Migrant’s attempt to cross channel on foot raises legal questions

Amid calls to shut the Channel Tunnel at night, issues over asylum arise

A migrant walks along rail tracks as he tries to get into the Channel Tunnel and reach the UK  from Calais. Photograph: Zoltan Balogh/EPA

A migrant walks along rail tracks as he tries to get into the Channel Tunnel and reach the UK from Calais. Photograph: Zoltan Balogh/EPA

 

The African man who braved death to reach Britain by walking nearly the length of the Channel Tunnel last week faces another potential challenge: prison. But legal experts say that being charged with a crime should not preclude him from being granted asylum.

Abdul Rahman Haroun (40), the first migrant known to have nearly crossed the channel on foot, managed to walk 50km under the cloak of darkness from Calais, France, avoiding being dragged under passing trains.

Just steps before emerging from the tunnel in England, he was arrested, the police say, and charged with obstructing railroad engines under a 19th-century law. He is expected to appear at Canterbury Crown Court on August 24th.

At a time of a simmering anti-immigrant backlash in Britain as thousands of migrants camp out in Calais and some try to breach the Channel Tunnel, Haroun’s case has laid bare a moral and legal conundrum. Should Haroun, a Sudanese migrant with no fixed address, be punished for a bold and foolhardy act that potentially put himself and others at risk? Or should his desperation be met with empathy, and, assuming he decides to apply for asylum and qualifies, should he be granted refuge in the country he desperately wanted to enter?

Unjust criminalisation

EuropeColin Yeo

He argued the 1951 United Nations refugee convention, to which Britain is a signatory, states refugees should not be charged for using irregular or illegal means to enter a country since refugees were, by definition, fleeing persecution.

For example, he noted, a legitimate refugee who falsified papers to enter a country was protected from prosecution under the convention. “The prosecution of Abdul Rahman Haroun for an obscure 19th-century railways offence is inappropriate and wrong,” Yeo wrote on his blog on Tuesday. “Like all refugees, he should be immune from prosecution for irregular means of entry to a country of sanctuary. At the very least his over-hasty and over-zealous prosecution should be put on hold while his asylum claim is determined.”

“It is hard to imagine that a train would’ve come off any worse, or that he would have killed anyone,” Yeo added in an interview. “They seem to have rushed to charge him because they want to send a message...”

Jan Brulc, a spokesman for Migrants’ Rights Network, a London-based advocacy group, argued that “when there are no legal routes, people will take any means to enter the country. . . Taking drastic measures shouldn’t put migrants in a position where they get bounced back or prosecuted,” he said. The Kent police and the Home Office declined to comment.

The debate over immigration intensified over the weekend when foreign secretary Philip Hammond used some of the most robust language yet to warn against the perils of immigration, saying Europe could not “protect itself” if it was forced to take millions of Africans.

His words drew a stern rebuke from opposition politicians and migrant advocates who warned against dehumanising migrants. “So long as there are large numbers of pretty desperate migrants marauding around the area, there always will be a threat to the tunnel security,” Hammond told the BBC during a visit to Singapore on Sunday.

“We’ve got to resolve this problem ultimately by being able to return those who are not entitled to claim asylum back to their countries of origin.” He said Europe could not preserve its standard of living and social infrastructure if it had to absorb millions of migrants from Africa.

Freight industry

Eurotunnel

Eurotunnel said its chairman and chief executive, Jacques Gounon, had written to Christopher Irwin, the head of the British delegation to the Channel Tunnel Intergovernmental Commission, warning against “sowing panic among customers and investors”.

The company has threatened to sue the government for as much as £200 million (€280 million) if ministers decide to close the tunnel at night. Eurotunnel said that about 2.5 million vehicles transport goods between Calais and Britain each year.

By some estimates, the logjam caused by migrants trying to breach the tunnel has cost the British economy £250 million a day.

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