REFUGEE charities and campaigners are pleading for the UK Government to open up more safe and legal routes to asylum in the wake of the deaths of four people who attempted to cross the English Channel in a small boat.

The vessel had to be rescued in the early hours of the morning on December 14, with rescue crews pulling more than 30 people from the water.

So far, four people are confirmed to have died in the incident.

Now, refugee charities and campaigners are calling on the UK Government to act urgently to prevent any further loss of life.

Anti-racism campaigner Zamard Zahid told The National that the incident was a “shameful” indictment of the government’s asylum policies.

She said: “It is a full year since 32 people lost their lives in the Channel and the horrific tragedy today of four lives lost is the result of a government continuing to deceive and divert the UK public by framing asylum policy as a criminal and administrative problem.

“It is a shameful indictment of this government that even one innocent life is lost trying to claim asylum in the UK.”

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Cath McGee, development and operations manager at the Refugee Survival Trust, said that the repeated occurrence of tragic incidents in the Channel was the result of a failure by the UK Government to deal with the issue.

She said: “This is the culmination of years of inaction by the Westminster government and their refusal to address what’s happening in France. “The direction they have taken is one of hardening their attitude towards people seeking asylum.

"A lazy, bigoted route of assuming that anybody who crosses the Channel in a small boat is ‘illegal’ and doing so for nefarious reasons."

She added that the failure of the government to act had resulted in the current situation, where refugees put their lives at risk crossing the Channel as it is their only hope of gaining asylum.

“They’ve just let this situation fester and grow, until it is now in the hands of criminals,” she said.

“This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

'Safe and legal routes' 

Andy Sirel, legal director and partner at JustRight Scotland, said that while all parties agree that small boat crossings need to stop, there hadn’t been sufficient reflection as to why they were occurring in the first place.

He told The National: “Everybody agrees that they’re dangerous. Everybody agrees that they shouldn’t be happening. The question is really: why are they happening?

“One of the primary reasons is because safe and legal routes to enter the UK for international protection have been shut down by the UK Government.”

Safe and legal routes such as the ‘Dubs scheme’, which brought unaccompanied children across Europe into the UK, ended in 2020.

The scheme which resettled Syrian refugees fleeing war was paused in 2020 and ended in February 2021.

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Additionally, the UK’s departure from the European Union meant it withdrew from the Dublin III Regulation, which allowed people seeking asylum in an EU country with family members in the UK to come to the UK legally and have their asylum claim processed.

Sirel added that the schemes that do remain in existence were not processing large numbers of refugees.

For example, the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, which the UK Government announced last August, and which opened in January 2022, has only resettled 4 people since the Taliban took over control of the country.

“Home Office statistics for 2021 advised that the various schemes resettled around 327 people across the entirety of that year,” said Sirel.

“The UK Government promotes the use of safe and legal routes, while simultaneously closing them down or limiting their access.”

Family reunion 

JustRight Scotland works with refugees already settled in the UK who wish to bring their family members over to the country.

However, Sirel stated that the UK rules dictating whether or not an application for family reunion will be successful are extremely limiting.

Currently, the Home Office only allows for adult refugees already living in the UK to be reunited with their spouses and children, and very few other circumstances.

“The UK rules were already very limited, but since the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 came into force in April, for those who claimed asylum from June 28 onward, you now need to be showing really exceptional circumstances just to be reunited with your closest family like your own children and spouse,” he said. 

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“As a result, you’ve got a large number of people who are trying to use those rules but are getting refused.

“For example, we have a case for an Afghan child living in Pakistan, whose only living relative is his brother who is a refugee in Scotland.

“He applied for a visa to come to the UK using the safe and legal route of family reunion, and that was refused, too. They said he should continue living in Pakistan. He is alone over there and at risk from the Taliban.

"Even when you try and use one of the very few safe and legal routes, it is often refused.”

Backlog in asylum claims 

The backlog of asylum claims has increased enormously in recent years, with the latest figures showing 143,377 people waiting for an initial decision on their application.

Of those, almost 100,000 have been waiting more than six months.

According to Sirel, this significant delay in processing claims has knock-on effects to the rest of the system.

“Opening up resettlement routes is important. Causation doesn’t equal correlation but it’s not a coincidence that all of those schemes closed by around 2020, and then suddenly the small boat crossings increased in huge numbers. That, for me, is not a coincidence.

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“But they also need to take other measures. We need an effective and an efficient asylum system to operate here. Decisions for people who claim asylum are now regularly delayed by a year or two, so the backlog is just increasing.

“It prevents people from being able to build their lives, to work, and to integrate into our society.

“But it also means that family reunion through our immigration rules is also extremely difficult because people can’t get the refugee status to apply for their families, so their families end up in those small boats.”

The Home Secretary Suella Braverman has said that banning migrants who arrive to the UK on small boats from applying for asylum will deter further crossings.

However, the UN’s refugee agency said this would break international law.