UK prosecutes channel tunnel walker using obscure 150 year old law

If you’ve been following the refugee crisis around Calais you’ll have heard about the Sudanese chap – Abdul Rahman Haroun – who walked almost all of the 31 miles of the Channel Tunnel before being arrested by British police.

Bit of background on this guy’s homeland. The UK warns against all travel to most of Sudan, citing the risk of indiscriminate terrorist attacks and stating that consular assistance would be ineffective given instability in the country. From the Human Rights Watch:

Armed conflicts in several Sudanese states continue with devastating effects on civilians … [t]hese conflicts have been characterized by unnecessary and avoidable civilian deaths and injuries; sexual violence against women and girls; unlawful destruction of civilian property, and have forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes. In the capital and other main towns, Sudanese security forces have repeatedly and violently suppressed protesters demonstrating against government policies… .  President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes in Darfur, was re-elected in 2015 in a poll that did not meet standards for free and fair elections.
Human Rights Watch report on Sudan (link)

Sudan has scored the lowest rating possible since 1991 in the annual Freedom in the World reports by US organisation Freedom House.

Almost exactly 80% of Sudanese people applying for asylum in the UK have been confirmed as “valid” refugees, which is astonishing given how vigorously our government tries to get rid of people (source; §8.3 of this).

In short, the odds are good that Abdul thoroughly deserves UK assistance (although if you were questioning that given he managed to get to Calais from Africa and then walked for ten hours in a pitch black tunnel, I question your humanity).

Now, the UN refugee convention (which the UK is signed up to) recognises that refugees may have to use unconventional means to achieve safety, which is why there’s a bit which says:

The Contracting States [including the UK] shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.
1951 UN convention relating to the status of refugees (link)

(If you’re wondering, there’s also UK case law that confirms this protection holds even if you’ve travelled through other countries without claiming asylum first.)

Previously the UK government has “misunderstood” this legislation, but the Criminal Cases Review Commission and Lord Justice Leveson (a pretty senior English judge) raised a bit of a fuss about it. The former expressed concern that hundreds of people have been wrongly convicted in a “significant and widespread … abuse of the law”, while Lord Leveson just said that he wanted to “kill this problem [abuse of the law by UK officials] stone dead”.

Therefore the Home Office has got devious…

The Free Movement blog believes Abdul has been detained and will be charged with “obstructing a carriage on a railway”, using the Malicious Damage Act of 1861. The vast majority of this act has been repealed due to being wildly out of date, however, the bit about blocking trains remains. And that’s what Abdul is being strung up with.

Nothing to do with illegally entering the UK.

Obstructing a carriage.

Makes you proud to be British, eh?


PS: the article is a rehash of “Channel Tunnel Man: Refugees should not be prosecuted for irregular entry”, which was posted on Free Movement on 11 August 2015. It’s a fascinating blog, if you suspect the UK isn’t quite playing fair in this area…


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I note that the UN convention says… coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened… So given that this chap was coming from France this is not really valid is it? Having travelled all across Europe, surely it is clear that his intention was to reach the UK, not to leave Sudan. He could have claimed asylum in any number of other EU countries first.

It’s a valid point (and it doesn’t just hold for the EU; Eygpt is directly north of Sudan).

However! The case law link below that quote was an English court debating that very point in 1998. The judge decided that the protection extends to the final destination, even if there are intervening countries. In particular, he states that because this is a UN convention that has been subject to multilingual negotiation and debate (rather than a UK Act that only needs to make sense in English):

“It follows that one is more likely to arrive at the true [meaning of the “coming directly from”] by seeking a meaning which makes sense in the light of the Convention as a whole and the purposes which the framers of the Convention were seeking to achieve, rather than concentrating exclusively on the language. A broad approach is what is needed, rather than a narrow linguistic approach.”

Corollary: this now means that if the only way you can flee a country is by a flight to a far-off destination, you’re still protected even though you’ve skipped over many intervening states. Or if you had to stow away on a ship/lorry and couldn’t safely disembark until later.

As a point of accuracy the channel tunnel is not pitch black inside; it is lit throughout its length.

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