The past weeks have seen a sharp increase in media coverage of small boat crossings by desperate individuals trying to reach the UK from northern France.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently branded these Channel crossings “a very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do”. Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel says she wants to send in military ships to push people back to France.
So, what’s actually going on?
Why do people risk their lives making this dangerous crossing?
For decades, prospective asylum seekers have desperately sought to make their way to the UK at the back of lorries and vessels – often to rejoin friends and family there. It is by no means a new phenomenon.
The new shift towards even more life-threatening crossings on small boats and kayaks is a result of the increasingly desperate situation for prospective asylum seekers in northern France.
Individuals in the area are facing untenable, inhumane and harmful living conditions – combined with the continued lack of access to safe and legal routes to the UK asylum system and heightened securitisation of the UK border, made possible by the juxtaposed border arrangements with France.
Many of those attempting to cross the Channel are fleeing persecution, generalised violence, conflict or other forms of protracted crises in their home countries.
These individuals are rights-holders. They are women, men and children who have the right to have their asylum claims assessed with due process, in line with the UN Refugee Convention (1951 Geneva Convention).
How many people have arrived on small boats via the Channel so far?
So far in 2020, just over 4,000 prospective asylum seekers have arrived in the UK via boat across the Channel. This is a very small number of people in comparison to the 65,000 claims for international protection made in Europe in January 2020 alone.
However, the fact that individuals try to reach the UK via sea crossings rather than freight traffic does not mean that there are more prospective asylum seekers trying to make their way to the UK than before; the phenomenon is simply more visible. Whilst there were no published figures on people entering by lorry, the boat crossing figures now being published make it appear as a new trend.
What is the UK Government currently saying?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently branded the Channel crossings “a very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do” and said he was looking to change the current legal framework that makes it “very very difficult then to send them away again.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel is hoping to send Royal Navy warships to push boats back to France. She has also appointed former National Crime Agency executive Dan O’Mahoney as “Clandestine Channel Threat Commander” leading the UK’s response to the crossings.
Is it illegal to seek asylum in the UK?
It is certainly not a crime to seek asylum in the UK. Seeking asylum is a right held by all human beings, enshrined in international and human rights law.
There is nothing in the 1951 Refugee Convention, ratified by the UK, which states that a person must claim asylum in the “first safe country” of entry.
And relevant EU law (the Dublin Regulation) simply clarifies which EU member state has a responsibility for an asylum claim, and gives EU member states the option of requesting that another state “takes back” an asylum seeker where it turns out they have previously made an asylum claim or left their fingerprints elsewhere. It does not, however, make it illegal for an individual to make an asylum request in their country of choice.
The current political narrative which frames the arrival of prospective asylum seekers as a “major threat” to the UK border is therefore vastly misleading and inaccurate. And the dichotomy of “real refugees” versus “illegal migrants” is dangerous, inflammatory and deeply polarising. Such scapegoating of vulnerable groups seeking protection must end.
Is the Government’s approach lawful, and is it viable?
The UK’s border control policies are designed to restrict access to the UK asylum system, arguably breaching the UK’s international legal obligations by circumventing the right to asylum. Military pushbacks of boats would also breach the principle of non-refoulement.
And sending Royal Navy warships to push boats back could be illegal under international and maritime law, whilst also risking to alienate the French government.
The UK’s approach to border securitisation has already come at great human and financial cost while completely failing to address the underlying matters of the situation for prospective asylum seekers knocking on our door.
Between 2010 and 2016 alone, £315.9 million of tax payers’ money was spent by the UK Border Force on ‘deterring irregular migration’ in and around Calais. In 2018 a further £44.5 million was committed as part of the Sandhurst Agreement, followed by another £6 million a year later. The spending figure is rapidly increasing, as new walls and barbed wire fences are erected every month.
Further UK tax money has been spent on new high-security detection equipment, CCTV, drones and a Joint Command and Control Centre, contributing to the long-standing humanitarian crisis in northern France and to an increased reliance on dangerous and irregular journeys for prospective asylum seekers to reach UK soil.
Any further degradation of the right to seek asylum in the UK and frustration of international law, to which Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have alluded, would be detrimental not only to the lives of men, women and children seeking safety here, but also to the UK’s reputation when it comes to upholding international law, human rights norms and moral values.