A sharp increase in the number of people crossing the English Channel to claim asylum in the UK has refocused the nation’s attention on its borders.
As Covid-19 continues to decimate the levels of road freight crossing the Straits of Dover, and the government’s EU resettlement scheme remains on hold, more and more people are left with no other option but to travel in small boats.
Their arrivals have been met with fierce rhetoric, both from right-wing, anti-immigration commentators and the government, which has vowed to reduce the number of people arriving by boat and even threatened to send in the Navy.
On Thursday, Priti Patel hailed the removal of a group of migrants and was widely criticised after resurrecting the term “activist lawyers” to describe legal professionals working in immigration.
It seems that with each new picture showing crowded vessels arriving on the Kent shoreline, a new barrage of angry comments and calls for action appears.
The claims favoured by those against asylum seekers searching for safety in the UK are often based on misinformation, but that doesn’t stop them from being echoed time and again online.
Here are seven of the most pervasive myths shared about asylum seekers – and the truth behind each claim.
1. Refugees have to claim asylum in the first “safe” country they arrive in
For the vast majority of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel, the 20-mile journey between France and the UK is one of the last legs of a long and traumatic journey.
Many people fleeing conflict, particularly in northern African countries such as Libya, make the extremely dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean by boat and often arrive in southern European countries such as Italy and Greece in the first instance.
A popular myth circulated by those opposed to refugees coming to the UK is that people seeking safety in Europe must claim asylum in the first “safe” country they land in.
Under the rules set out by the UN Refugee Convention, which the UK joined in the early 1950s, there is no obligation for asylum seekers to do so.
Full Fact, an organisation that examines and debunks false information, states that UK case law supports this interpretation of UN rules – meaning asylum seekers can pass through other safe countries before making a claim.
Just because a European country such as France or Italy is often perceived as safe for most people, it doesn’t mean that’s necessarily true for asylum seekers – individuals could face any number of dangerous situations we can know nothing about without proper examination of their case.
In 2011 the European Court of Human Rights upheld an asylum seeker from Afghanistan’s right to seek asylum in Belgium after he claimed he was at risk in Greece due to deficiencies in the nation’s asylum process.
2. They’re just economic migrants
Free Movement reported on Friday that Home Office officials had confirmed that the majority of people crossing the Channel in small boats are genuine asylum seekers.
Officials presented evidence to the Home Affairs committee on September 3 that highlighted the fact a significant proportion of those making the crossing were either granted refugee status very quickly, or came from countries for which the success rate in applications is extremely high.
People crossing the Channel are often referred to as migrants, but the distinction between migrants, asylum seekers and refugees is an important consideration.
Refugees are people who have fled their home country in order to escape persecution or armed conflict – crossing national borders to seek safety in a different country. The rights of refugees are protected by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
Asylum seekers are people who claim they are refugees – usually on the basis that returning to their home country would result in their persecution – but have not yet had their claim evaluated. A person is an asylum seeker for as long as it takes for their application to be processed and decided.
A migrant is a person who has chosen to move to improve their lives – often for family, work or education – rather than someone who has left due to a direct threat of harm.
Ultimately, the decision on whether or not someone is a “genuine” asylum seeker and should therefore be granted refugee status, is one made by assessors at the Home Office – though refused claims are often escalated to the courts who then review an application.
It is impossible to know exactly what an individual’s circumstances are before they arrive in the UK and are assessed by the relevant authorities.
3. Asylum seekers are worsening overcrowding in the UK
The Covid-19 crisis has once again brought concerns about overcrowding of the UK to the fore. As we jostle for space physically in order to social distance, some people have turned to refugees and asylum seekers to point out an extra “strain” on the overstretched NHS or increasingly competitive jobs market.
A 2015 Ipsos MORI study found that, on average, the public vastly overestimated the number of foreign-born people living in the UK.
While the perception of how many immigrants lived in the UK varied significantly between supporters of different political parties, the average guess from the public on what proportion of the UK population was foreign born is 21% – despite the most recent estimate available at the time was around 13%.
According to data collected by The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford in 2018, just 0.6% of the population originally came to the UK to seek asylum.
An estimated 361,000 people living in the UK in 2018 had originally come to the UK to seek asylum – and 61% of those had lived in the country for more than 15 years.
4. The UK gets more asylum seekers than other European countries
The media – both traditional and online – may make it seem as though the UK has been inundated with migrants bypassing other European countries along the way, but data show this isn’t the case.
According to figures collected by Eurostat, and shared in August by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in 2019 France received 123,900 applications, while Germany received more than 142,000.
In the same year, the UK received 35,566.
Experts have almost unanimously stressed the fact that asylum seekers often pick the UK because of cultural, family and language ties.
Those travelling to the UK may already have relatives already settled in the country, or speak English instead of other European languages such as German or French.
A large number, especially unaccompanied children, some of whom are currently being held by Border Force in Kent as the council has reached its capacity for proper care, may simply be brought here without having a say.
Jeff Crisp, of the Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre, told HuffPost UK in August that the UK is also seen as a “relatively easy place to live in the shadows” even if your asylum claim is refused.
“You can find work in the informal sector, in ethnic minority economies, we don’t have an ID card system,” he says.
“In a country like Sweden it’s virtually impossible to live as an irregular migrant because your documentation and ID is demanded at every step of the way.
“The UK has moved to some extent in that direction but there still seems to be a sense that it’s a country in which you can just about survive without having documented status, more so than in other countries.”
5. Asylum seekers are breaking the law by coming to the UK in a small boat
In August Boris Johnson described crossing the English Channel as a “very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do”.
While crossing the Channel in an unauthorised small vessel isn’t a legal way to arrive into the UK, there is no lawful restriction against people who travel this way that could prevent them from claiming asylum once they arrive.
Most aid organisations working with people in Calais and northern France agree that crossing the Channel in the boat is regarded as a last resort – a necessity when all other routes of passage have been been decimated by Covid-19 (as is the case with road freight and the government’s refugee resettlement scheme, which has been paused indefinitely).
Many asylum seekers have no choice but to enter the UK in a clandestine way, and under UK and UN law have the right to apply for refugee status no matter how they enter the country.
The concept of a queueing system granting prioritised access to asylum seekers looms large in the public imagination, but no such formal queue exists. Those crossing the Channel in small boats do not “jump ahead” of people who travel to the UK via legal means, such as on plane, and each claim is assessed on the basis of its own individual validity.
6. People want to come to the UK just to get benefits
Another popular assumption is that asylum seekers are flocking to the UK to exploit a generous package of benefits. But asylum seekers are eligible for just £37.75 each as they await the decision on their application, are unable to work, and have no say in where they are sent to live.
At the end of August it emerged that an asylum seeker from Uganda, 34-year-old Mercy Baguma, had died in extreme poverty in a flat in Glasgow. She was discovered next to her one-year-old son, who was severely malnourished.
She had no recourse to public funds (NRPF), which meant she had no access to money from the government after limited leave to remain had expired and she had lost her job.
In the wake of Baguma’s death Women’s Equality Party leader Mandu Reid said it is deeply disturbing that in 2020 we “live in a Britain where a woman can perish next to her extremely malnourished baby because she did not have recourse to public funds”.
“Even the most callous people who have a dim view of asylum seekers would not want our country to be a place that completely lacks humanity.”
Meanwhile, as the UNHCR has highlighted, asylum seekers in France receive almost exactly the same as they would in the UK (without risking their lives crossing the Channel) and are eligible for €344 (£308) a month in Germany.
7. The UK asylum system is so soft that people know they won’t be turned away
The UK is often accused by those against asylum seekers of being a soft touch when it comes to their policies, but that isn’t reflected in comparisons to other nations.
The UK is the only western European country without a statutory detention limit, which means that people can be placed in detention centres – often with the immediate threat of deportation looming – for any length of time.
People detained inside removal centres have widely described prison-like conditions, and according to the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) in 2018 20% of people were held for more than two months.
This includes 225 people who were held for more than a year and 13 people for more than two years. The longer someone is held the less likely it is that they will be deported, putting some genuine asylum seekers through months of additional trauma.
According to the Migration Observatory, there were more than 19,000 enforced and voluntary returns from the UK in 2019. This figure has declined steadily over the past decade, but the perception that the UK is powerless to return migrants and asylum seekers is far from the truth.
In 2019, there were around 7,400 enforced returns, with each one costing the government some £15,000. While this number encompasses “failed” asylum seekers and immigrants deemed to be in the UK illegally by the Home Office, it also includes criminal offenders from foreign countries.
As previously discussed, the UK also offers very little in the way of financial support to asylum seekers. Unlike other countries such as Germany, where asylum seekers can be granted the right to work while awaiting their decision, no asylum seeker can work legally in the UK before being granted leave to remain.