Recent UK immigration politics has focused largely on ‘getting numbers down’ by reducing the number of so-called ‘illegal’ entries, which usually involve people crossing the channel on small boats or on the backs of lorries. The government often refuses to acknowledge that the high number of ‘illegal’ entries is intrinsically linked to the lack of official routes provided for coming to the UK to claim asylum. And whilst those travelling by unofficial means may not abide by UK immigration law and documentation processes, international law states that asylum seekers cannot be punished or criminalised for the way they enter.
The 1951 Refugee Convention states that asylum seekers should not be discriminated against for their mode of entry into another country. People fleeing persecution have the right to travel to any country via any route possible in order to claim asylum, provided they inform the authorities of their presence upon arrival and have a good reason for seeking asylum.
Despite this, arrival in the UK by small boat crossings or other ‘clandestine’ routes across the Channel are frequently referred to as ‘illegal’ because the person entering does not have a valid visa in place. This is where the UK asylum system is deeply contradictory: it is not possible to claim asylum from outside the UK, and it is also not possible to obtain a visa before travelling to the UK to claim asylum.
In November, Home Secretary Suella Braverman admitted that “If you’re able to get to the UK you’re able to put in an application for asylum”. But the criminalisation of asylum seekers who travel to the UK without a valid visa and the lack of official routes provided means that it is generally not possible to enter the UK to then claim asylum via what the government considers to be a ‘legal’ route.
There are limited so-called ‘safe and legal’ routes which are applicable to all nationalities but have very restricted conditions of eligibility. The family reunion scheme allows the close relatives of adults already recognised as refugees in the UK to join them. However, the relatives of asylum seekers, child refugees, and non-immediate relatives of adult refugees are not eligible. From June 2021-2022, over 5,000 family members of refugees were granted entry through this scheme. The UK Resettlement Scheme, Community Sponsorship and Mandate Resettlement Scheme are resettlement schemes which grant refugee status with indefinite leave to remain to people already recognised as refugees by the UNHCR, typically from countries with large refugee populations. Between 2016-2022, over 26,000 refugees were resettled under these schemes, the vast majority being from Syria. It is worth noting that only around 1% of refugees worldwide are resettled under schemes like this, so it is not an option for the vast majority of people.
For certain nationalities - Afghans, Ukrainians, and people from Hong Kong - there are also specific schemes which provide a ‘legal’ route of obtaining protection in the UK:
The Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa scheme was established in January 2021 due to concerns about human rights violations in Hong Kong. It is not based on a person’s risk of persecution, but allows adults and their family members to apply for a visa if they have Hong Kong BN(O) status, or have a parent with BN(O) status. Since this scheme was launched, over 130,000 visas have been granted.
The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy and Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme allow vulnerable individuals, and those who previously worked with the UK government in Afghanistan, to obtain indefinite leave to remain in the UK. In 2022, almost 12,000 were relocated under these schemes, with the government pledging to resettle a total of 20,000 over the coming years.
In March 2022, the UK established two visa routes for Ukrainians to come to the UK: the Ukraine Family Scheme and the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme. The Ukraine Family Scheme allows Ukrainians who have family members in the UK to obtain a visa to come to the UK. The Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, also known as ‘Homes for Ukraine’ allows Ukrainians to enter the UK, provided they have a sponsor who is willing to accommodate them for at least six months. As of September 2022, almost 130,000 Ukrainians had arrived in the UK under these visa schemes - 35,500 under the Ukraine family scheme and 90,400 under the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme.
When the government and media narrative so often associates asylum seekers and refugees with criminality, it is important to remember that the ‘legal’ routes of seeking asylum in the UK are limited to select groups of people. This forces people with genuine reasons for seeking asylum to take dangerous journeys across the Channel, only to be described as an ‘illegal invasion’ by politicians. This is extremely dehumanising and implies that certain people have no right to seek protection because of the way they arrive in the UK. Because of this, those most in danger currently risk being denied protection and safety simply for arriving in the UK via the only routes available to them. Under international law, a person’s entitlement to refugee status is based on the danger they are in, not their mode of transport. It is therefore important that the government acknowledges that it has a responsibility to provide truly safe routes for seeking asylum in the UK so that fewer lives are put at risk.