The Migrant Crisis: A Legal Insight




Urban Lawyers North invited three experts to delve a little deeper into the social, political and legal concerns that underpin what may be the biggest humanitarian issue of our generation: the ‘migrant crisis.’

What comes first? – Denise McDowell, Director of Greater Manchester Immigration Unit

Denise stresses the importance of understanding the crisis from a contextual and legal viewpoint. The majority – contrary to tabloid beliefs – seek protection in neighbouring countries, and Denise emphasises the danger of a “Eurocentric view”. GMIAU is a not-for-profit organisation offering legal advice for those going through the immigration system. Recently, the courts have slowed down and appeal rights have diminished. Charities like GMIAU are relied upon more than ever. Legal procedure is complicated at the best of times – just imagine what it’s like for someone who doesn’t speak the language, who is alone, who is frightened.

So what happens when a refugee reaches Britain? The only place where one can claim asylum is Croydon, and the Dublin Convention stipulates that a claim cannot be made in a third country – hence the numbers of people travelling across Europe before making their claim. Upon arrival, most are sent to overcrowded accommodation, and there are huge concerns with regards to housing, destitution and support. In light of the cuts to legal aid – “demand on services and capacity to meet demand is stretched to say the least.” If, and when an asylum seeker is granted ‘status’ they can officially define themselves as a refugee – it’s a long and difficult process, and without voluntary organisations like GMIAU, for many it would be impossible.

Are all migrants coming from Syria? – Natalie Wilkins, barrister at Garden Court North

Natalie immediately clarifies her terminology, noting that it’s frustrating to hear the expression ‘migrant crisis’: “it’s not even a contentious issue – they’re just not migrants.” When we think of refugees, there’s a current tendency to think of Syria. So what about the other groups? Natalie informs us that, until September 2015, the largest group of people seeking asylum were Eritreans. However, as any immigration practitioner will tell you – “things change quickly.”

Asylum appeals go through a tribunal system, and Country Guidance files direct judges. However, Natalie tells us that Eritrea is a “closed country” – it’s one of the most secretive nations on the planet, with an oppressive government and according to the UN, entrenched human rights abuses. In the UK, the Eritrean country guidance file draws its information from a widely discredited Danish report – according to this report, if refugees go back to Eritrea and apologise for leaving, everything will be fine. Unsurprisingly, Natalie and many others of her profession don’t buy this. “Crimes against humanity really aren’t a low-level problem.” Getting judges to depart from guidance is tricky, and until they do Eritrean refugees are left in limbo.

A new Country Guidance case is listed for April: until then the courts are “spending money to maintain refusals.” Natalie’s presentation not only highlights the problems faced by Eritrean refugees, but the bureaucracy of the appeals system. Arriving in Britain doesn’t automatically mean you’ve reached a safe haven, but signals months of hardship and confusion.

What is it really like to be an immigration practitioner? – Jacqueline Mason, Head of Immigration at Jackson Canter Solicitors

Jacqueline’s CV reads like a potted guide to the impact of legal aid cuts. She initially worked for the National Immigration Charity, which went into administration, and then a law centre, which closed, and is now Head of Immigration at a firm that deals with both private and legal aid cases. However, she’s never been busier. As an immigration practitioner, she is with the client from start to finish – a process that can take “weeks, months, or years.” Some of her clients have been with her since the start of her career, and Jackie describes this as “unique.” This is completely different to Natalie, for example, who won’t see a case until it reaches the appeal stage.

Jacqueline labels the Dublin Convention as the “hot topic”, noting that there’s a contradiction between helping someone and sending them back to Europe. To send someone back to Hungary, where their assets may be seized, from where they may be removed once more, is not helpful. We must not forget the obvious when it comes to Britain – “no one’s ever going to land here first.”

Questions for the Panel

What immigration law or policy would you change?

Denise: “there needs to be a system in place to consider all aspects of a case… the system that we have in place just doesn’t work”.

Natalie: “gut reaction” is to do with detention – it’s not true that detention only comes with removal; it can be used to “control people.”

Thoughts on detention centres?

The general opinion of the panel is, unsurprisingly, unfavourable. Along with the fact that they can be “inhumane and ineffective”, according to Natalie they are often geographically located in a “legal desert” with no access to support or representation.

Urban Laywers North would like to thank our panelists, and everybody who contributed to an evening of stimulating discussion. For my part, I was particularly pleased to welcome a panel of women – it’s always inspiring to speak to leading women in law working here in Manchester!


Alexandra Sutton

Urban Lawyers North 



3 thoughts on “The Migrant Crisis: A Legal Insight

  1. Great read. Thank you for reporting this with us. It is interesting to hear what a practitioner thinks. Also, I had never even heard about Eritreans before – so learnt something new about the world today.

    Thanks again.

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