Whichever way the UK electorate votes in the 23 June referendum on EU membership, an indelible mark will be left on Britain, as well as Europe.
Freedom of movement is at the heart of the debate on both sides of the campaign. For those in the Remain camp, the ability to travel, work and live in the 28 EU member states is a privilege. But for those wanting to leave the EU, the UK’s perceived inability to adequately control its own borders from the hundreds of thousands of migrants that arrive in the UK each year is crucial.
In addition, the European refugee crisis – which saw over one million refugees and other migrants arrive in the EU in 2015 alone – has been massively politicised by the Leave campaign in order to strengthen its electoral support.
While the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox last week has slowed the momentum of the Leave campaign, prior to her shocking death, some polls showed that voters favoured leaving the EU. Particularly in the aftermath of the November 2015 Paris attacks, the British public’s anxiety towards the refugee crisis has grown and with it, criticism of the EU’s approach to the issue.
So what would a Brexit scenario mean for refugees? In practical terms, not a lot would change as asylum seekers arriving in the UK must be processed according to international law.
“The refugees issue is not a decisive one in this referendum. The big issue is the freedom of movement,” says Don Flynn, director of the Migrants Rights Network.
However, refugee campaigners are anxious to see how Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s approach to asylum will take shape in the aftermath of the vote.
“The situation is already pretty bad as the UK has taken advantage of the fact that it is an island. At the moment the UK benefits from EU policies to keep migrants away from its borders,” says Flynn.
The French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron has already suggested that Le Touquet, the bilateral UK-France border agreement that allows UK border officials to run immigration checkpoints in Calais, and French border police to do the same in Dover, would end if Britain leaves the EU. Prime Minister Cameron – who supports remaining in the EU – has suggested that refugees and migrants living in Calais would flee to England in high numbers if British voters decided to leave.
“Things are a lot harsher”
Hashi Mohammed, a barrister and journalist who came to the UK in the 1990s as a child from war-torn Somalia, says the climate facing refugees to the UK has changed significantly. “I think that the government’s approach to both asylum seekers and migrants has become a lot harsher,” says. He recently made a report for BBC Radio 4 titled The Boat Children, looking at unaccompanied refugee children in Italy.
“I think one of the main reasons behind this new attitude is the increase of migration from Eastern Europe from 2004 onwards [when 10 countries, seven of which were from the former Eastern Bloc, joined the EU]. After that, a lot of people in the UK thought that immigration was simply out of control,” he says.
But when it comes to refugees, the UK’s policy has in fact been highly controlled as it has only taken a fraction of refugees in comparison to its European neighbours. According to the British Red Cross, in 2015 the UK received 38,878 asylum applications (including dependents). In Germany, that figure was 431,000, in Sweden 163,000 and Hungary 163,000. Meanwhile just 45 per cent of applicants were granted asylum in the UK once their cases had been fully concluded.
Mohammed says that political expediency should not come at the expense of respecting human rights. “The fact that the UK is one of the main donors to those fleeing war, often nearer to Syria in Jordan and Lebanon, does not change the fact that countries like Germany and Italy do more in terms of taking refugees in.”
The UK’s policy towards unaccompanied child refugees, has also came under the spotlight in recent months thanks to a vote that saw the Tory-majority House of Commons stop an amendment to the Immigration Bill that would have allowed 3,000 unaccompanied Syrian children in continental Europe to find sanctuary in the UK.
It was also recently revealed that the Home Office deports three times more refugee children, including those from war-torn countries such as Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, than it previously admitted.
‘Benefit scroungers’ and ‘welfare tourists’
“Freedom of movement is and should be a human right,” says Hiba Babiker, a refugee from Sudan who was granted asylum in the Netherlands and now lives with her husband, who is also a refugee, in the UK.
“Some people come here to join their families and this freedom is not supported by the UK, but by the EU. In the end, most of the people who come here to join their families want to improve their skills. They don’t want to stay here to wait for benefits”.
While conservative newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express have churned out headline after headline portraying EU economic migrants and refugees alike as ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘welfare tourists’, there is plenty of research which proves the opposite to be true, such as Christian Dustmann and Tommaso Frattini research paper titled The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK.
Amongst the EU citizens that could see their freedom of movement curtailed in a Brexit scenario are people like Babiker who were granted asylum in other EU countries and became EU citizens before moving to the UK. Will they be forced to return in the country where they were granted asylum? This is one of the many unanswered questions of a Brexit scenario.
Babiker says migrants and refugees like herself make a vital contribution to the UK economy and that the UK will have more influence in the European Union on the refugee issue if it stays in rather than out.
But Flynn argues that for all the talk about the drain on the economy posed by migrants, that is not the real issue. “The issue with refugees and asylum seekers is not about resources, but politics, as it is all over Europe. Everything is being analysed through the lens of identity.”
Mohammed agrees: “The fact is that a lot of these migrants are from Muslim countries…..is this a migrant crisis or an identity crisis?”.
From Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico’s recent assertion that “Islam has no place in Slovakia” [editor’s note: Slovakia takes over the EU presidency in July] to the rise of the anti-Islam movement Pegida across Europe, it is clear that both on the continent and in the UK, this question is a major factor.
But at the same time, a significant section of the British public has come out in support of refugee solidarity, as exemplified by the campaign Refugees Welcome.
Coordinated by civil society groups, this cross-country network aims to prove that refugees are indeed welcome in the UK, by providing a one-stop-shop for everything from housing offers to private sponsorship and organising demonstrations.
The EU has been heavily criticised for the lackadaisical and selfish response of most of its member states towards the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War.
It’s doubtless though that the only effective response can come from a cooperative approach where the burden is equally shared. There are around two million people trying to enter Europe, meanwhile Turkey and Lebanon are each hosting that amount of Syrian refugees alone.
“There is a need for more solidarity. Italy and Greece problem is Europe’s problem,” says Mohammed.