The Malta Independent 22 October 2020, Thursday

Are asylum seekers illegal immigrants?

Malta Independent Sunday, 14 July 2013, 09:37 Last update: about 7 years ago

Asylum seekers who arrive in Malta by boat are neither engaging in illegal activity, nor are they immigrants.

The UN Refugee Convention (to which Malta is a signatory) recognises that refugees have a right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, irrespective of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents.

The Convention, to which Malta is legally bound, stipulates that what would usually be considered as illegal actions, such as entering a country without a visa, should not be treated as illegal if a person is seeking asylum.

This means that it is incorrect to refer to asylum seekers who arrive without authorisation as “illegal”, as they in fact have a right to enter the country to seek asylum.

In line with Malta’s obligations under the Convention, Malta permits unauthorised entry into the country for the purposes of seeking asylum. Asylum seekers do not break any Maltese laws simply by arriving on boats or without authorisation.

Such allowances are made because it is not always safe or practicable for asylum seekers to obtain travel documents or travel through authorised channels.

Refugees are, by definition, persons fleeing persecution and in most cases are being persecuted by their own government. It is often too dangerous for refugees to apply for a passport or exit visa or approach an EU or Maltese embassy for a visa, as such actions could put their lives, and the lives of their families, at risk.

Refugees may also be forced to flee with little notice due to rapidly deteriorating situations and do not have time to apply for travel documents or arrange travel through authorised channels. Permitting asylum seekers to enter a country without travel documents is similar to allowing ambulance drivers to exceed the speed limit in an emergency – the action would ordinarily be considered illegal, but the circumstances warrant an exception.

It is also incorrect to refer to asylum seekers as migrants. A migrant is someone who chooses to leave his or her country to seek a better life. They make a conscious choice to leave and they can return whenever they like. Refugees are forced to leave their country and cannot return unless the situation that forced them to leave improves. Some are forced to flee without warning; significant numbers of them have suffered torture and trauma. The concerns of refugees are human rights and safety, not economic advantage.

The UN Refugee Convention excludes people who have committed war crimes, crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or other serious non-political crimes from obtaining refugee status. Any person who is guilty of these crimes will be denied refugee status.

Moreover, economic status has no bearing on refugee status. A refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

It makes no difference whether a refugee is rich or poor – the point is that they are at risk of, or have experienced, persecution. Refugees are many times educated middle-class people, whose education, profession or political opinions have drawn them to the attention of the authorities and resulted in their persecution.

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