For individuals fleeing various conflict zones or adverse living conditions and planning to seek asylum in the UK, crossing the Channel tends to constitute the final section of a longer route through Europe or the Mediterranean Sea. The escalation of the refugee crisis and organised crime in the past decade has resulted in European nations having to develop more comprehensive immigration and integration schemes and public institutions being overtasked, with unsafe arrival routes exposing migrants to fatal risks and failures in asylum systems prolonging their suffering.
In the past 11 months alone, over 40,000 individuals have precariously crossed the Channel on small boats with hopes of settling in the UK —indicating a fivefold increase to the total in 2020. However, the risks of the journey mean that not all of the attempts are successful. In the report published by the International Organisation for Migration following the tragic accident that claimed the lives of at least 27 migrants in the Channel in November 2021, it was noted that, since 2014, 166 migrants had been recorded dead or missing in the Channel and 22,930 in the Mediterranean. A year on from the report’s publication, the numbers have risen to 205 and 25,310, respectively, with the surge turning the spotlight on institutional failures across the Channel –as well as in Middle-Eastern and other European countries– and raising the question as to why the UK has become a preferred ultimate destination for many.
According to experts, the main factors that explain the appeal of the UK are family ties, employment opportunities and the English language. In a survey of 402 individuals at the refugee camp in Calais, researchers from International Health discovered that 82% planned to go to the UK. Recently, the treatment of refugees at coastal French camps, such as in Calais and Dunkirk, has also become a distinct reason propelling refugees to leave France for the UK. As detailed in interviews conducted by The Guardian in Calais, refugees are hosted under inhumane conditions and experience violence in French camps. France has previously been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for “failing in its duties” —both constitutional and arising from Chapter IV of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees— as a host country.
Given the increased number of crossings and death toll, as well as how smuggling gangs have turned the crossings into a lucrative business, France has also struggled in monitoring its coastline for irregular crossings. Physical features along the coast make it difficult for border patrols to spot crossers and the recent proliferation of professional smuggling networks that have, by now, become well-acquainted with the landscape and the route further impede French efforts. Yet, special surveillance technologies supplied by the UK —such as thermal drones and sand dune buggies— have been instrumental in addressing the new challenges and increased the number of intercepted boats this year to over 30,000.
Having initially played an overarching political blame game, the UK and France are incrementally developing a cooperative operational approach. The most recent agreement signed between the countries involves the UK paying France an additional £8m per year to be invested in infrastructure and equipment (raising the yearly sum to £63m), as well as British officers being able to observe patrols within France. However, the deal has been criticised for falling short of achieving substantial progress, especially when the UK —no longer part of the Dublin-Eurodac System that governs immigration and asylum claims across the EU— is yet to form Europe-wide partnerships that could realistically mitigate the crisis in the Channel.
As per Section 12 of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, it is illegal for all migrants to enter the UK without a permit —which is in direct contradiction with the 1951 Refugee Convention, under which refugees cannot be penalised for seeking asylum in other countries. Official figures display that 94% of the individuals who have crossed the Channel since 2018 applied for asylum. In the spirit of the Act and not international law or the facts, the UK Government considers all irregular migrants as “invaders” and “illegal migrants” —contrasting them with “genuine asylum seekers” who arrived in the UK through the Government’s “safe and legal routes”, only four of which apply to refugees globally– and blames migrants and smuggling networks for the failures observed in the asylum system, even though it was reported by the Home Affairs Committee that “antiquated IT systems, high staff turnover, and too few staff were among the reasons for this slow pace".
Amid revelations that, in 2021, the UK Home Office only processed 4% of the asylum claims submitted that year, the backlogs haunting the department have become more striking than ever. It was reported that over 40,000 asylum-seekers have waited for one to three years for the outcome of their applications, joined by a further 725 individuals who had been waiting for over five years. These extended stays are spent at reception centres that are “fundamentally unsuitable” and often overcrowded —such as the mismanaged Manston Migrant Centre that has recently caused public outrage,— hotels and detention centres. As a solution to the pressure on the Home Office, the Government has recently reached an agreement to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda and have their claims processed there, referred to by the Home Secretary as her “dream and obsession”. Owing to the human rights concerns in Rwanda and the UK’s evasive strategy, the plan has been described as “brutal” by members of the public, media and Parliament, criticised by the UN and various organisations and, following the interim decision of the ECHR, is currently being challenged in domestic courts.
While the UK and France rescue, host and provide benefits for thousands of asylum-seekers, the immigration and asylum policies the governments employ in response to the migration crisis in the Channel lack the long-term objectives, competency and regard for human rights required of conclusive solutions. Going forward, acknowledging the correct sources of problems and prioritising saving lives over saving the day would prevent more dreams from sinking into a collective nightmare.