With Theresa May confirming that Article 50 will be triggered by the end of March 2017, Brexit is very much a reality. While it will have obvious repercussions on those who currently live and work in the UK, there are other groups who will also be severely affected. Among these groups are the Syrian refugees who continue to arrive in Europe after fleeing their war-torn country.
Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster to campaign in favour of Brexit was a poignant image that depicted streams of refugees across the Balkans, but this image is far from realistic with regards to the UK. Actually, post-Brexit, the UK’s asylum policies will remain largely unaffected, since the UK has long opted out of many of the EU’s asylum policies, including the pledge last year to distribute 160,000 migrants among its member states.
The UK, like any other European country, regardless of whether an EU member or not, is legally mandated to accept asylum seekers as laid out by the UN in 1951 as a legacy of WW2. In a process known as “non-refoulement”, not one of these countries can return a refugee if there’s a risk of persecution or death. Brexit will not change this. It is easy to argue that the UK might be less likely to accept any more refugees, especially since in 2015 over 1.25 million people applied for asylum in the 28 EU member states. However, only 300,000 of these applications were actually successful, and the UK received fewer asylum applications per head than any other EU state (60 rather than the average of 260).
The number of refugees in the UK is therefore unlikely to decrease. In fact, Brexit might mean that the UK finds itself with far more. In 2015, more than a million refugees reached the EU via the Mediterranean, with thousands losing their lives during the perilous crossing. Without the EU, there is potentially very little to prevent to the same situation occurring across the English Channel. Currently, a bilateral agreement with France allows the UK to maintain border controls on French soil. These controls have prevented thousands of migrants and refugees who are camped in Calais from reaching UK shores. While this agreement was struck outside of the EU, French politicians have already suggested that in the wake of Brexit this agreement may be deemed unfeasible.
One of the largest impacts of Brexit on refugee relocation will be the loss of The Dublin Regulation. According to this regulation, EU member states can deport asylum-seekers to the nation through which they first entered the EU. Since 2003, the UK has used this to deport over 12,000 people. Post-Brexit, however, this will no longer be an option, and any asylum seekers who enter the country will most likely be here to stay, including those who cross the English Channel should they no longer be detained in Calais.
In truth, like everything Brexit related, we don’t know precisely how it will affect the UK’s obligation to refugees. We can merely speculate. One thing that is for certain though, is that upon leaving the EU we will cease to be able to use The Dublin Regulation to transfer refugees to other European nations and the 350-mile-long English Channel will remain extremely difficult to police.