The UK’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has been accused of ‘misleading’ the public over the UK immigration crisis in the Channel. According to an MP, Patel has wrongly been labelling migrant Channel crossings as ‘illegal’. In December 2021, several judges ruled that refugees attempting to reach a British port or rescued at sea had not committed a crime.
One judge, Lord Justice Edis, said: “As the law presently stands, an asylum seeker who merely attempts to arrive at the frontiers of the UK in order to make a claim is not entering or attempting to enter the country unlawfully.”
However, despite several judges ruling that those arriving by boat across the Channel were not committing a crime, Patel along with other UK government figures continue to describe the increasing number of crossings as ‘illegal’.
Choice of words misleading
Stuart McDonald, an MP for the Scottish National Party (SNP) who also sits on the Home Affairs Committee, said that Patel’s choice of words ‘is a misleading way of describing the issue and totally mischaracterises what is happening’.
Mr McDonald said: “It is quite a deliberate attempt to dehumanize these people and make the public think worse of them.”
Patel is reportedly among a number of government figures who have incorrectly used the term ‘illegal’. Attorney General Suella Braverman plus government ministers Victoria Atkins, Baroness Williams, James Heappey and Baroness Goldie have all used the term ‘illegal’ to describe Channel crossings since the December court ruling.
Bella Sankey, the director of Detention Action – a campaign group that works to protect asylum seekers, said: “The Home Secretary and Attorney General demean their office, and mislead parliament and the public, by falsely claiming those crossing the Channel have broken criminal law.”
“That they continue to do so, in defiance of a Court of Appeal judgment, shows once again the disrespect this government has both for the law and for the truth,” Ms Sankey added.
According to official Home Office data, ‘almost all’ migrants arriving on small boats from the Channel claim asylum, and the vast majority are granted protection.
Mr McDonald has since questioned the Home Secretary about the Court of Appeal judgement over the legality of Channel crossings in parliament.
On 17 January, he said: “The Home Secretary should have pointed out that, unlike the endless Downing Street parties, arriving in the UK to claim asylum is not unlawful, as the Court of Appeal reminded her just last month.”
However, Patel did not address Mr McDonald’s point and instead accused the SNP of ‘political gimmicks’ and vowing action to stop the exploitation of ‘people who cross illegally’.
The day after the Court of Appeal ruling, The Independent asked whether the Home Office would stop referring to Channel crossings as ‘illegal’ given that the Court had already stated that it was wrong.
The Home Office’s press office refused to answer the question and instead issued a statement that did not acknowledge the Court of Appeal’s ruling.
During a recent High Court address, Sir James Eadie QC said: “It appears that for whatever reason there was quite a common misunderstanding that the offence of illegal entry would always be committed [by small boat passengers].”
Lord Justice Edis said evidence showed that the ‘origin of the error was actually in the Home Office and its agencies’, to which Sir James replied: “That may be right, but that position has now been classified.”
However, Priti Patel and other government ministers have not publicly acknowledged any misinterpretation of the law, or changed their position.
During a House of Lords debate on 5 January, minister Baroness Williams said that the government was ‘working to deter illegal entry’ via Channel crossings.
The following day, the Attorney General told the House of Commons: “We need to take tangible action to deal with the problem of illegal migrants crossing our Channel … to get on an illegally manned vessel and to try to break through our borders illegitimately is dangerous, immoral and unlawful.”
In a separate debate on 5 January, the Afghan resettlement minister Ms Atkins said there were ‘understandable concerns about illegal migration’.
According to official figures, the number of migrants crossing the Channel by small boat tripled in 2021 to more than 28,000, despite Patel pledging to make the route ‘unviable’. Hundreds more migrants have crossed the Channel in January 2022.
Current UK immigration laws state that anyone seeking asylum in Britain must be ‘physically present in the country’.
There is currently no UK asylum visa and campaigners claim that existing resettlement schemes are insufficient, but the government has rebuffed calls to expand safe routes.
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