Britain should offer asylum seekers a chance to lodge their claims in France

Leading Article from THE TIMES, 21 August 2020

The discovery of the body of a Sudanese young man washed up on the shore at Sangatte is not just a tragedy but a predictable tragedy. The only surprise is that his is the first reported death in the Channel this year. Some 4,800 people have survived the crossing, crammed into small boats, inflatable dinghies or paddling homemade floats as they transit the busiest shipping lane in the world. His fellow traveller, also Sudanese, was discovered, hypothermic but alive, on a Calais beach.

Had the men made it across the Channel alive, their chances of gaining asylum were high. Seventy-one per cent of asylum seekers from Sudan have their right to protection upheld, along with 88 per cent of all those under 18. But that claim can only be lodged after reaching Britain. As long as that remains the case, nothing will stop the thousands of Sudanese, Afghans, Iranians and Eritreans risking their lives to cross the Channel. The government should change course before there is a mass drowning, as happens frequently with migrants in the Mediterranean.

The right to asylum, defined as protection from a well-founded fear of persecution, is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention to which Britain is a signatory. There is no requirement in international law for those fleeing persecution to seek asylum in the first safe country they reach. The only law mandating that is one made in Brussels — the Dublin regulation — which Britain will exit when its transition period expires at the end of the year. With European Union member states unwilling to agree a post-Brexit migration pact and a potential no-deal looming, the government will lose the right to transfer migrants to the continent. The knowledge they cannot be sent back may encourage more to risk the perilous crossing.

Britain needs a new compact with its neighbours instead of the threat to send out the Royal Navy to intercept vessels as they leave French waters. Were safe and legal routes to claim asylum in Britain available on the other side of the Channel, the vicious people-smuggling trade would substantially collapse.

The main weakness in the British asylum system is the Home Office’s dire record of removing those whose applications have failed. The rates at which asylum is granted suggest that the system works fairly effectively in weeding out bogus claims. Just 8 per cent of Chinese and 6 per cent of Indians are successful with their claims, reflecting the scale of economic migration. In contrast, 95 per cent from Libya and 85 per cent from Eritrea succeed. Meanwhile refugee numbers are dwarfed by other forms of migration; fewer than 25,000 people were granted humanitarian protection last year out of a net migration figure of 270,000. Yet far too many of the 60 per cent of migrants whose asylum claims fail never leave Britain.

The government refuses to contemplate the “safe routes” model, insisting that asylum seekers should claim in the first safe country they reach. That flies in the face not only of international law but of common sense. Were those in true need of protection allowed to apply from Calais, there would be no need for them to risk their lives. Putting such arrangements in place would be good politics too. Showing that Britain is willing to play a constructive role in managing a global challenge should make it easier to strike a new deal with the neighbours. It would also shield the government from criticism when the next tragedy occurs.


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