Calm waters wash against the beaches of Kent, the shore off the shortest sea span between England and France. With minimal wind on the horizon, these are ideal conditions for migrants hoping to cross the world’s busiest shipping lane.
Recent months have seen record numbers of migrants attempting to travel across the English Channel to claim asylum in the UK. More than 200 people reached the shores of Kent last weekend alone. This journey is a treacherous one, spanning 20 miles (32km) across the Channel and the migrants who embark on the crossing are risking everything to start a new life abroad.
According to UNHCR statistics, in December 2020 there were 132,349 refugees, 77,245 pending asylum cases, and 4662 stateless persons in the UK. As of September 2021, Iran (6,002) was the top nationality claiming asylum in the UK, followed by Eritrea (4,412), Albania (4.010), Iraq (3,042), and Syria (2,303). Migrants fleeing from these countries leave behind a myriad of dangers such as sanctions, authoritarian rule, and civil war.
On November 24, 27 people were confirmed dead after their inflatable boat capsized – the most notable tragedy to occur since these crossings began. Nevertheless, another fleet of small boats left France’s northern shores the next morning, packed with families undeterred by the incident. Wednesday’s events prompted a new political crisis between Britain and France as the neighbors accused each other of not doing enough to deter people from crossing.
European migration officials held an emergency meeting on Sunday following the tragedy but UK officials were notably absent. Home Secretary Priti Patel’s invitation was rescinded after Prime Minister Boris Johnson published a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron calling on France to do more to stop Channel crossings including allowing British forces to patrol French beaches – which France has refused in the past, citing concerns about sovereignty. Macron voiced his frustration with this on Friday when he accused the UK of a lack of seriousness over the Channel crisis
Though there has been a lot of back and forth between the leaders, Johnson and Macron have agreed to step up joint efforts to prevent the crossings and stop the human trafficking gangs behind it. The leaders highlighted the importance of communicating with Belgium and the Netherlands to tackle the problem before it reaches the French shores.
Currently, French authorities are dismantling the migrant camps that have sprung up between Calais and Dunkirk. The remaining occupants will be dispersed to processing centres around the country in an attempt to remove them from northern France. However, many are likely to return in a matter of days in an attempt to cross the Channel.
Meanwhile, discussions in Parliament heat up following the statement Patel delivered to MPs on the Channel tragedy. The Home Secretary confirmed that she has authorised the Border Force to use “push back” tactics and was considering “offshoring” the processing of migrants or sending them to another country while their applications for asylum are being considered.
However, a parliamentary report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has found that these government push back tactics could effectively criminalise the act of seeking asylum in the UK. The report found no way in which push backs could be implemented without risking lives thus contradicting the UK’s obligations under the right to life and international maritime law.
Tensions remain high between French and UK government officials as debates continue on how this crisis will be handled. France does not plan to accept operations to force small boats out of British waters, its interior minister, Gerald Darmanin has said, noting that the UK is “not taking its share” of asylum seekers.
Photo via P. Bonniere