UK ‘could be in breach of legal obligations’ in hindering people claiming asylum, warns Amnesty International

By Declan Carey

THE Home Secretary’s plan to make asylum seeker’s routes to the UK ‘unviable’ could be in breach of its legal obligations according to Amnesty International – despite Priti Patel’s plans to take a tougher stance on the issue.

In a series of Twitter posts, Patel pledged to make channel crossings ‘unviable’ as refugees arriving in the UK hit the headlines this week.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Director, told Redaction Politics that the hostile response from the Government and some media organisations is an attempt to ‘undermine’ the prospect of the public understanding the dangers refugees experience.

He said: “If what is done is to prevent specifically identifiable people from making legitimate claims in this country, then that could be in breach of the UK’s international legal obligations.

“Those are ministers’ words, the issue of the viability of these particular routes and journeys, I suppose is a vexed one in this sense.

“Nobody, certainly nobody who actually cares for the people at the heart of this issue, wants to see people compelled to make what are certainly dangerous journeys across the English Channel.

“Or to be compelled to rely upon the assistance or the hope of assistance from often extremely unscrupulous and exploitative people in the business of smuggling.

“But if anyone wants to make that unviable, the only answer can be to remove the need for people to do this.”

However, a Home Office spokesperson defended the government’s stance on the matter.

They said: “The UK has a long and proud history of welcoming those in need and escaping persecution and oppression.

“The government’s established resettlement schemes have rightly provided safety and security to those in need.

“Protection in the form of asylum, humanitarian protection, alternative forms of leave and resettlement has been provided to 20,339 people in the year ending March 2020, which is 17 per cent higher than the previous year.

“However, in relation to the migrants crossing the English Channel, people should seek asylum in the first safe country that they enter and action needs to be taken to prevent people embarking on this dangerous and illegal journey.”

Patel announced the appointment of Dan O’Mahoney to the new role of Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, a role leading the UK’s response to attempts to reach the country.

According to data published by the European Parliament, the UK received 44,835 asylum applications in 2019, a relatively low number compared to the 165,615 made in Germany or 77,275 in Greece.

Dr Tania Kaiser, Senior Lecturer in Forced Migration Studies at SOAS University of London, told Redaction Politics that the majority of people living in conflict zones around the world are simply unable to leave their country.

She said: “There is very clear evidence that the vast majority of people who leave their homes because of danger stay in their region of origin, massively more than those who ever make a journey.

“And by definition there’s a good evidence base for this that the people are able to make journeys are frequently not the poorest of the poor, i.e people who are just looking for an economic opportunity as a single goal or pushed out of their country of origin by desperation because they simply can’t afford to move.

“The next blindingly obvious thing if you look at the data is that people come overwhelmingly from countries where there are conflicts raging.

“The vast majority are still coming from the old favourites: Syria, Afghanistan, countries in the horn of Africa at different times, Somalia, Eritrea.

“One of the things that is really important is that despite the fact that many news organisations have insisted continually over the last five or more years on referring to the people crossing the Mediterranean as migrants on the grounds that their legal status has not been established.

“In fact, the majority of people who cross on these horrible dangerous boats do eventually receive some kind of recognition and protection and legal status, even if it’s only temporary.

“In other words, if we are going to use the word which refers to the majority of them, which is what for example the BBC says when using the term migrant, we should in fact be using the word refugee.

“Many of them have already had really terrible experiences in their country of origin, that’s often the cause of the flight in the first place.

“They are demonstrably at risk, for women in particular, but not only for women.

“It’s sometimes the case that payment for safe passage involves sexual abuse and problematic consent issues around the exchange of sex and travel arrangements, to put it politely.

“There’s also other kinds of physical risk, like being stuck in the desert, breaking down or not having enough water etc.

“And then robbery, extortion and all the rest from practically anybody who you pass.

“It’s really a horrible horrible journey and many of the people making it are very young and sometimes not accompanied by an older caretaker.“

Despite the extremely dangerous experiences refugees encounter whilst fleeing their homes, polls show that the majority of the British public have little sympathy.

Data published by YouGov asking how much sympathy members of the public have for migrants crossing the channel showed that 22 per cent have not much sympathy, while 27 per cent have no sympathy at all.

Amnesty’s Steve Valdez-Symonds believes recent news reports from the BBC and Sky News with reporters seen chasing refugee boats in the channel has a dehumanising effect which is contributing to the problem.

He said: “Incidents like that show just how dehumanising the whole approach by so many people including the media is and has become.

“For a media team to be sent out into the channel to find people in an obviously unsafe situation and potentially distressing situation, the responsible thing would be to react with compassion and care immediately to those people.

“The language that the media use is very important and it goes to the same dehumanising result.

“We’re talking about people, human beings with real needs, many of whom have suffered extreme traumatic experiences.

“Everyone commenting about the channel crossings or indeed asylum more generally, ought to be making every effort to be humanising in everything they say and do.

“Not least because it ought to be readily apparent that the great majority of the discussion and media portrayal of this is not humanising at all, it’s exactly the opposite.

“And that must undermine the prospect of there being wider public understanding, support and compassion to what are very desperate people in very real need.”

The BBC and Sky News both defended their coverage.

A BBC spokesperson said: “This report was a stark illustration of the significant risks some people are prepared to take to reach the UK.

“Channel crossings is a topic of huge importance and we always endeavour to cover the story sensitively.

“In this instance, the Dover Coastguard were aware of the boat before our crew spoke to them and at no point did they, or those in the boat signal that a rescue operation was required.

“The Coastguards instead alerted the Border Force who then safely picked up the occupants and took them to shore.”

A Sky News spokesperson said: “Sky News has covered the migrant crisis in great depth and from many angles since 2015.

“In the last few days, our coverage on all Sky News platforms has focused on the human stories of refugees and their attempts to cross the channel and reach the UK.

“We have produced a range of news reports on land and at sea talking to people who are attempting to reach the UK.

“This is a major news story following the government’s suggestion that it needs a military response, and we will continue to cover the story in a responsible and human way.

“Ali Fortescue’s reports have made it clear that the captain of the boat she is on calls the coastguard about every dinghy and stays with each boat to make sure it is safe as it comes to shore.”

Featured Image: Ilias Bartolini @Flickr

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