The issue of people crossing the Channel in small boats has received increased media and political attention over recent years. Whilst there has undoubtedly been an increase in the number of people crossing the English Channel to seek asylum, the overall number of people claiming asylum in the year ending June 2021 was actually 4% lower than the previous year.
The increase in the number of people using small boats to enter the UK represents a change in the primary method people are using to enter the UK to seek asylum. Historically a greater proportion of people seeking asylum would have entered the UK irregularly through freight transit routes, which have become more difficult to access over recent years, primarily because of increased security measures at the freight terminals around Calais.
This year in particular has seen a marked increase in the number of small boat arrivals compared to 2020. At the time of writing, it has been reported in the media that 23,000 people have crossed the Channel in small boats so far this year, almost three times the 8,404 arrivals in 2020. It is likely that crossing the Channel in small boats has become the main means of entry into the UK for people seeking asylum in 2021. People crossing the Channel in small boats arriving on the coasts of Dover are far more visible than previous clandestine entry methods (hiding in the back of lorries for example). This increased visibility has undoubtedly resulted in the significantly increased media attention this issue has received, which in turn increases the political pressure to address the UK.
In 2019, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel stated that she would make migrant crossings an “infrequent phenomenon” by spring 2020 and then made a further pledge in August 2020 to “make this route unviable”. Yet the number of people arriving after crossing the Channel has continued to rise.
The government has also repeatedly referred to people crossing the Channel in small boats as ‘economic migrants’ who are ‘not in genuine need of protection’ and have created a narrative suggesting that these people are somehow ‘jumping the queue’ in front of others in need of protection.
A new analysis published by the Refugee Council ‘Channel crossings and asylum outcomes’ reveals that the majority of men, women and children who cross the Channel in small boats are likely to be recognised as being in need of protection as a result of an asylum claim and allowed to remain in the UK. The report finds the following:
- Between January 2020 and May 2021, 91% of people arriving after crossing the Channel came from just ten countries where human rights abuses and persecution are common. These include Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea and Yemen.
- For the top 10 countries of origin arriving by small boat, 61% of initial decisions made in the 18 months to June 2021 would have resulted in refugee protection being granted. This compares to the grant rate of 52% for decisions made for all nationalities in the same period.
- Many of the nationalities crossing the Channel have an even higher likelihood of being granted status. We found that for Syrians the grant rate is likely to be 88%, for Eritreans 84%, for Sudanese and those from Yemen 70%, and for Iranians 67%.
- Following an initial refusal of an asylum claim 59% of appeals are likely be allowed for the top 10 countries of origin for people crossing the Channel, compared to 46% for appeals allowed for all countries.
- There are extremely limited alternative ‘safe routes’ available for many of the top nationalities crossing the Channel. The UK did not resettle a single person from Kuwait, Yemen or Vietnam in the period January 2020 to May 2021 and only one person from Iran was resettled.
The findings of the report call into question the government and Home Office’s narrative that the majority of people crossing the Channel are not in genuine need of protection and are ‘economic migrants’. The report also looks at why the Government’s response to Channel crossings needs to change if they are to be successful in reducing the number of dangerous crossings.
The Refugee Council recognises and shares the concern about the risks that people crossing the Channel are exposed to and we also want to see an end to desperate people being exploited by people smugglers putting lives at risk through their business model of providing small boats to cross the Channel. The solution, however, is not further enforcement, criminalisation and punishment as these have already proven to be ineffective, as evidenced by the record level of Channel crossings this year.
The government has framed their ‘New Plan for Immigration’ and Nationality and Borders Bill as the solution to ‘fix the broken system’ to stop people from crossing the Channel. The Bill contains a number of measures aimed at discouraging people from making irregular journeys to the UK to claim asylum including further criminalisation of people who arrive irregularly and the creation of a two-tier asylum system, whereby people seeking asylum who arrive after travelling through a third country would receive differential treatment and restricted rights and entitlements when granted protection. There is little evidence that awareness of such measures acts as a deterrent for people looking to reach the UK. Indeed, the Home Office’s own impact assessment of the Nationality and Borders Bill states that there is limited evidence that increased security and deterrence measures will be effective.
What is clear, is that the Governments approach to date has failed, and their direction of travel will continue to do nothing to break the business model of the people smugglers and if anything could have the opposite effect by pushing people into longer more dangerous sea crossings which would then attract a higher price and increased profit for the people smugglers.
The government need to recognise that the majority of people seeking asylum have no other option but to make an irregular journey to the UK to claim asylum and the most effective way to break the business model of the people smugglers is to increase the availability of existing ‘safe routes’ like refugee resettlement and introduce an alternative to routes offered by people smugglers by developing a new safe route, whereby people in need of protection would be able to reach the UK to claim asylum without having to make dangerous journeys.
If the government are to succeed in their aim to reduce the number of dangerous journeys, they need to focus on strengthening safe routes by committing to the following:
- An ambitious expansion of existing safe routes including both resettlement and refugee family reunion. The government should commit to an annual resettlement target of at least 10,000 refugees and expand the existing family reunion rules to allow child refugees to be able to sponsor their parents and adult refugees to be able to sponsor their children under the age of 25 or their elderly parents to join them in the UK.
- Establishing a humanitarian visa system to allow people to apply for a visa to enter the UK for the purposes of claiming asylum, thereby reducing the need for people to make dangerous journeys across the Channel. People can only claim asylum in the UK when they are physically here, which is why they make desperate, often fatal journeys to reach the UK. It doesn’t have to be this way – humanitarian visas would enable people in need of protection to travel to the UK in a safe manner.
- A recognition that many people seeking asylum will have no other option other than making an irregular journey as recognised in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and therefore they need to be treated fairly and humanely by being granted a fair hearing on UK soil. The government need to put in place an efficient and effective asylum decision-making system with timely decisions that are of high quality so people do not have to wait for months or years for an outcome on their case.
Ultimately the government will continue to fail unless they change direction and refocus their efforts on protection based solutions rather than punishing people in need of protection.