS: “So long as they seek asylum, I believe within three days, they are not here illegally. For that period until they have sought asylum, it's undocumented. But there is nothing illegal about setting off from the coast of France, there is nothing illegal about crossing the Channel and there is nothing illegal about seeking asylum. In fact, under international law, your right to enter a country by any means that you see necessary to seek asylum is protected. You cannot be penalised for your manner of entry.”
5. “But they're economic migrants, not refugees.”
DS: “98% of those people who crossed the Channel seek asylum. 91% of them come from ten major refugee-producing countries. We do not have the most open and welcoming asylum system in the UK. And even under our current rules, the majority of people who cross are granted asylum either on first instance or on appeal. It's roughly about 70% in the end. The majority of people that we are seeing cross the Channel, there is no argument other than to say they are genuine asylum seekers.”
Why do we need to stop using “smugglers” and “traffickers” interchangeably? Can tougher border controls discourage people from attempting the journey? Why can a Hong Kong dissident get on a plane to London and seek asylum on arrival, but a Syrian refugee can’t get on Eurostar? Listen to the full episode for answers to all these questions and more. And tune in next week for a look at asylum in the US, two years into the Biden presidency.