What would 'Brexit' mean for refugees?

What would 'Brexit' mean for refugees?
5 min read
19 Apr, 2016
Comment: Eurosceptics exploiting the desperation of vulnerable migrants to further anti-EU goals are barking up the wrong tree, writes Priya Dadlani.
The issue of immigration has fed into the EU referendum debate in the UK [Getty]

As campaigning in Britain's referendum on EU membership gets into full swing, refugees and migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa find themselves caught up in the "Brexit" debate.

Campaigners say politicians have mixed up the issues of refugees, economic migrants, and Britain's possible departure from the European Union in a way that has often confused the real issues.

Asylum seekers - who are likely to continue to push towards Britain in large numbers regardless of the EU vote - must be processed according to international law, which has nothing to with Britain's membership of the EU, said Zoe Gardner, a spokeswoman for London-based Asylum Aid.

Under the UN Refugee Convention, Britain is obliged to process people for asylum once they reach Britain.

"If your issue is you want no refugees in the UK, then your issue is not with the EU - it is with global law," Gardner said.

More than one million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe last year, many reaching Greece by sea from Turkey, triggering a humanitarian crisis as they try to make their way through the Balkans to northern Europe.

While a "Brexit" - Britain's withdrawal from the EU - should not affect Britain's obligations towards refugees, the issue of immigration has fed into the debate ahead of the June 23 vote.

The day this relationship unravels, migrants will no longer be in Calais

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who supports remaining in the EU, has suggested that refugees and migrants living in a camp in the French town of Calais could flock to England if British voters decided to leave the bloc.

French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron stoked the argument by saying it would end border controls and let thousands of migrants move on to its neighbour if British voters backed "Brexit".

"The day this relationship unravels, migrants will no longer be in Calais," Macron told the Financial Times in March.

There are about 6,000 people in camps in Calais and Dunkirk hoping to come to Britain, according to research performed recently by Asylum Aid.

Though an end to the so-called Le Touquet agreement - which effectively shifts part of Britain's border to Calais - is possible, the camps in Calais and Dunkirk will likely remain, said Caroline Woollard, secretary-general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).

"The border may switch to other side of the Channel, but [Britain] won't provide the boats to get people over the sea so the camps will probably stay," she said.

Asylum Aid's Gardner agrees: "Where do they expect [migrants] to go?" she said. "People do not just disappear."

'Welcoming place'

People want to come to Britain because they see it as a welcoming place, said Laura Padoan, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in London.

"People want to come to the UK because the UK is a peaceful country, it is multicultural and tolerant and people are allowed to live their lives," said Padoan.

For some refugees, Britain may simply be the latest stop on a journey through the continent, after they have been forced to keep moving because they could not find the support they needed in other countries.

"They find in Greece that [security] is not available to them because of the economy, and they move on to find security elsewhere," said Gardner.

"People trying to be in France find themselves still destitute and without basic securities, so they keep moving until they reach England," she said.

Nigel Farage, who leads the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) which is campaigning for Britain to leave Europe, has said that staying in the EU would make it easier for refugees to cross borders to Britain.

Gardner said that was unlikely.

"Refugees recognised in, for example, Germany, do not and will not get the right to travel to the UK to live and work. They have to stay in Germany and apply like any other non-EU migrant to come to the UK if they want to - and they may be rejected," she said.

In some countries, refugees must wait to become citizens before they have the right to freedom of travel, said Padoan. It is a process which usually takes several years.


As Britain has so far balked at taking large numbers of refugees - although they are not the only country to do so – "Brexit" could make it easier for the European Union to decide how to equitably distribute refugees among member countries, said Wollard.

The UK has the world's fifth-largest economy with a long history of integration

A Britain outside the EU could also focus more clearly on helping refugees on its own terms, she said.

Regardless of the referendum outcome, Asylum Aid and other NGOs supporting refugees say Britain and the EU will still have to work together in creating a plan to deal with the surge of refugees.

"The UK is operating its own assessment scheme, but the response to refugees arriving in Greece needs to be Europe-wide, and there needs to be the involvement of northern EU countries and only then can it be successful," said Padoan.

Campaigners also argue that Britain needs to take in more refugees.

"The UK has the world's fifth-largest economy with a long history of integration," Wollard said. "Cameron's pledge to only take 20,000 in five years is pitiful."

A version of this article was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.