Opinion

Most Brits agree next government must offer safe routes for refugees. So why is nobody talking about it?

This World Refugee Day, we must remember that seeking asylum is a human right

A refugee boat

Image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

With just two weeks to go until the UK’s general election, the discussion of safe routes for people seeking asylum has hardly featured in the political debate.  

But it’s clear that the current plan to reduce irregular migration is not working. Despite a raft of recent legislation – all designed with the aim of stopping small boats from arriving at our shores – Channel crossings continue. 

Since the government struck the deal to send migrants to Rwanda just over two years ago, some 80,459 people have made the journey to the UK via boat. This is because deterrence policies ignore the reasons why people come here in the first place, and the fact that safe alternatives do not exist for the majority of people. 

Politicians need to ditch the narrative that deterrence is a solution to irregular migration and instead deliver an effective, well-managed and compassionate system that provides a genuine alternative to channel crossings. 

New polling from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), released today for World Refugee Day, suggests that future generations want a more compassionate system too. More than half of 16–44-year-olds (58%) agree that whichever party forms the next UK government should provide more safe ways for people fleeing conflict to seek protection in the UK, with only 13% disagreeing with this sentiment. 

So far this year, 13 people have died attempting to cross the Channel – more than the number of people who died throughout the whole of 2023. The majority of people attempting this perilous journey are from Afghanistan – a country experiencing conflict, poverty and the severe restriction on the rights and freedoms of women and girls

For those making these journeys, the current safe routes simply aren’t available to them. While the UK does have a Resettlement Scheme for people in certain vulnerable circumstances, it is not a last-minute option for people who have been forced to suddenly flee their home due to an escalating conflict or other crisis – it must be applied for months, or even years, in advance – and it relocated just 485 people to the UK in 2023. Outside this scheme, bespoke routes are only available to Ukrainians, Hong Kong nationals and Afghans, but even for this latter group they only managed to bring 860 people to the UK in 2023. 

The IRC has been supporting refugees arriving in the UK through resettlement schemes since 2021 and we see first-hand the lifeline they offer to people who are eligible. However, most people fleeing conflict and persecution simply cannot access these limited schemes, and with no way to claim asylum in the UK from outside the country, desperate people are being forced to risk their lives to exercise their right to seek protection. 

There are three key ways to deliver safe routes which can effectively reduce Channel crossings. Firstly, making an ambitious pledge to the UK’s Resettlement Scheme would provide a pathway for refugees with urgent or extreme vulnerabilities to have their needs met here. Secondly, a refugee visa would provide a lifeline for people fleeing conflict and crisis, giving them permission to come to the UK to submit an asylum application, without having to make dangerous journeys by small boat.  

Finally, evidence from the Home Office suggests a significant proportion of people claiming asylum in the UK have family here. Expanding refugee family reunion rules would stop many – including children – from being forced to take dangerous routes to reunite with their loved ones. This would allow families to be together and reduce irregular journeys.

This World Refugee Day, we must remember that seeking asylum is a human right. For desperate people facing persecution and crisis, this right must be upheld. Without safe and humane ways for people to seek protection in the UK, people will continue to make dangerous journeys and, as we head into the warmer months, there is a real risk of even more lives lost in the Channel. The introduction of safe routes is the most effective way to ‘stop the boats’.

Denisa Delić is director of advocacy at International Rescue Committee UK.

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