“Listen to the shipping forecast,” I was told in Folkestone. “Listen out for Dover and North Foreland to Selsey Bill, sixes and sevens, moderate or poor. It’s not like sailing on the Serpentine.” Almost everyone that I talked to in Folkestone yesterday was shocked that migrants were setting sail in such dangerous waters and that such tiny boats sometimes contained children. I was repeatedly told of the risks that migrants faced: hypothermia, being submerged by waves or the wash from a ferry, or just sunk by a much larger vessel that fails to see a small dinghy. The hazards of crossing the one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in tiny pleasure craft were brought home to Folkestone’s residents in November 2018, when two dinghies containing Iranian migrants were washed up on town’s beaches. Small boats ferrying such clandestine entrants had been apprehended before, but last year had brought increased numbers of such arrivals.
Those who I met in my visit to Folkestone felt that Home Secretary Sajid Javid was right to declare the situation a ‘major incident’ as this would make sure that lives were saved and that the police, Border Force and the Navy gave this issue the priority it deserved. The criticism that the Home Secretary has received by London’s left-leaning commentariat for taking this action was at odds with public opinion, as well as some of those who work with migrants and refugees in this part of Kent. Media coverage of accusations that Javid’s ‘major incident’ has fanned xenophobia has overshadowed coverage of other important issues: the tactics and criminal behaviour of traffickers, inter-governmental cooperation and the asylum system in France. Throughout, the stories of migrants themselves and why they are leaving has received scant attention.
The migrant camps in Calais is an issue of high public salience in the UK and was mentioned in almost all the visits we made during the National Conversation on Immigration, the biggest ever public consultation on this issue. In Folkestone, public opinion about the recent boat arrivals was similar to the views we heard when we visited the town as part of this National Conversation. As in other parts of the UK, people were sympathetic to the plight of refugees, particularly women and children. They knew that refugees were fleeing war and persecution and felt that the Government was right to offer sanctuary to Syrians. Many people understood that desperation had driven refugees to make perilous channel crossings. There was contempt for the actions of traffickers, with names of local criminals being mentioned.
At the same time, this compassion was matched with concerns about border control, security and a belief that not all asylum-seekers were genuine. People that I met were worried that without effective border control and asylum systems, the “gates are open” and that Kent would face a disproportionate burden. There was also much pragmatism and a view that this issue was “complicated” and without easy solutions. Many people believed that better Anglo-French cooperation was needed and felt that the French Government could do more.
“The mayoress of Calais would like to just open the doors and get them out of Calais, and the next port of call is us. They don’t want to deal with the issue, they don’t want to house them. France as a country is a hell of a lot bigger than ours.”
In the past, many politicians have over-promised on immigration control then failed to deliver, thus damaging public trust in the ability of the Government to manage immigration policy. It is refreshing that the Home Secretary has acknowledged that there are no easy answers to the current situation and that many factors contributing to it are outside his immediate control. Although action to tackle the root causes of migration in countries such as Iran and Iraq are desirable, they can be the most difficult to take forward.
Migrants have been living in makeshift camps along the north French coast since the mid-1990s, although it seems that most of the new boat arrivals have not spent protracted periods of time living rough around Calais and Dunkerque. Those arriving on boats are mostly Kurds from Iran and Iraq, although local charities report Syrian arrivals too. They appear to have paid substantial sums of money for their crossing; some of the migrants have family in the UK and want to join them. Some already speak good English, another reason to choose the UK. But it is not always clear why Britain is such an attraction: the recognition rate for refugees is similar in the UK and France, although there are fewer backlogs and delays in France. In 2017, France received 100,412 asylum applications and granted 30% of them refugee status or other types leave to remain after an initial decision. In the UK in the same year there were 26,350 asylum applications, with 31% of decisions to offer refugee status or other leave to remain. Undoubtedly, the stories that traffickers tell migrants to get them to take their boats plays a role in this cross-channel migration. These criminals’ profits depend on imparting a view that the streets of London and Manchester are paved with gold and that it easy to live below the radar.
So what policies would help curtail these boat crossings? It is essential that the actions of criminals who put lives at risk are disrupted. These traffickers are not saviours, smuggling endangered people out of war-torn countries such as Syria. Rather, they are criminals driven by profit. The French police can be brutal when clearing camps, but France is a safe country and its asylum system is speedier and more efficient than that of the UK. Views about this form of people trafficking need to be informed by research rather than romantic notions that these criminals are transporting desperate people to safety.
Some of those arriving on boats do have family in the UK. The Dublin Agreement is an EU law that determines which EU member state should hear an asylum application. This is usually country of entry into the EU, although it allows for cases to be transferred where asylum-seekers have close family connections in another EU state. In 2017, the UK received 461 asylum-seekers through the Dublin process, of whom 91 came from France. But the Dublin process is slow and bureaucratic, with high rates of refusal, a factor that prompts some desperate people to risk their lives in boats and as freight stowaways. Although Brexit will mean renegotiating the Dublin agreement, it is welcome that December’s immigration white paper supports the Dublin agreement and commits the UK to its principles. The Home Office has also posted an asylum liaison officer in northern France to speed up the transfer of asylum-seekers with close family in the UK. Refugee charities need to hold the UK Government to account on this promise.
But not all migrants crossing from France have family in the UK. Those fleeing war and persecution need to have confidence in the French asylum system, so that they can feel assured that they will get a fair hearing in France. UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration and refugee charities have a role to play in building such trust and helping migrants make decisions about their future. More dispassionate and truthful advice as well as dignified voluntary return options are needed for those who have no claim for asylum. Such policies are needed to maintain public confidence in the asylum system, in the UK and in France. Where public support is lost it becomes much harder for politicians to make the case for the humanitarian policy changes that we want: on detention, asylum-seekers’ right to work and on refugee family reunion.