Can refugees enter the UK illegally?

Published: 28th Aug 2019

In brief

Claim

If you come to the UK illegally, you are an illegal migrant, and I’m afraid the law will treat you as such.

Conclusion

Not in all cases. Specifically, refugees seeking asylum in the UK can’t be penalised for entering illegally if they are claiming asylum and coming from a place where their life or freedom are threatened. They may also stop over in other “safe” countries en route to the UK.

“The UK should not be regarded as a place where you can automatically come and break the law by seeking to arrive illegally. If you come illegally, you are an illegal migrant, and I’m afraid the law will treat you as such.”

Boris Johnson, 23 August 2019

In reference to migrants attempting to cross the Channel to get from France to the UK, Boris Johnson said “If you come illegally, you are an illegal migrant, and I’m afraid the law will treat you as such.”

This is not correct in all cases.

Although it’s certainly true that crossing the Channel without authorisation isn’t a legal way to enter the UK, Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention states that refugees cannot be penalised for entering the country illegally to claim asylum if they are “coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened” provided they “present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence”.

A lot depends here on how to interpret which country people are “coming directly from”. It could be argued, for instance, that as the people crossing the channel are coming directly from France—which is not the country they initially fled—they don’t have the right to claim asylum in the UK.

However, in 1999 a UK judge ruled that “some element of choice is indeed open to refugees as to where they may properly claim asylum.” The judge specified that “any merely short term stopover en route” to another country should not forfeit the individual’s right to claim refugee status elsewhere.

This means people who enter the UK by illegal means can legitimately make a claim for asylum, even after passing through other “safe” countries, provided they do so directly after arriving.

We’ve written about the rights of refugees in greater detail here. When Mr Johnson first made his statement on Friday, the Guardian politics liveblog called his statement misleading, after a reader alerted them to our original article.

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