Social Justice

Boris Johnson criticised for saying male refugees are 'queue jumping' ahead of women and children

The prime minister's remarks reinforce the narrative around the 'deserving migrant' as opposed to the 'undeserving migrant', say campaigners.

Signs saying refugees welcome

Image: Ilias Bartolini / Flickr

Migrant charities have labelled Boris Johnson’s comments on refugees misleading and dangerous after he claimed men were “paying people smugglers to queue jump” when crossing the Channel.

The government will soon begin sending migrants who cross the Channel in small boats to Rwanda for processing, with Priti Patel announcing the first group of people have now been informed.

The Home Office claims the policy will send a “clear signal” that there would be no right to remain in the UK, but is facing multiple legal challenges over the policy, which has been branded “unlawful”.

Defending the policy, Johnson said in a speech: “It’s a striking fact that around seven out of 10 of those arriving in small boats last year were men under 40, paying people smugglers to queue jump and taking up our capacity to help genuine women and child refugees.

“This is particularly perverse as those attempting crossings, are not directly fleeing imminent peril as is the intended purpose of our asylum system.”

But migration experts have condemned such rhetoric for being dangerous and deceptive.

Andy Hewett, head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, told The Big Issue: “This is misleading for several reasons. There is no ‘queue’ for these people to jump – the vast majority will have no other way to come to the UK and claim asylum. It is completely incorrect to imply that they are not genuine, when seven out of 10 go on to be recognised as refugees by the government.

“People escaping war and persecution deserve a fair hearing on UK soil, wherever they are from, and whatever their age or gender.

“We need to provide more safe routes for refugees and address the reasons they are forced to flee – instead of blaming, stigmatising or punishing people who have been through so much already.”

Likewise, Paola Uccellari, interim chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said: “Sadly, our leaders seem intent on scapegoating people who’ve fled harm, a perverse tactic used to score headlines and distract from their own political failures.

“But we’re not stupid. The public can see what they’re trying to do and won’t fall for it. If Boris Johnson truly wanted to, he could easily prevent perilous crossings and save lives by creating safe routes here, like humanitarian visas – a travel document that would allow people who need protection to travel by train or ferry, just like you or I, to claim asylum. 

“It’s time this government stopped demonising people forced to flee. What we need are fair and effective asylum rules that allow people to travel safely and rebuild their lives in our communities.”

Official Home Office figures, as reported by The Times, reveal nine in 10 migrants who crossed the Channel last year were male – and 28,526 people crossed the Channel in 1,034 small boats.

But Colette Batten-Turner, founding executive director of Conversation over Borders, said Boris Johnson’s remarks play into “a harming and sexist narrative” around the ‘deserving migrant’ versus the ‘undeserving migrant’.

She explained: “While we do receive more men than women travelling on small boats into the UK, there are multiple practical reasons behind this and much of it comes down to this government’s refusal to provide safe and legal routes to asylum.”

Batten-Turner said women and children are statistically more likely to be subject to sexual abuse, trafficking, violence and exploitation while travelling from a war zone to a safe country.

And due to a lack of safe and legal routes to the UK, people have to rely on people smugglers, who are notoriously expensive. Many families only have the resources to send one member on the dangerous journey, and statistically men are more likely to survive it. 

She added: “Once they have refugee status, many of the men we work with then hope they can apply through Family Reunion for their wife and children to join them. Therefore, by demonising male asylum seekers and making it increasingly difficult to claim asylum in the UK, this government is in fact making it more difficult for ‘genuine women and child refugees’ to reach safety.

“By portraying male asylum seekers as economic migrants – not people fleeing “imminent peril” – this government deliberately stokes division and feeds into harmful narratives around who is deserving of our help.”

On Johnson’s use of the phrase ‘queue jumping’, Dr Peter William Walsh, senior researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, added: “The language is somewhat misleading as it implies there is a system of queuing to access the UK’s asylum system. There isn’t. If you want to claim asylum in the UK the only route to doing so is to enter the UK, and for most the only way to do that is by ‘irregular’ means – such as in a small boat or in the back of a lorry.

“The choices that people make to seek asylum in the UK rather than in other ‘safe’ countries are complex – and it’s probably reasonable to assume that most asylum seekers in France did not arrive there directly from a conflict zone either. If the entire weight of refugee crises is to be borne by immediately neighbouring states, that places a massive burden on them, which in itself creates challenges and both national and international tensions. The UK takes a relatively small share of Europe’s asylum seekers.”

He added: “One of the features of the new Nationality and Borders Act is a penalisation of those granted refugee status who arrived in the UK to claim asylum by irregular means – which is basically all asylum seekers because there is no way of entering the UK legally to claim asylum – preventing them from bringing family members for reunification. A consequence of this is likely to be reducing the share of women and children the UK’s asylum system supports.”

Charities continue to condemn Home Secretary Priti Patel’s Rwanda plan, and are pushing for safer routes for refugees.

Uccellari added: “As we said in April, this government’s Rwanda scheme should have no place in our asylum system. No-one seeking safety in the UK should face deportation to a country half way round the world, but the fact we now know Priti Patel plans to ship LGBTQ+ people, trafficking and torture survivors to Rwanda, putting them at grave risk, shows us just how depraved these plans are.

“It’s time Priti Patel stopped dreaming up diabolical ways to treat people seeking safety here – whether that’s deporting people to Rwanda, or opening up prison-like asylum camps in rural Yorkshire. What we need are fair and effective asylum rules, which give people the chance to come here safely and build their lives in our communities.”

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