On the arrival of prospective UK asylum seekers by boat, and the need for humane policy change

Harmful narratives

The current narrative and political framing of boat arrivals as a “major threat” to the UK border needs to be challenged and put into perspective. In fact, the total number of arrivals by boat in 2020 thus far is expected to be just over 4,000 (compared with 1,890 in Jan-Dec 2019). This is undeniably a small number of people in comparison to the 65,000 claims for international protection made in Europe in January 2020 alone.[i]

Equally, narratives around boat arrivals constituting a threat to public health in the context of Covid-19 must also be scrutinised. Even the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Home Department and Minister for Immigration Compliance himself admitted that “there is no evidence to show that there is an increased risk [of Covid-19 transmission] from migrants.”[ii]

The fact that individuals try to reach the UK via sea crossings rather than freight traffic does not mean that the border is more compromised than before; the phenomenon is simply more visible. Yet this trend is becoming the grounds on which the UK Government is reinforcing its own legitimacy to further restrict the rights of displaced people and prevent them from being able to journey to the UK to seek safety.


Understanding the shift in routes to the UK

The shift towards people resorting to increasingly risky boat crossings across the Channel (rather than using freight traffic) is best understood as a symptom of the increasingly pervasive desperation amongst displaced people in northern France, where they face untenable conditions.

Indeed, increased security spending at the ferry port and Eurotunnel (which has included an investment in heat body scanners, dog patrols, fencing, increased border enforcement), rather than an investment in human security and long-term solutions, serves to heighten the desperation felt by displaced people in the area, pushing them into ever more risky routes.[iii] The former Home Secretary Sajid Javid himself admitted that the increase in border security was one of the main reasons for a corresponding increase in people attempting the crossing by boat.[iv]

To illustrate this desperation, it is sufficient to look at the situation of the 1,500 people living in informal camps in the area (as of April 2020)[v], who for the most part live without access to shelter, clean water and sanitation, let alone legal information or protection from violence and exploitation. Following the global Covid-19 outbreak, the situation is worse than ever.[vi] The well-documented heavy-handed French police presence, with the tacit political support of the UK,[vii] involves daily evictions of living spaces, which makes France unappealing as a country in which to seek protection from. This acts as a push factor driving prospective asylum seekers away from a place which many have come to associate with harsh police violence, lack of accommodation and anti-migrant sentiment.[viii]

Moreover, the increasing number of unaccompanied children who are recorded to have made the crossing in 2020 is indicative of an inadequately resourced and overstretched State Child Protection service in France, that could provide support these children on French territory should the service be adequately resourced and funded.[ix]

Photo © Rob Pinney

Failure to uphold legal and moral obligations

It must be noted that the vast majority of those attempting to cross the Channel are fleeing persecution, generalised violence, conflict or other forms of protracted crises in their home countries and many are likely to be granted international protection in the UK, according to experts.[x] In any event, these individuals deserve the right to have their claims assessed through due process in the spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Instead, however, the UK’s border control policies are designed to restrict access to the asylum system,[xi] arguably breaching the UK’s international legal obligations by circumventing the right to asylum and as a result also the protection against non-refoulement.[xii]

This approach has come at great human and financial cost[xiii] while completely failing to address the underlying matters of the situation at the UK border.  Indeed, these policies have contributed directly to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in northern France – which can only be understood as a deplorable political and moral embarrassment – and to an increased reliance on dangerous and irregular journeys for prospective asylum seekers to reach UK soil.

When putting things into perspective, bearing in mind the wider situation of asylum and migration across Europe, the 1,730 people who have arrived thus far this year remains an extremely low number compared to the overall 35,500 people who sought asylum in the UK in 2019.[xiv] The cost of housing and feeding these individuals as part of an asylum procedure would amount to £13.3 million a year,[xv] which is just over ten percent of the sum spent in 2016 alone on preventing them from entering the UK.[xvi]


Viable solutions and time for change

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s most recent endeavours to introduce new powers to turn back individuals off the coast and return them to France, also seeking advice from the notorious Australian border force,[xvii] does nothing to address this decades-long humanitarian disaster at our doorstep.

Evidence shows that increased security measures and hostile treatment of vulnerable people do not work and only push people to take more dangerous routes.[xviii] Therefore, if the UK Government is to effectively achieve its stated goal of dismantling trafficking and smuggling networks[xix] and reducing reliance on irregular migration pathways,[xx] whilst still upholding international[xxi] and European law[xxii] and its moral responsibility vis-à-vis prospective asylum seekers, it must make available safe and legal routes.

Local authorities in the UK have the capacity to receive unaccompanied children. Councils across the country have pledged more than 1,400 places as part of the charity Safe Passage’s #OurTurn campaign for those stuck in Europe without a safe, legal route to the UK if only the Government would open such a route. Instead, the Home Secretary effectively suggests automatically sending prospective asylum seekers back to France rather than assessing their asylum claims in the UK, in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention. This approach disregards asylum provisions under international law, and ignores the wider context of asylum in Europe as well as asylum seekers’ individual circumstances, whilst feeding into populist, demonising narratives.

As the UK works out its new relationship with the European Union and its member states, and in the context of its new Immigration Bill, it has an opportunity to resolve a situation that has deteriorated rapidly over recent years by providing access to safe and legal routes to asylum and protection. Any other approach, including the Home Secretary’s most recent intentions to directly and automatically return anyone arriving through the sea route,[xxiii] directly hinders an effective resolution to a detrimental and decades-long situation.


[i] EASO, Latest Asylum Trends: January 2020 https://www.easo.europa.eu/latest-asylum-trends

[ii] https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2020-04-28/40965/

[iii] Foreign Affairs Committee, Responding to irregular migration: A diplomatic route (2019), p. 9 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201919/cmselect/cmfaff/107/107.pdf

[iv] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/statement-migrant-crossings

[v] Refugee Rights Europe, ‘Urgent communication to seven UN Special Rapporteurs regarding France’s COVID-19 response’ (2020) https://refugee-rights.eu/2020/04/09/urgent-communication-to-seven-un-special-rapporteurs-regarding-frances-covid-19-response/

[vi] The Guardian (2020) https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/09/covid-19-spreading-quickly-though-refugee-camps-warn-calais-aid-groups

[vii] InfoMigrants (2019) https://www.infomigrants.net/fr/post/20205/traversees-de-la-manche-des-gendarmes-reservistes-francais-payes-par-londres-deployes-sur-le-littoral

[viii] The Human Trafficking Foundation, ‘Nobody deserves to live this way’ (2017) https://www.antislaverycommissioner.co.uk/media/1262/nobody-deserves-to-live-this-way.pdf

[ix] https://kccmediahub.net/council-leader-calls-on-the-home-secretary-to-intervene-to-stop-unaccompanied-children-crisis-engulfing-childrens-services-in-kent745

[x] BBC (2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/uk-england-50813246

[xi] Through the juxtaposed border arrangements of the 1991 Sangatte Protocol, the 2003 Le Touquet Treaty, and later bilateral agreements, the UK Government has effectively extended its border onto French and Belgian soil, with extraterritorial power to deny leave to enter. These agreements were given effect in Britain through The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (Juxtaposed Controls) Order 2003 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2003/2818/part/3/made. As a consequence of wielding sovereign legal powers on French territory, the UK by extension holds high levels of responsibility for resulting human rights infringements, and is well-placed to seek sustainable solutions in collaboration with France.

[xii] Amnesty International, ‘The Human Rights Risks of External Migration Policies’ (2017) https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/POL3062002017ENGLISH.PDF

[xiii] As of May 2020, the full amount of funding committed under the Joint Declaration of 2015, the Sandhurst Treaty of 2018 and Joint Action Plan on small boats of 2019 has reached a total of €68.6 million (See: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2020-05-11.45263.h&s=calais#g45263.r0) Only £1.1 million being committed to support the development of reception centres in France following the UK-France Summit at Sandhurst in 2018, see: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2020-05-01.41961.h&s=france#g41961.q0)

[xiv] Home Office (2020) ‘How many people do we grant asylum or protection to?’ https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/immigration-statistics-year-ending-december-2019/how-many-people-do-we-grant-asylum-or-protection-to

[xv] Asylum seekers in the UK receive an allowance of £36.95 a week, or £1,921 a year, whilst City AM estimates that housing an asylum seeker costs £6,937 a year: https://www.cityam.com/how-much-would-it-cost-uk-accept-all-asylum-seekers/

[xvi] Freedom of Information request ref. 41250 (2017) https://fullfact.org/media/uploads/foi_response_41250_-_r.pdf

[xvii] Pg 16-18 https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/411/default/

[xviii] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, ‘Responding to irregular migration: A diplomatic route’ (2019) p. 8 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201919/cmselect/cmfaff/107/107.pdf

[xix] Home Office, ‘How the Government is tackling modern slavery’ (2019) https://homeofficemedia.blog.gov.uk/2019/05/22/how-the-government-is-tackling-modern-slavery/

[xx] The Sandhurst Treaty (2018) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/674885/Treaty_Concerning_the_Reinforcement_Of_Cooperation_For_The_Coordinated_Management_Of_Their_Shared_Border.pdf

[xxi] UNHCR, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) https://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10

[xxii] European Union, Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (26 October 2012) Art. 18; Council of the European Union Regulation No 604/2013 establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an application for international protection lodged in one of the Member States by a third-country national or a stateless person (29 June 2013).

[xxiii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/21/home-office-deporting-migrants-who-cross-channel-in-small-boats


Image of sea by Kellie Churchman from Pexels, with thanks.

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