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What does Brexit mean for refugees?

Syrian refugees reach Hungary by following a Serbian rail track András Hajdú/IRIN

Britain has remained largely sealed off from the refugee crisis that has rocked much of the rest of Europe for the past year. Protected by geography and its status outside the passport-free Schengen zone, it took in only a fraction of the asylum seekers who arrived at Europe’s southern shores last year.

This reality has not prevented widely-televised images of migrants and refugees streaming through the Balkans from taking root in the public imagination and becoming associated with “uncontrolled” immigration to the UK – one of the biggest issues in the run-up to Thursday’s EU referendum.

It was no coincidence that UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage appropriated an October 2015 photograph of hundreds of refugees crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border for a Vote Leave campaign poster emblazoned with the words: “Breaking Point”.

Vote Leave campaign
The controversial Vote Leave campaign poster featuring asylum seekers traveling through the Balkans last October

But now that Britain has voted to exit the EU, what are the ramifications for refugees and asylum seekers?

The most direct impacts of Brexit will, of course, be on EU migrants living in the UK and on UK migrants living in the EU. The UK’s policies towards asylum seekers remain largely unaffected. The country has long retained an opt-out from most EU asylum policies, including last September’s agreement that member states would absorb 160,000 asylum seekers relocated from Greece and Italy. The exception is the Dublin Regulation, which allowed the UK to return asylum seekers to the first country where they registered after arriving in Europe. Member states are unlikely to agree to returns from the UK in the wake of the referendum.

A bilateral agreement with France, which allows Britain to implement border controls on French soil, has helped prevent thousands of migrants and refugees camped in Calais from reaching UK shores. Although the accord was struck independently of the EU, French politicians have in recent days described it as politically untenable in the wake of the referendum outcome.

Europe Director of the Migration Policy Institute Elizabeth Collett said the EU’s near-impossible job of trying to get member states to agree on migration and asylum policies could be made somewhat easier by the UK’s exit. On the other hand, the EU stands to lose the UK’s influence with key countries of origin such as Nigeria and Pakistan, which are among 16 priority countries the EU has proposed partnering with to stem migration.

Changing the political landscape

The referendum’s most far-reaching impacts for refugees may be the way in which it is likely to change the political landscape both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

In the UK, a shift to the right looks inevitable in both the ruling Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party. The result, fear refugee support groups, will be a rolling back of rights for asylum seekers.

“The UK has been marginal to many of the key EU developments [on refugees], but I think there will be implications for rights of asylum seekers inside the UK,” commented Andrew Geddes, co-director of the Social Sciences Migration Research Group at Sheffield University.

He noted that Home Secretary Theresa May, who is expected to be a strong contender to succeed David Cameron as prime minister, has called for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, which is separate from the EU. The Convention gives asylum seekers increased appeal rights and legal protections, particularly against forced removal.

In a statement responding to the referendum result on Friday, UK NGO Refugee Action wrote: “No mainstream politician spoke against Britain as a safe haven. But it feels at risk today.”

Confirming such fears, a sharp rise in racist incidents and hate speech on social media targeting both migrants and refugees was reported over the weekend.

Geddes points out that British Euroscepticism is less directly linked to the refugee crisis than Euroscepticism in countries such as Italy or Sweden, “where the effective collapse of the Schengen zone and [the EU’s] inability to respond to the refugee crisis has been felt” and refugees have become a scapegoat for “deeper European problems”.

“I think the risk [of Brexit] is that it turns a negative picture even more negative,” he told IRIN. “The lessons the EU seems to be learning from the British exit is the need to be tougher on migration.”

Change in policy?

Alexander Betts, director of Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre, also worries about the signal Brexit sends to the rest of Europe, where what’s at stake is not just intra-EU immigration, but the EU’s asylum policies.

“Europe’s politicians will look at what’s happened with Brexit and probably recognise there are votes to be won by trying to pander to the worst sentiments of fear and alienation, and scapegoating the EU and immigration,” he said.

If the further rise of right-wing, Eurosceptic parties in countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria and France leads to more referendums and further fragmentation of the EU, refugees and asylum seekers may be among the losers.

Most EU member states are bound by EU directives relating to asylum that set minimum standards for refugee reception and asylum processes. In theory, explained Betts, the directives are intended “to harmonise standards and prevent a race to the bottom”.

In practice, the so-called Common European Asylum System has largely broken down in the last year, under pressure of numbers and the reluctance of member states to share the responsibility for asylum seekers arriving in frontline states more evenly.

“The EU’s ability to coordinate responsibility-sharing has unravelled; we’ve seen a series of failures,” said Betts. “Some of the more positive moves have been by individual countries… The types of commitments that Sweden and Germany have made at different stages don’t stem from the EU.”

Countries' obligations towards refugees are primarily shaped by international refugee law, even if those obligations are reinforced by EU legislation.

“There’s no inevitability that an assertion of sovereignty means no solidarity with refugees,” said Betts. “I don’t think there’s an inevitability that Brexit has to lead to a reduction in our collective commitment to refugee protection.”

“The main threat, I think, comes from the direction British and European politics go in.”


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