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  • William Tyler

Asylum Seekers: A British History

People coming across The Channel with the intention of reaching Britain in order to claim asylum have dominated the news in the last few days.


It is an issue which divides the country. It tends to generate more heat than light. This is my attempt to place some objective facts down on paper (or online!), Much of the media coverage, together with that of politicians, can seem confused and muddled. Some of this is deliberate such as Nigel Farage's use of the word 'invasion'; some is simply through ignorance or carelessness, such as The Prime Minister's use of the phrase 'illegal immigrants'. The UNHCR has called upon all Governments not to use this phrase.


Legally, anyone seeking asylum is acting perfectly within both national and international law. They are not 'illegal'. Of course, the Government, any Government can refuse an application and deport the asylum seeker; but even this does not make them 'illegal' merely failed asylum seekers. Under EU law, enshrined in the Dublin Convention of 1990, Britain can return asylum seekers to France without hearing their case if France was the last EU country they came from. Interestingly, this will be legally impossible after 1st January and our exit from The EU. The Government, if it wishes to continue with its present policy, will need an agreement with France by 1st January. France does not, however, have to agree to any such deal. Faced then with the choice of returning asylum seekers to their original homeland could be a political and public relations minefield for the Government. Of course, the EU rules themselves have proved difficult to enforce. And, we should note that the EU Dublin Agreement has already been largely and publicly abandoned by Hungary, who, of course, are on the geographical frontline. This was one of the issues David Cameron was trying to negotiate with the other EU members but was stymied by, at the time, German intransigence. In fact, Cameron has been one of the few European politicians to engage with this difficult question of the growing number of asylum seekers, and to seek fairer and better means of dealing with it. Outside of The EU from January there will be little a British Government will be able to do to find long term international solutions to a European wide problem.


Some clear definitions and international law and guidance:-

  1. Asylum: The protection granted by a state to someone who has left their home country as a political refugee.

  2. Refugee: A person who 'owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality , and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country', 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, UNHCR.

  3. Entitled Immigrants, such as those Ugandans with British passports, and currently Hong Kongers in the same position.

  4. Subsidiary/Humanitarian Protection. This can be given to those people not meeting the criteria of the international definition of refugee (as above). Britain uses the phrase 'humanitarian protection'. The EU's guidelines are for those people who would face execution were they to be returned to their homeland, torture, or threats from a war situation. This is unlikely to change after 1st January.

  5. Economic migrants are not covered by either EU, British, or international laws. This is the big big global issue.

Many of our generation were brought up to believe in British tolerance and an open door for refugees. That was our default position up to the 20th century. Prior to this we welcomed large numbers including French Huguenots and Jews. The situation changed in the 1880s when large numbers of Jews from within the Russian Empire sought refuge in Britain. By 1900 the number of Jews arriving in Britain had hit the 200,000 mark and the Government reacted with intolerance by passing the 1905 Aliens Act. The first legislation in our history to deal with immigration. The grounds of objection are only too familiar, fear of the loss of jobs to these incomers, and fear that many would prove a burden on the State. Since the Labour Government under Blair in the 1990s, legislation has been tried a number of times, all linked with reducing the numbers arriving and the burden placed on the State. Labour's 1998 White Paper was crystal clear, 'create new support arrangements to ensure that asylum seekers are not left destitute, minimise the incentive to economic migration, remove access to Social Security benefits, minimise cash payments and reduce the burden on local authorities.'. The government followed up with legislation in 1999 which, inter alia, replaced cash with vouchers to be spent at designated retailers.


Why has British tolerance increasingly yielded to a more intolerant attitude in recent years?

  1. Opposition to EU Freedom of Movement (even though this is a quite different issue)

  2. Islamic homegrown terrorism

  3. Economic insecurity

How has this growing intolerance manifested itself?

  1. Anti-Semitism. As Trudy Gold was telling me recently, anti-semitism is a good litmus test for wider intolerance in society. I agree.

  2. The lead given by both political Parties, when in power, to introduce less tolerant legislation

  3. The lead given by Governments to take action which in the past would have been regarded as intolerant. Such as the current Home Secretary's proposed deployment of Armed Forces in The Channel. This is truly ironic given that her own parents were themselves immigrants from Uganda.

  4. In the Brexit Referendum.

Some global and national facts:

  1. 84% of all refugees live in developing countries

  2. Iran tops the list of UK asylum seekers

  3. 2018, according to UNHCR figures, there were 126,720 refugees in Britain, plus 45,244 pending asylum cases, and 125 stateless persons.

The global problem that has to be tackled is that of economic migration, especially economic migration into the USA and into Europe. Building a wall is not an option! Nor is turning our island into an impenetrable fortress. There are no easy answers to this vexed question and it must be separated out from the issue of asylum seekers. We need less heat and more light from our politicians and indeed from our media. These are serious issues demanding sophisticated debate and sophisticated answers.


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