How we can help Resources Reports A safe and legal route from France to the UK through a humanitarian visa scheme Download this paper Stay up to date with JCWI Joint Contribution for RAMP Cross-Party Submission A safe and legal route from France to the UK through a humanitarian visa scheme 15 January 2021 Note: The following submission outlines policies proposed jointly by The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Detention Action, Refugee Rights Europe, Choose Love and Kent Refugee Action Network. It is, however, also based on on-going discussions among a wider group of organisations including several French refugee and migrants’ rights NGOs. The proposal, therefore, is a work-in-progress based in this continuing collaboration and will be subject to refining and defining in more detail as this forum continues discussions over the coming weeks and months. Background The situation for migrants in Northern France is a long-standing stain on the British conscience. It represents nothing less than a three-decades-long disaster. A standing population of migrants live in destitution, over time in more or less formalised camps,always lacking in basic hygiene, shelter and necessities, subjected to abuse and degradation from the authorities, and at high risk from criminal gangs or in some cases of being trafficked. Juxtaposed controls have existed between Britain and France since the early 1990s, during which time the problem has grown in scale and become increasingly untenable for migrant populations. The principle of the UK border being located on French soil aside, in practice, the idea has been entirely discredited among large parts of the French population, as well as the British. It is impossible to say with certainty how many lives have been lost, nor how many vulnerable people and children have disappeared into the networks of the criminal gangs in this region in the last 30 years. Most recently over the last year, while there has been an overall drop in numbers crossing irregularly from France to the UK, there has been an increase in the number of migrants attempting to cross the Channel in small boats. In 2020, 8,400 people had attempted this dangerous journey, up from 1,835 in 2019. Almost universally, those who arrived immediately applied for asylum in the UK. While until now, the majority of those who enter the UK through these means have entered the Dublin system of returns to other European countries, of those whose claim has been examined in the UK, two thirds were found to be in need of international protection. The crossing is, of course, extremely dangerous. A family of five, including a baby and two young children were drowned in the attempt in October 2020, joining 300 more recorded border-related deaths since 1999. More deaths, drowned at sea, suffocated in lorries or crushed on train tracks, are the inevitable outcome of continuation of the status quo in Northern France. The cost of the securitisation approach that has characterised the last decade is impossible to calculate in human terms, but the financial cost has been enormous. Between 2014-20, a staggering £164.66 million had been spent by the UK government on attempts to securitise the French-British border region and in November of 2020 a further £28.1 million was pledged by Priti Patel MP, the current Home Secretary. It is highly concerning that astronomical sums continue to be spent on policies which have yielded such demonstrably unsatisfactory results and have directly contributed to deaths in the Channel. It is time for a change in approach. Why now is the time for this proposal Any time in the past 30 years would have been a good time to change the damaging approach to migration through Northern France and pursue a human rights-based approach. However, the current moment represents both a unique opportunity and urgency to address the situation and introduce a new approach. Brexit – This month, for the first time in almost 30 years, the UK is no longer a member of the Dublin Regulation. The UK no longer has the ability to return asylum seekers entering the UK through France, nor is there a mechanism in place even on paper. While the Dublin Regulation was utilised by the UK government in an unsatisfactory manner, it was in theory a mechanism to facilitate the safe legal entry of asylum seekers with family members in the UK or other Dublin-mandated grounds for entry. The British government will now be seeking to negotiate migration cooperation agreements on a bilateral level with numerous EU countries, most notably France, representing a real opportunity to implement an approach that embraces the UK’s ability to take in and protect refugees. Another consequence of the completion of Brexit is that it has thrown further into question the system of bilateral cooperation that currently exists on the UK-France border. Wide-scale dissatisfaction with the current controls has been a recent and growing point of discussion in the French press. The last-minute further securitisation that has been introduced along the border, where the death of a 19-year-old migrant in November has drawn further attention, as well as the rush in Dublin returns that the UK pushed through at the end of the year, have been noted with concern across the Channel. French political leaders in the region, including the Mayor of Grande-Synthe and the President of the Hauts-de-France Regional Council wrote directly to the Home Affairs Select Committee in September 2020 to raise their concerns about the impact of the juxtaposed controls on their region. President Macron himself has repeatedly signaled his intention to overhaul the Le Touquet and Sangatte agreements. Both French and British organisations campaigning for the rights of migrants in France, are calling for these agreements to be scrapped entirely or significantly adjusted. The pressure of dissatisfaction with the status quo in France, from numerous actors, is likely to force the UK to undertake significant changes in the context of bilateral negotiations following Brexit. It must be noted that while the UK has left the EU, it remains bound by international and national law on the protection of human rights and dignity in its treatment of migrants. As long as the UK wields sovereign legal powers on French territory under the juxtaposed borders, it will be at least in part responsible for the situation of migrants in the region and must take that responsibility seriously in line with its legal obligations. Since the end of the transition period and the UK’s exit from the Dublin Regulation, a significant proportion of asylum seekers in the country now face a situation of complete uncertainty. While the government has drastically reduced legal means in place to remove people seeking protection back to other countries they have transited, neither does it intend to fairly and efficiently process their claims through existing asylum processes. There is a real risk that the current vacuum will result in a significant build-up in the population of asylum seekers in limbo, trapped in lengthy or even indefinite removal procedures that will be impossible to effectuate, unable to start building new lives in safety, accommodated in sub-standard facilities, while the UK seeks to negotiate away their future through deals with international partners that may or may not come to fruition. It must also be noted that the asylum system is already backlogged, with the Home Office regularly missing its own deadlines for decisions on asylum cases. It is therefore vital that a new system is put in place, which does not displace other routes through-which asylum seekers from France may safely enter the UK and obtain protection. Real progress is urgent and necessary, with a need for a new route which provides migrants with a safe and legal route of entry to the UK, protects their rights under the Refugee Convention and ensures that all claims are heard fairly. Our proposal The introduction of safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to enter the UK from France, and the more efficient functioning of existing routes, has been the unanimous call of migrants’ rights organisations for a long time. Here, we provide the starting framework for what a workable humanitarian visa system must look like. We propose a travel document for migrants that reflects both their rights under the Geneva Convention to lodge a claim for international protection in whichever country they feel they will be able to find safety, regardless of their method of travel, and reflects the UK’s strength and ability to shoulder our share of responsibility for the protection of refugees as we move on from Brexit into a new framework of cooperation with the rest of the world. Overview: An end to the juxtaposed controls in Northern France and reversal of the securitisation of the border region. The introduction of a new visa system providing a travel permit, supported by legal advice, for the purpose of entering the UK to seek asylum, available to anyone with a prima facie claim for international protection. A prima facie claim would essentially be considered to exist where someone is likely to be granted refugee status in the UK upon assessment of their full asylum case made within the existing UK asylum system. This will help to ensure that any individual, including unaccompanied minors, who has made a considered and well-informed decision that the UK is the country they wish to claim asylum in, are able to do so without resorting to dangerous irregular journeys facilitated by criminal gangs, and without entering a situation of limbo in the UK asylum system, liable for removal to any other country before their substantive claim is heard. Reasons for a person to make an informed decision that the UK is the country where they would feel safe might include cultural and historical ties between their country of origin and the UK, family links to the UK (conceived of more broadly than current family reunification criteria), and other individual circumstances. No significant new infrastructure relating to the UK asylum system on French territory, beyond making this process available to apply from in existing UK consulates and embassy. No further enforcement presence would be required on the ground as a result of the visa system and any person whose application for such a visa is denied should be left “no worse off” as regards any future asylum claim in either country. People should be guaranteed dignified accommodation and access to information and legal advice about their rights both in France and the UK throughout this procedure, for example in structures already intended to provide guidance and orientation to those with undocumented or irregular status, or those undergoing transfer procedures such as family reunification. Safeguards: In the context of the Home Office’s increasing restrictions on the right to asylum and migration, we feel the need to underline the importance of having strict safeguards in place for such a policy that would prevent the further erosion of existing rights. French civil society partners have raised concerns regarding how any new policy in this area might present an opportunity for the UK to further externalise its border controls and asylum process onto French soil, which alongside them we firmly oppose. It is important that once individuals reach the UK on a visa, they would go through the regular asylum procedure, and not a fast-tracked one where we risk seeing individuals being detained, denied protection and returned to France or deported to their country of origin without a fair and proper process and procedural safeguards. There must not be a date limit of when an individual arrived in France, as was the case with the Dubs Amendment. There should be a strict limit on processing times to avoid lengthy offshoring process or the build-up of individuals waiting on French territory. As mentioned above, we must caution against proposing a system which would entail the building up of additional UK infrastructure in France. There should be strict safeguards relating to the welfare of children who may be applying. The existence of this procedure should not be used as a basis to render inadmissible the asylum claim placed by a person still arrive in the UK spontaneously by irregular means, in accordance with international law. As mentioned above, a refusal of such a travel document must also under no circumstances lead to the automatic refusal of an individual’s asylum claim in France or elsewhere; hence there must be no data sharing or connection between the UK visa scheme and other states’ asylum systems or the European EURODAC database. Overall, the safeguards included in the visa scheme must ensure that those refused the asylum visa should be left “no worse off” than prior to applying and should not be subject to removal directions given they retain the right to place a substantive asylum claim either on French or on British territory, or elsewhere. There must be guaranteed access to legal advice and recourse, as mentioned in the overview above. The scheme must not be limited in any way by nationality, or to nationals of countries with which the UK has readmission agreements in place, whereby this visa scheme could risk becoming a means to allow people to enter the UK in order to then swiftly deport them. Instead, it should be based on the individual circumstances of the applicant constituting a prima facie claim for international protection. Conclusion This moment comprises a combined point of urgency and opportunity to change our approach to migrants at the UK-French border. It is an opportunity to end 30 years of tried, tested and failed policies that have left migrants dead, in limbo, and in the hands of smugglers and traffickers. It is a workable and safe alternative to the current chaos and the coming limbo and legal battles that the new rules guarantee. It is a proposal which benefits from insights from experts in both countries and it is one whose time has come.