The British government is struggling to stop illegal migrants attempting to cross the English Channel on small boats — partly because of its need for cooperation from France. British authorities have repeatedly accused their French counterparts of not doing enough to stop small boats from leaving French territorial waters. Pictured: Illegal migrants walk ashore on the beach at Dungeness, England on September 7, 2021. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Nearly a thousand migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East have attempted to cross the English Channel on small boats in just one day to illegally get into the United Kingdom. The record-breaking surge in illegal crossings is being facilitated by warm weather and calm seas.
The British government is struggling to stop the crossings — partly because of its need for cooperation from France. British authorities have repeatedly accused their French counterparts of not doing enough to stop small boats from leaving French territorial waters.
Although the UK has pledged to pay France tens of millions of pounds to stop migrants crossing the Channel, French naval vessels are accused of escorting small boats into British waters.
French officials counter that the UK has not done enough to reduce the incentives that act as a magnet for migrants: not only are newcomers showered with generous social welfare benefits, but the UK's decision to scrap national identity cards, combined with its sizeable shadow economy, makes it easy for illegal immigrants to find work.
On September 6, 785 migrants entered the UK illegally after crossing the English Channel, according to official statistics compiled by Migration Watch UK, a British think tank. It was the second-highest number of daily arrivals since a record-breaking 828 migrants reached the UK on August 21. The previous daily record was 482 migrants who crossed the Channel on August 4, according to the BBC. A record-breaking 3,510 migrants reached the UK by boat in July 2021.
More than 14,500 migrants have crossed the Channel in around 600 small boats so far in 2021, surpassing the 8,713 arrivals (in 650 boats) during all of 2020, according to Migration Watch, which notes that the actual number of arrivals is probably far higher than what has been recorded in official statistics. Since the beginning of 2021, not a single migrant has been deported back to the safe European countries they traveled through, according to Migration Watch, which stated:
"The number of people crossing continues to rise even after nearly £200 million of taxpayers' money was paid to France since September 2014 to tackle illegal immigration (see media report). This is hardly value for money.
"The government is also spending around £400 million of taxpayers' money each year on 'free' accommodation for more than 60,000 asylum seekers and failed claimants over the next decade (total of £4 billion in the ten years from mid-2019 – see National Audit Office summary). The number of people housed has tripled since 2012 when it was around 20,000....
"Nearly 10,000 people have been housed in nearly 100 hotels across the country in what is known as 'initial accommodation' set aside for people just after they claim asylum but are awaiting an allocation of more long-term housing (for more read this piece).
"This despite the fact that, as Home Office sources admitted recently, housing migrants in hotels creates a 'pull factor.'
"The incentives are skewed so that they encourage, rather than discourage, illegal (and dangerous) trips that often lead to asylum abuse (also see this Home Office page telling people what they will get if they claim asylum).
"Payments and the offer of free housing for those eligible while an asylum claim is being processed (and for thousands of failed claimants) may serve to encourage people to attempt the dangerous and needless journey.
"98% of those arriving claim asylum once landed, says the Home Office, even though they are traveling from a safe country from which protection is not required. However, 81% have been found by the authorities not to have a credible claim here in the UK. The asylum route should be reserved only for the truly needy."
The UK's Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, Dan O'Mahoney, explained:
"This unacceptable rise in dangerous crossings is being driven by criminal gangs and a surge in illegal migration across Europe.
"We're determined to target the criminals at every level, so far, we have secured nearly 300 arrests, 65 convictions and prevented more than 10,000 migrant attempts.
"But there is more to do. The government's New Plan for Immigration is the only credible way to fix the broken asylum system, breaking the business model of criminal gangs and welcoming people through safe and legal routes."
The United Kingdom appears to be pursuing a two-pronged strategy to curb the migrant flow: negotiating a bilateral deal with France and reforming the UK's asylum system.
Anglo-French Border Deal
In November 2020, Home Secretary Priti Patel agreed to pay France £28 million (€33 million; $40 million) to stop illegal Channel crossings. As part of the deal, France doubled the number of officers patrolling French beaches, which resulted in a significant decline in illegal crossings. As French interceptions increased, however, people traffickers moved their operations farther north along hundreds of kilometers of the French coast.
In July 2021, Patel agreed to pay France another £54 million (€63 million; $75 million) to increase police patrols along the northern coast of France. The deal called for increasing the use aerial surveillance, including drones, and for drawing up a long-term plan for a technological "smart border" to prevent crossings.
On July 21, addressing the Commons Home Affairs Committee, Patel revealed that 60% of illegal arrivals have come from Belgium and that migrants who have travelled across Continental Europe are amassing "along the entire French coastline," not just in Calais, the closest point on the European mainland to England.
On September 7, Patel threatened to withhold millions of pounds in promised payments to France due to the low numbers of migrants being intercepted before they reach British waters. "It's payment by results and we've not yet seen those results," she said. "The money is conditional." Patel demanded that France stop three in four crossings by the end September. She also threatened to return boats carrying migrants in the Channel back into French waters.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin replied that Patel's proposal is contrary to maritime law and accused her of blackmail:
"France will not accept practices contrary to the Law of the Sea, nor financial blackmail. Britain's commitment must be kept. I made this clear to my counterpart."
Pierre-Henri Dumont, France's MP for Calais, claimed that the French coast is too big to secure:
"We have too many kilometers of shore to monitor. The French coast is difficult to monitor because they [migrants] can hide in a lot of places. There are a lot of roads, woods and trees. Even if you are monitoring 100 percent of a small or large part of the French coast, the smugglers will find a place to cross somewhere else.
"If it's not Calais it will be Normandy, and if it's not Normandy it will be Belgium. If they're not going to Belgium they can go to the Netherlands."
Mayor of Calais Natacha Bouchart has said Britain's "black market economy" and "cushy benefits system" were responsible for drawing migrants to her town. She said:
"They want to go to England because they can expect better conditions on arrival there than anywhere else in Europe or even internationally. There are no ID cards. They can easily find work outside the formal economy, which is not really controlled.
"Calais is a hostage to the British. The migrants come here to get to Britain. The situation here is barely manageable. The UK border should be moved from Calais to the English side of the Channel because we're not here to do their jobs."
Tory MP Tim Loughton accused French authorities of failing to honor their part of the deal:
"The French having a different interpretation [of maritime law] is the French giving you an excuse for not doing what they are not only able to do under international law but actually obliged to do under international law.
"Because two crimes are being committed by the occupants of those boats: one is trying to enter the UK illegally and the second is paying money to organized crime. Both of which provide grounds for those boats to be intercepted, the occupants apprehended in as safe a way as possible and returned to France. You are getting fobbed off [tricked] with excuses."
Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP for Thanet South in Kent, said that sending boats back to France would be a "high-octane" measure:
"We need to up the stakes and consider immediate removal back to France of all who arrive via this illegal route and disregard diplomatic niceties.
"This, above all else, would show, and rapidly, that the route does not work and the migrants would simply not waste their money in trying it."
Lee Anderson, the Conservative MP for Ashfield, added:
"We should drop these illegal immigrants off on a French beach and send the French government a bill for the cost of the journey."
French authorities counter that they will not take back migrants from the UK — which has lost the legal right to return refugees to other EU nations because of Brexit.
The British news magazine, The Week, quoting James Forsyth in The Times, noted that French and British interests are "not aligned" on this question:
"France, which had 92,000 asylum applications last year to the UK's 27,000, is not particularly worried about people leaving its soil. The fact is that the Channel crossings are 'almost impossible to halt.' Both traffickers and migrants know that 'no civilized country can allow people to drown at sea'; this is why people get on overcrowded vessels. 'And this is why Britain is about to be plunged into a similar crisis to the one Italy faced three years ago, albeit on a reduced scale.'"
Home Secretary Priti Patel has pledged to make the illegal crossings "unviable" by reforming UK immigration policy. On July 6, she introduced new asylum legislation — the Nationality and Borders Bill — that aims to deter illegal entry into the UK by cracking down on people traffickers and by making it easier to deport people who are in the country illegally.
The main provisions include:
- new and tougher criminal penalties for those attempting to enter the UK illegally by raising the punishment for illegal entry to four years in prison (up from six months previously), and by introducing life sentences for people smugglers.
- provide Border Force with additional powers to stop and divert vessels suspected of carrying illegal migrants to the UK and, subject to agreement with the relevant country such as France, return them to where their sea journey to the UK began.
- increase the penalty for migrants who return to the UK in breach of a deportation order to five years in prison (up from six months previously).
- introduce expedited processes to allow rapid removal of those in the country illegally.
Home Secretary Priti Patel, in a statement to Parliament, said:
"The British people have had enough of open borders and uncontrolled migration. Enough of a failed asylum system that costs the taxpayer over a billion pounds a year. Enough of dinghies arriving illegally on our shores, directed by organized crime gangs.
"Enough of people drowning on these dangerous, illegal, and unnecessary journeys. Enough of people being trafficked and sold into modern slavery. Enough of economic migrants pretending to be genuine refugees.
"Enough of adults pretending to be children to claim asylum. Enough of people trying to gain entry illegally, ahead of those who play by the rules. Enough of foreign criminals – including murderers and rapists – who abuse our laws and then game the system so we can't remove them.
"The British people have had enough of being told none of these issues matter – enough of being told it is racist to even think about addressing public concerns and seeking to fix this failed system.
"The British people have repeatedly voted to take back control of our borders. They finally have a government that is listening to them. Our priorities are the people's priorities.
"For the first time in decades we will determine who comes in and out of our country.
Immigration Control Minister Chris Philip added:
"The UK will always play its part for those in genuine need. But we will choose who deserves our help.
"Illegal immigration undermines that choice. Instead of the United Kingdom being able to choose the children and families most in need, illegal immigration instead allows those who pay people smugglers, or who are strong, to push their way to the front of the queue.
"There is no worse example of that than the small boats crossing the English Channel. Around 80% are young single men who have paid people smugglers to cheat the system. They are not fleeing war. France is not a war zone. Belgium is not a war zone and nor is Germany. These are safe European countries with well-functioning asylum systems. These journeys are dangerous and totally unnecessary, and they push to one side those in greatest need, including women and children.
"Our legal system needs reform. It is open to abuse. People make repeated human rights, asylum and modern slavery claims, often strung out over many years, in an effort to avoid removal. But very often they are later found to be without merit. For example, in 2017, 83% of those last-minute claims raised in detention to frustrate removal were later found to be without merit....
"This bill also has measures on age assessment. We are the only European country not to use scientific age assessments. Recent evaluations in Kent concerning 92 people claiming to be children later found that around half in fact were not. There are very obvious and serious safeguarding issues if men that are 23 years old successfully pretend to be under 18 and then get housed or are educated with 16-year-old girls and we cannot tolerate that."
The central weakness of the bill is that deportations will be dependent on the willingness of France and other EU countries to accept the return of migrants.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has demanded that the French "stiffen their sinews" to prevent more migrants reaching the UK:
"A large number of people want to come to this country, and we are doing everything we can to encourage the French to do the necessary and impede their passage."
Natalie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover, called for emergency laws to give UK Border Force powers to turn back boats carrying migrants:
"First it was a few, then hundreds, and now 1,000 in a day, the French just waving them through with a cheery 'Bon Voyage.' If the French won't stop the small boats then we need to by turning them back, making returns and taking firm control of our borders."
British commentator Melanie Philips concluded that the illegal immigration problem will not be stopped until British leaders drum up the courage to implement "draconian" measures:
"Trying to get the French to stop this traffic is to duck the real problem. The reason so many migrants want to come to Britain is that it has made itself the most attractive destination in the world for such people. That's because migrants correctly perceive it to be a soft touch. They know that Britain's slavish adherence to human rights laws makes it so difficult to deport them that there's every chance they won't be sent away but will be able to melt into the country and receive accommodation and welfare services.
"To end this farce, therefore, Britain has to remove all those incentives. It has to send such migrants away from Britain for the processing of their asylum claims — to cruise liners in the North Sea, to the Isle of Man, the Falklands, wherever; deport them to the first country to which they fled; or fly them straight back to France. Anyone without proper documentation should be made to realize they will never be entitled to British citizenship or to access Britain's health, housing or welfare services.
"To do anything like this, however, would not only provoke a storm of accusations of racism, cruelty, inhumanity and so forth. It would also be prohibited by the courts. To enact the draconian measures needed to stop this illegal migrant traffic, Britain would have to leave the European Convention on Human Rights and maybe also the Refugee Convention — which it is deeply unwilling to do.
"As for changing Britain's interpretation of maritime law, this in the same league as the not infrequently floated idea of rewriting human rights law. Well, the British government can rewrite its interpretation of international law to its heart's content; but the inconvenient fact remains that, while the UK is party to the relevant treaties and conventions, it remains bound by them.
"If Britain cannot accept the terms of those treaties and conventions, it must leave them. Otherwise it will just have to take what follows and lump it. But Boris Johnson cannot admit this; nor will he take the action that is necessary, because that would take courage and leadership and that's all Just Too Difficult."