FFS explains: Refugees, migration and channel crossing 1

FFS explains: Refugees, migration and channel crossing

After the tragic loss of life in the English channel, the issue of immigration to the UK has been back in the spotlight. 

Ferret Fact Service looked at some of the most common claims made about channel crossings, immigration and asylum in recent weeks. 

FFS explains: Refugees, migration and channel crossing 2

Are channel crossings illegal?

There is no single legal definition of illegal immigration in UK law, but according to the Oxford University Migration Observatory, there are four commonly agreed ways someone can become an ‘irregular’ migrant. 

The first is to enter the UK through regular routes but breach the conditions of entry, such as by overstaying on a visa, working when not allowed, or getting a criminal conviction while in the country. The second is to enter the UK outside of regular routes, such as by forging documents or lying about why you are coming to the UK. 

The third is staying in the country after your asylum application and all appeals have been rejected. The fourth is to be the child of an irregular migrant.

Boat crossings of the channel could fit within the second definition, but this does not take into account that many people crossing are seeking asylum. 

Many of those who arrive in the UK by crossing the channel in a boat are seeking asylum after travelling from a country, or area, where they feel they are not safe. 

According to the UN Refugee Convention, to which the UK is signed up, people seeking asylum cannot be penalised for using illegal routes to enter the country. 

Are people crossing the channel migrants or refugees?

Different words to describe those who come to the UK to live are often used interchangeably. 

In coverage surrounding the recent deaths in the channel, people crossing the English channel were often described as migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, or illegal migrants

Anyone who comes to the UK to live is technically a migrant, as this just means someone “who moves away from his or her place of usual residence”. 

The term refugee is defined by the 1951 UN convention as someone who cannot go back to their country of origin, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

An ‘asylum seeker’ is a refugee who has applied to stay in the country they have arrived in, but not yet had their asylum case decided. 

Official data is not regularly released on how many people who cross the channel subsequently claim political asylum.

However, the director general of UK Visas and Immigration, which is part of the Home Office, said in 2020 that of the 5,000 people who had made it to the UK that year, 98 per cent had claimed asylum.

This was backed up by oral evidence given by Dan O’Mahoney, who is clandestine Channel threat commander at the Home Office. He told MPs that “the vast majority- very close to all – of small boats arrivals claim asylum when they arrive in the UK”.

Data uncovered by the British Refugee Council revealed that between 1 January 2020 and 31 May 2021, the most common countries of origin for those crossing the channel were Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Vietnam. Different Home Office statistics covering 1 January 2018 to 30 June 2020 showed Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Sudan as the most common nationalities. 

How many people come to the UK by channel crossings? 

This figure is not regularly published by the Home Office, so it can be difficult to accurately analyse trends in how many people are using boat crossings to enter the UK. 

In a policy plan on immigration, the UK Government stated that in the whole of 2020 about 8,500 people crossed the English Channel in small boats. 

Data from the BBC and Press Association puts the figure for 2021 at more than 25,000 people.

Does the UK take in more refugees than everyone else?

Former Home Secretary Sajid Javid suggested that the UK had resettled more people than any other country in Europe in an interview with Sky News. He said: “Since 2015, I think we have resettled – the UK, through the refugee programmes – we have resettled over 25,000 people, more than any other country in Europe.”

The claim is similar to others that have been made by the UK Government and others before.

The refugee programmes he is referring to are the UK’s resettlement schemes. The word ‘resettlement’ is important here, because it refers to a specific type of movement between countries. 

Resettlement occurs when a person is moved into a state which has agreed to admit them as refugees. The flights for Syrian refugees to Glasgow in 2015 are an example of this type of resettlement. 

According to statistics from the EU up to 2020, the UK had resettled 24,670 people since 2015. The latest figures from the Home Office show the UK settled 823 people in 2020, and another 1,171 had been accepted up to September this year.

This number is higher than any other state in Europe in the same time period. 

However, citing such statistics alone does not give the best picture of the number of refugees that the UK takes in. 

Resettlement forms only part of a country’s asylum system, relying as it does on the agreed transfer of people from one country to another. The majority of people who are granted asylum in the UK do not come through resettlement schemes. 

Most are asylum seekers, who make an application for asylum once they reach the UK. As we referred to earlier, international law means the method a person uses to arrive at a country should not affect their case for asylum. 

According to the UK Government, the UK offered protection to 13,210 people in 2021. It defines protection as “asylum, humanitarian protection, alternative forms of leave and resettlement”.

The latest comparable figures are for 2020, when the UK gave protection to 9,936. This is fewer than Germany, who gave protection to 98,000, Spain (51,200), Greece (35,800), France (29,400), and Italy (21,300) in the same year. 

Since 2015, the UK Government has made fewer asylum grants than many other European countries, including Germany, France, Spain, Greece and Italy. 

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles.

All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here.

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Photo thanks to iStock/Naeblys.

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