“The refugee convention […] says that people should seek sanctuary, should seek asylum in the first safe country.”

That’s what immigration minister Robert Jenrick told Channel 4 News last night. But as presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy pointed out, it’s incorrect.

Do people have to seek asylum in the first safe country?

The idea that people must seek asylum in the first safe country they reach is often cited as a reason not to allow those who reach Britain on a small boat to be granted refugee status here. (For more details on the terminology around refugees and asylum seekers, read our article from 2021.)

The thinking goes that if someone has travelled through another safe nation, like France, they should have sought asylum there – rather than continue on to Britain.

Mr Jenrick wasn’t explicit about what he meant by “refugee convention”, but if he was referring to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, his claim was wrong.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is clear: “there is no requirement under international law for asylum-seekers to seek protection in the first safe country they reach”.

After Mr Jenrick’s interview, the prime minister’s official spokesperson reportedly told journalists: “The first safe country principle is recognised internationally as a feature of the common European asylum system”. It sounds like this is a reference to the Dublin regulation – an EU law that sets out how countries should handle asylum seekers. But the UK is no longer part of this treaty thanks to its departure from the trade bloc.

Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson reportedly did not disagree with the fact that the UN convention on refugees does not require people to seek asylum in the first safe country, according to the Guardian.

Is it legal to cross the Channel on a small boat?

More generally, the legal situation for people reaching the UK by small boat is complicated.

As FactCheck has previously reported, under British law, it’s illegal to enter the country without a visa or special permission. That means someone who reaches the UK on a small boat could face up to four years in prison.

But people who make the Channel crossing are protected by international law if they claim asylum once they arrive.

That means they can’t be punished while their application is being considered – and if they’re successful, they won’t be prosecuted for the way they arrived.

So, arriving by small boat is only illegal if you don’t claim asylum – or if you make an asylum claim and it’s rejected.