Refugees are neither migrants nor illegal

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The BBC calls them ‘migrants’; the prime minister and some other media call them ‘illegal’; some Tory MPs and Nigel Farage call them ‘invaders’. They are none of those. They are mostly desperate, destitute, often stateless men, women and children fleeing from war, torture, oppression and persecution.

Nobody risks their lives across treacherous waters in unsuitable and unsafe boats unless they are deeply distressed and determined, with nothing left to lose. Why don’t they seek asylum in the first safe country they reach? Because it isn’t that simple. You may think it is, but it isn’t. For one thing, some countries don’t want them. They really don’t. For another, escaping from danger – genuine, terrifying, deadly danger – is only part of what they experience.

Walk in their shoes for a moment. Your country has been lost to you. The place you grew up – had family, memories, possessions, your home, your career – is now unsafe and may be never safe to return. You have to start again, either alone, or with whomever you managed to bring with you.

Only a few of the world’s refugees want to get to the UK. Last year approximately 79.5 million refugees were forced to flee their homes. For its share, the UK took 20,339 refugees – just 0.026 percent of the world’s refugees. Really, by comparison, it’s a tiny number. But the ones who tenaciously want to make it to our shores against all odds often have compelling reasons: speaking English, having family already here and/or colonial links are all high on the list.

But they are not migrants and they are not illegal.


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Some politicians and media call refugees migrants. That’s entirely wrong. The term ‘migrant’ means a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions. Migrants voluntarily leave their home countries for another and can voluntarily return home at any time.

That’s not the case for refugees. The term ‘refugee’ means a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster. They have to leave their homes involuntarily and they cannot return.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says those who get here illegally are illegal and will be treated accordingly. It’s beyond nasty. It’s not asylum seekers who are illegal; to imply they are – as Johnson does – is simply wrong. As my colleague Stella Perrott pointed out in her recent article:

“Refugee status is determined by international law … and Article 31 of the UN convention relating to the status of refugees means that asylum seekers arriving in the UK can neither be deemed ‘illegal’ because of their means of entry nor be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a signatory state.”

What other way is there for an asylum seeker to reach the UK unless by so-called illegal means? Asylum can only usually be sought in the UK once in the UK. What a conundrum.

If the prime minister and the home secretary really cared about the plight, and safety, of desperate refugees, then they would make the criminally induced hazardous journey across the English Channel entirely unnecessary. The UK only takes a relatively low number of asylum seekers. We’re yet another so-called civilised country that doesn’t really want them.

By making such a chancy crossing the only way to seek asylum here, the prime minister and home secretary are complicit in aiding and abetting odious gangsters who are making millions out of desolate people.

The language and actions of our current government are irresponsible and inhumane. Like some of our media, they are advocating sheer hatred against people who, in many cases, have been devastated as a direct result of violent interventions of their homes, often by our own country or its allies.

Let’s be clear. Refugees are innocent.

  • Under international law – signed up to by the UK – there is no such entity as an illegal asylum seeker or refugee.
  • Under international law – signed up to by the UK – it is accepted that asylum seekers may often need to use irregular and illegal routes and cross many borders before applying for asylum.
  • Under international law – signed up to by the UK – there is no legal obligation for an asylum seeker to seek asylum or to stay in the first safe country they reach.
  • Under international law – signed up to by the UK – there is an absolute obligation to accept and offer refuge to asylum seekers who have genuinely had to escape from war and danger in their home countries. Yes, the UK does offer asylum to those in that category who make it to our shores. But only after ensuring that they must first endure the most terrifying journey to get here.

Shame on you Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and those other politicians and media who promote that it’s the asylum seekers who are illegal.

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