Illegal Seaborne Migration

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:16 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary 4:16 pm, 4th June 2019

I query the framing of the urgent question, which talks about “illegal seaborne migration”. We cannot know whether these people are genuine refugees until we have had the opportunity to examine their cases. I am glad the Minister mentioned the risk to life in the busiest sea lane in the world. We all agree that it is tragic that these men and women are the victims of organised crime and people traffickers. I have visited Calais, and although many of these people do not come directly from there, the people one meets in and around Calais are hugely exploited and vulnerable, and Members should show a bit more concern for the risk to life and the vulnerability of these persons.

We need to be careful not to be unduly alarmist. We are not being invaded. There is no comparison to D-day, or whatever flights of imagination some of our media resort to. When the issue of asylum seekers crossing the channel last arose, back in February, the Home Secretary was roundly criticised for his comments. He questioned whether the people apprehended were genuine refugees, and he added:

“If you somehow do make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure you are ultimately not successful because we need to break the link”.

That is not correct. It does not conform to international law. As I said, no one can possibly know whether every one of these cases is not a genuine claim for asylum. That decision must await the application itself and its examination. What the Home Secretary should have said is that we will do everything to uphold the law, and that means not making assumptions about the people crossing the channel but examining all applications impartially, granting asylum where it is justified and denying it where it is not. Each application must be judged on its individual merit, irrespective of how that person reached this country. That is the law. As I said, I query the framing of the urgent question. The Minister seemed to accept it. Does she accept that she cannot be sure—that no one in the Chamber can be sure—whether the people arriving here are doing so illegally until their cases have been examined?

On the wider issue of migration and asylum seekers, commentators and some Members appear to believe that more naval patrols can resolve the issue. That has been tried and has failed spectacularly and tragically. The mere existence of a naval patrol will not deter desperate people. According to the Missing Migrants Project, there have been 543 deaths in the Mediterranean this year alone. A maritime policing approach—let alone just turning back people who might be in British waters—does not work. It is a stain on our humanity and is shameful.

I am sure that the majority of Members understand that these deaths are terrible and unacceptable and that we should do everything we can to reduce their number. The Opposition support the right policies—the legal policies: policies that work, preserve our humanity and uphold human dignity, wherever people are from and however they came to this country. We have long supported the policy that works: the establishment of legal routes for asylum seekers and refugees. This is what all responsible stakeholders propose and meets our obligations under international law. We cannot assume that because of the way in which someone enters the country, that person is necessarily an illegal migrant. We should not dismiss the risk to the lives of people who, as I have said, are crossing one of the busiest sea channels in the world. We want to arrive at a sustainable solution that does not involve suspicion of people because of the way in which they cross the channel, and that means each case is dealt with on its merits.

This is a difficult situation, not least for the people who are so frightened, so desperate and so exploited that they seek to make the crossing in unseaworthy craft. However, we do not want to hear more reactionary grandstanding.