Between last Thursday and Sunday, nearly 600 people risked their lives to cross the maritime border between France and England in overcrowded, inflatable boats.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson decried their efforts to claim their inalienable right to asylum as “very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal”, while the BBC and Sky News sent crews to shove microphones into the faces of the refugees as they shovelled water out of their dinghy with a plastic bucket.
According to recent polling, almost half of Britons have “little to no” sympathy for migrants crossing the English Channel. While many found this shocking, it is perhaps not that surprising, given misleading and incendiary language from politicians, the framing of the media and the amount of misinformation circulating around the issue.
So we decided to hold the metaphorical microphone in the face of some experts to debunk the five most common refugee myths that have been espoused by our politicians and pundits in the last couple weeks.
1) THE UK IS FACING AN ‘INVASION’ OF MIGRANTS
This most recent round of backlash was kicked off by Nigel Farage. For months the talk-radio host and former UKIP leader has been making videos about Britain having a “soft touch” on migration. Last Thursday, he shared a video of around ten refugees climbing out of a dinghy, describing it as a "shocking invasion on the Kent coast". Over the four subsequent days, 597 asylum seekers crossed the channel to get to England.
“If we look at the numbers of people coming to the UK in the summers of 2016 to 2018, they were pretty similar – there is a surge every year as the weather improves,” says Maddy Allen, advocacy manager at refugee NGO Choose Love. “But because people were coming in lorries, it wasn't as visible. Now, there are fewer cars going back and forth because of COVID, so people are being forced into the water.”
In the context of a global migrant crisis, in 2017 the UK was home to less than 0.5 percent of the world’s refugees. The number of refugees in the UK has actually decreased since 2009, down from 238,000 to 133,000 in 2019.
2) THE PEOPLE CROSSING THE CHANNEL ARE DOING SOMETHING ILLEGAL
Whether it’s the Prime Minister calling the channel crossings “criminal” or Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeting that refugees are “break[ing] the law by coming to the UK”, the government line has clearly been to question the legal status of the migrants.
The truth is that every human being has the right to seek asylum, as set out in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 1951 Refugee Convention goes one step further, to say that they can use “irregular” means to reach wherever it is they’re headed.
What Johnson is referring to – and what is genuinely illegal – is human trafficking. And it’s true that paying people-smugglers around £3,000 to be ferried across the channel in a tiny boat is what some refugees have to resort to in order to make it to the UK to claim asylum. But crucially, this is criminal on the part of the smuggler, not on the part of the person being smuggled.
“In the absence of safe and legal routes of passage, people are forced into so-called 'illegal journeys',” says Allen. “But brandishing the whole system, including the people who are being trafficked, as criminal is just putting really broad brushstrokes over something that is far more complex.”
3) THE GOVERNMENT’S STANCE IS DESIGNED TO CRACK DOWN ON PEOPLE SMUGGLING
Patel also took to Twitter to announce that she was appointing a “Clandestine Channel Threat Commander” to end the “heinous crime of people smuggling”, with the help of an RAF plane policing the skies and, soon, maybe even Royal Navy vessels.
The government’s focus on people smuggling is a convenient way to sound humanitarian, but a hypocritical one, given that refugees are actually being pushed into the hands of people smugglers by government policies which make it increasingly hard for them to claim asylum in more formal ways.
“People from countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Syria find it extremely difficult to get UK visas, which are also very expensive and require the applicant to have a current passport,” says Jeff Crisp, a research associate at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre. “And only a very small number of people are able to enter the UK by other means, such as refugee resettlement and family reunification programmes.”
In May, the government also ended the Dubs scheme, under which unaccompanied child refugees could be brought to the UK from Greece, Italy and France. “It's like the government thinks if you just push people away, then the ‘problem’ will go,” added Allen. “But this is not a problem – these are people fleeing war and persecution.”
4) PEOPLE SHOULD CLAIM ASYLUM IN THE FIRST SAFE COUNTRY THEY REACH
Education Minister Nick Gibb argued in an interview with Sky News that, “France is a safe country, and if people are seeking asylum, they should be seeking asylum in France.” This idea of the “first safe country” is an oft-repeated myth, often falsely attributed to the Geneva Convention. But in reality, it is not set out in any international law.
In any case, France is also not considered a “safe country” by many refugees, says Allen. “In Calais and Dunkirk, there is an incredibly high police presence, and refugees witness daily brutality, surveillance, harassment and intimidation,” she said.
The majority of refugees do claim asylum in European countries other than the UK. Last year, France received around 124,000 asylum applications – that’s more than three times as many as the UK’s 36,000.
5) MIGRANTS ARE HERE TO STEAL OUR JOBS WHILE SLACKING ON BENEFITS
On Monday, a journalist on Good Morning Britain informed Hassan Akkad – a Syrian refugee and former English teacher, who left his home after being tortured by Assad’s regime, arrived in the UK after more than two months of travelling and now cleans up COVID wards for minimum wage – that “people are worried that migrants and refugees are just coming here to claim benefits”.
In reality, beyond being provided with basic – and sometimes rat-infested – accommodation, asylum-seekers in the UK receive an allowance of just under £37 a week. That’s half of the UK’s £74 job-seekers allowance and less than the €48 they would receive in France, or the €80 in Germany. While they are in the asylum system, they are neither allowed to work nor to make a claim under the benefit system.
“The money is not enough to live by. Almost everyone who receives these payments is also reliant on food banks, charities and free school meals to meet their most basic needs,” Allen explained.
What are people’s actual motivations for coming to the UK? Firstly, there is the obvious. “The majority of them come from countries affected by war and human rights violations – like Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Syria – and around half are found to be in need of international protection by the UK authorities,” said Crisp.
A 2016 survey also found that people picked the UK because they have friends or family here (40 percent) or because they speak the English language (23 percent), which was exported across the globe through centuries of colonialism.