Let’s break Sarah Atherton’s letter on refugees and boat crossings down, and the spectacular lack of knowledge demonstrated by the MP for Wrexham in it, shall we?

First published in August 2020.

Sarah Atherton, Conservative MP for Wrexham, elected last December, tweeted the following letter on Tuesday morning:

In the first line of her letter, there is a misunderstanding – to put it charitably here – by Sarah Atherton regarding the differences between the asylum system and the visa system. Aside from the UK already having a points based immigration system, asylum applications are very different.

An asylum seekers is entitled to seek asylum, without penalties as to manner of entry, specifically due to the circumstances necessitating their flight from persecution. This is a matter of international rather than domestic law, not EU specifically, as alluded to later on.

Safety, as understood through case law, is subjective. Now France may be considered safe for you and I, however, as evidenced by reports of police brutality and its being found guilty of breaching refugee rights by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), among other things, it may not be for asylum seekers.

This has not stopped 150,000+ individuals applying for asylum there. However, the multiple factors involved in determining an individual feeling of safety have meant that a small fraction, 4,300 roughly, have felt unsafe enough as to make a dangerous channel crossing.

As an aside, the same can be said throughout the EU, for example Germany has approximately 166,000+ applications, yet people may not feel safe there due to the 1,600 record attacks against asylum seekers last year.

The Dublin III Regulations, which I assume is what Sarah Atherton is talking about, cover a member state’s responsibilities. However, they are not the governing instrument regarding asylum seekers, which is the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (also known as 1951 Refugee Convention).

Neither these regulations, nor the Convention, nor any refugee law instrument by the way state that an asylum seeker has to seek asylum in any specific country.

Leaving the EU does not remove the UK’s obligations under international law.

Interestingly, though, leaving Dublin III Regulations all but guarantees it becomes harder for Britain to send asylum seekers back to France – this is particularly the case as France routinely deports asylum seekers to Libya, which is an active conflict zone, and thereby risks breaching non-refoulement.

Non-refoulement is not a specifically refugee law focused tool. It is covered by a number of human rights instruments and means you cannot deport someone to an unsafe country, or a third country where they may then subsequently be deported to an unsafe country.

Next up is Sarah Atherton’s use of the phrase “economic migrants”. The only way to demonstrate that someone is not a “genuine asylum seeker” is by processing their application. A failure to do so is also a breach of international, not EU, law.

There is also a misunderstanding, or at least I assume it is, by Sarah Atherton as to the difference between smugglers and traffickers. Both are criminal enterprises.

Smugglers will charge a fee for asylum seekers to use their service.

Traffickers, however, will often extract payment after the journey through forcing the individual to work in a variety of manners, which may range from worker exploitation through to sex trafficking.

Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants. / United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime (UNODC)

Here is the thing though, when you blockade the channel or make life more difficult for smugglers it does not stop people still attempting to reach a place of safety. Instead it drives up prices forcing them into the hands of traffickers.

This means that the only effective way to combat either is by opening safe routes, of which the UK only has two very limited forms at the moment, family reunification which they have already failed to properly enact and Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS).

VPRS is only accessible to a limited number of Syrian Refugees. As asylum seekers come from many countries and have a variety of reasons for fearing persecution beyond war neither of these provides enough protection.

Now, it is also worth mentioning that while the Channel is governed by international maritime law it is not illegal to cross it.

It is, however, illegal for the Navy to violate French waters or for a vessel to fail to render assistance to those in need on the seas.

Again, this has nothing to do with the EU and is a matter of international law which the UK will still be subject to upon the ending of the transition period.

As a sovereign nation the UK is at liberty to remove itself from these treaties though. I would argue that anyone who had the “country’s best interests at heart” would not suggest that making it a pariah state and diminishing its influence in the international community – which this would undoubtedly do – was the way to go about this.

From start to finish, this letter from the MP for Wrexham is full of inaccuracies and misconceptions.

I would suggest that in the genuine interests of the country it would be best for a serving MP to learn at least a basic level about the laws governing it before spouting tripe.🔷

If Sarah Atherton cares to respond to Dan Sohege’s comment piece, she can contact PMP Magazine. We would be more than happy to discuss this further.

Interesting tweets:

Twitter – @AlunDaviesMS (Member of the Welsh Senedd)
Twitter – @BarristerSecret (Junior barrister specialising in criminal law)


Check their Voting Record:

🗳️ Sarah Atherton

[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 19 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.]

(Cover: Screenshot from UNODC.)

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