The issue of migrants crossing the English Channel is one of the most politically charged debates in the UK. The rhetoric ranges from fear mongering and racism to sentimental outcries and pleas to common humanity, depending on the ideological stance of the media outlet.
Mr Johnson himself eloquently called Channel crossings “very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal”. These terms incite emotion but do not help us understand what is really going on.
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s strong-worded speech at the Conservative Party conference calls for a closer look at the situation.
According to the BBC, more than 1,468 migrants attempted to cross the Channel in small boats in August 2020. The pandemic has led to an increase with around 4,900 successfully crossing the Channel since lockdown started, more than double 2019’s figures.
This is probably not due to an increase in the number of migrants, however. Due to coronavirus transport restrictions, fewer lorries are able to cross the Channel so less people can be smuggled in. They instead cross in the most dangerous way: overcrowded boats and dinghies.
Furthermore, the Syrian Resettlement Programme which, according to the government, has resettled over 19,000 refugees since 2015, ended in March.
Thus, safe and legal options for migration have shrunk and the water has become the only hope for many migrants. These numbers seem less striking when contextualised.
The number of migrants who have crossed the channel so far this year is less than 1% of the total number of immigrants who entered the UK last year. The number this year is also small relative to the typical numbers that claim asylum: last year it was 36,000, and relative to the numbers in other European countries.
No longer sounds like a crisis, does it?
Priti Patel’s speech on October 4th, in which she spoke of the UK’s immigration process as “a broken system” has caused alarm, especially amongst third sector organisations.
She spoke of creating a “new system that is firm and fair”, by which she meant that it would be more effective at blocking illegal routes and deporting those who have not been granted asylum seeker status. Arguably, the system is broken but not in the way Patel claims.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has explained that the only two routes for entering the UK legally, family reunification and the Syrian Resettlement Programme, are extremely limited.
Since people cannot claim asylum while they are outside the country they are forced to enter illegally. Moreover, the UN Refugee Convention states that as long as people are fleeing persecution, they cannot be penalised for illegal entry into the UK.
This suggests that the focus should be less on repelling migrants who enter the UK via the Channel, and more on creating safer routes. Another systemic issue is the slowness of the asylum process which is supposed to take 6 months but, according to the Home Office, takes longer in 60% of cases.
Some argue, as Patel has, that the backlog is due to excessive numbers of migrants, including many who do not really need asylum. As we have seen above however, numbers are not really the issue.
According to a blistering House of Commons report on the state of immigration enforcement, the inadequacy of the Home Office is the real problem. It found that the department does not collect reliable data and therefore does not make decisions based on evidence.
Moreover, the slow processing of claims is seemingly due to inefficiencies in the department itself rather than any external ‘migrant crisis’. Instead of improving its processes, the Home Office is resorting to deportations to reduce the pressure, clearly an unsustainable solution.
The term “migrant crisis” is a problematic one since ‘crisis’ is not a neutral, descriptive term but rather a value judgement which creates a sense of fear if it is not scrutinised.
Just as the Home Office has been getting away with functioning on assumptions rather than facts, the rhetoric surrounding immigration lends itself to the amplification of divisive emotions rather than the truth. If we get our facts right, we will be better equipped to hold our government to account about theirs.