The pandemic has overshadowed, but not reduced, refugee flows to Europe. Damaging misconceptions of asylum-seekers haven’t softened either.
Before the pandemic, the issue of irregular migration was at the top of the agenda throughout the European Union. The European ‘refugee crisis’ reached its peak in 2015, with an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment and the rise of right-wing political movements across Europe. In the United Kingdom, the issue became a key part of the Leave campaign and is often credited as a significant factor in its ‘Brexit’ referendum victory in 2016.
When Covid-19 arrived in Europe, irregular migration almost dropped off the agenda altogether. But the coronavirus has exacerbated the underlying issues behind refugee populations, leading to an increase in sea arrivals last year.
Tunisia has faced significant economic and social problems, while Libya remains mired in war. Both contributed to the 149 per cent increase in arrivals on Italy’s shores in the year to last July. The UK has meanwhile seen record numbers of asylum-seekers crossing the English Channel from France, with safe routes on hold during the pandemic.
As a result, irregular migration is back on the agenda. But the framing of this issue by the media, as well as political figures, across the EU has created enduring misconceptions about asylum-seekers. The most common are four.
Asylum-seekers are entering Europe illegally: Asylum-seekers are regularly and wrongfully labelled as ‘illegal immigrants’. As long as a person has made an asylum claim, they have not committed a crime—no matter how they have entered the country.
Article 31 of the United Nations Refugee Convention recognises that, due to their circumstances, it may be necessary for asylum-seekers to use irregular means to enter a country in which they are seeking safety. It states that refugees cannot be penalised for entering 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’.
Crossing the English Channel or the Mediterranean in small boats to enter Europe is thus not illegal, providing an asylum claim is made. A study in 2018 found that this criminalisation of asylum-seekers in Europe was however used to evade responsibilities under international law and undermined protection frameworks put in place to safeguard displaced persons.
Asylum-seekers are just economic migrants: A related myth is that most asylum-seekers are just ‘economic migrants’ and so ‘bogus’. An economic migrant is someone who migrates for a better standard of living. But while it’s true that asylum-seekers are looking for a better way of life, to qualify for refugee status the asylum-seeker must have a ‘well-founded fear’ of persecution.
There is little evidence that most asylum-seekers entering Europe are doing so purely for economic gains. The vast majority come from Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Columbia and Iraq—all countries with poor human-rights records and/or continuing conflicts, whose citizens have valid reasons to fear persecution and thus be eligible for asylum.
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Asylum-seekers are often labelled ‘bogus’ if they have passed through other countries before claiming asylum in the country they choose. No international law however states that asylum-seekers must make a claim in the first country they reach. And what might be thought safe to others might not be safe for someone fleeing persecution—for example, if a country of transit has not signed the Refugee Convention.
Asylum-seekers are all men: according to the UN high commissioner for refugees, women and girls make up about half of any refugee, internally-displaced or stateless population, proportionate to the global population of women. It is true that the majority of asylum-seekers arriving in Europe are men—62 per cent of asylum applicants in the EU in 2019 were male—but there are several reasons for this.
The journey to Europe is often incredibly dangerous, particularly for women and children increasingly vulnerable to being exploited along routes out of war zones. Last year alone, 1,885 people were recorded as having lost their lives in the Mediterranean—and the real figure is most likely much higher, as many disappear without trace. Due to this risk, many men choose to make the perilous journey to a safe country alone, while their families wait until they have been granted asylum, using much safer routes then for family reunification.
And still many women and even unaccompanied children do make what may be a hazardous journey. Almost a third of all asylum-seekers making a claim in the EU in 2019 were children and 38 per cent were women.
There’s no room for asylum-seekers: Another frequently pedalled myth is that there is no space for asylum-seekers in Europe and that the burden they bring is far greater than endured elsewhere. The reality is that European countries are far from taking in the most refugees around the world: only Turkey makes the top ten.
Top of the list is Lebanon, of whose population over one in five are now refugees, principally from neighbouring Syria. Next is Jordan, with over 10 per cent of the population comprising refugees, including longstanding Palestinians. But when it comes to Europe, even in Germany, with its relatively high intake alongside Sweden, refugees still only comprise 1.5 per cent of the population.
Vulnerable at risk
These misconceptions, spread by large media outlets and political figures, are not just innocent misunderstandings. They put at risk the wellbeing of vulnerable asylum-seekers, who face hostility in countries which are supposed to be providing them—as signatories to the Refugee Convention—with sanctuary from their persecution.
Allowing the media and political rhetoric to fuel these myths means racism and xenophobia in Europe will continue to ferment. And asylum-seekers will still risk being criminalised, detained and deported, rather than protected.