There is a lot in the news and across social media at the moment about “migrant crossings” in the Channel, and one of the most common arguments which appears to keep cropping up is people claiming that France is a “safe country”.

First published in August 2020.

The thing is that “safety” is a highly subjective term. Nobody is denying that France is a safe country for most of us. Pandemic aside, I could travel there now and feel perfectly safe, walking the streets without a care in the world.

A very simplistic analogy is that of match day. Where it may be safe for people wearing one football strip may not be for someone wearing a different one, and for a non-football supporter it may seem very odd that someone didn’t feel safe in a particular place.

First off though we need to clarify the legal side of this. There is nothing in any international instrument which specifically states that a refugee has to stay in the first “safe country”. Even the well publicised Dublin Regulations don’t actually specify this.

There is some case law on this though to provide clarification, and it covers the subjective nature of safety and the host of factors, some which we will look at here, which influence people’s perceptions of it. The main finding being that people can transit through multiple countries.

As recently as July France was fined by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for forcing refugees to sleep rough and depriving them of access to necessary support and basic rights.

This was by no means an isolated case, nor is it just France among EU nations which does so. France has a track record, particularity in regards to reception conditions, basic necessities, support etc, of violating both international and EU law.

Then, there is the manner of the treatment of refugees. There are multiple reports of where the French police have used what by any means would be described as “excessive” uses of force in their treatment of asylum seekers, placing them in more danger.

The Guardian, 29 Oct 2017.

So there are some very good reasons why asylum seekers may wish to make the dangerous crossing to the UK to find safety. There are other factors in play though. Language and the ability to communicate in particular plays an important part in anyone’s idea of personal safety.

If you look at the main countries of origin for refugees, you see a pattern whereby English tends to be widely spoken. This isn’t to say French isn’t, for example in Syria both English and French are widely spoken, just that English has the numbers.

Ranking of the major source countries of refugees as of 2019. / UNHCR – Statista

The ability to communicate for an asylum seeker goes beyond just being able to order from a shop. When you have to explain often very personal and nuanced accounts of what has happened to you, it helps to be able to do so in a language which you are most familiar with.

A failure to communicate effectively in these circumstances may have disastrous effects and see the asylum seeker deported to Libya, which is not only an active conflict zone, but also where they may be sold into slavery, tortured or killed.

The Independent, 15 Jan 2020.

Before we come to family reunification, it is probably worth taking a break to look at some numbers here. It is easy to assume from listening to politicians and pundits that every asylum seeker in France is trying to cross the channel.

Based on the most recent statistics for 2019, France was host to 166,210 asylum seekers, between first time and repeat applications. During the same period there were about 1,800 people who crossed, about 1% of the total number.

As a handy reference here, for roughly the same period, give or take due to different times the figures are calculated, the UK had 34,354 applications.

Back to families. I think most of us would agree that knowing people makes a difference to how we perceive our safety. There is an issue at moment with asylum seekers, particularly unaccompanied minors, failing to be reunited with family members in the UK., 15 jan 2020.

With no safe route available to them, therefore, they are forced to take whatever measures they can to reach a country where they can be reunited with family members and feel that element of safety which most of us take for granted.

This really is just a brief snapshot. The whole issue of safety and why people would risk lives to cross channel is incredibly complex, as anything involving human life is.

Hopefully though it helps some see that France may not be as safe for asylum seekers as it is for you and I.🔷

[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 11 August 2020 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Wikipedia/VOA News. - Sudanese migrants and/or refugees at the "jungle" refugee/migrant camp in Calais, France. | 21 October 2015. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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