So far this year approximately 6,000 people are believed to have crossed the Channel in small boats. The figure for the whole of 2020 was 8,417, a total which is expected to be passed during the next two months as fine weather makes the treachereous crossing tempting.
The Home Secretary Priti Patel has high hopes of halting these crossings. Following her long awaited Nationality and Borders bill which had an emphasis on thwarting these crossings, critics believe her bill relies on twisted logic. By making it harder to claim asylum, they say it is more likely to force asylum seekers to use smugglers who orchestrate the Channel crossings.
Recent reports claim that newly arrived unaccompanied minors are being classed as adults following supposedly complex age assessment interviews, conducted over the telephone, allegations denied by the Home Office. Other arrivals are said to have been placed in ‘unsecured’ homes with no paperwork and no initial interview by immigration officials. More asylum seekers who are being held in disused military barracks have received Home Office papers warning that they face being deported to another country under an agreement that so far no country is believed to have signed up to. Mental health is an increasing issue.
All of these issues are linked to Priti Patel’s determination to reform the asylum system amid what is said to be ‘a Channel crossing crisis’. But what if, as many believe, there was no crisis to begin with.
The subtle difference in statistics than the one offered by the Home Office is that the current numbers of asylum seekers is relatively low. Last year’s record Channel crossings constitute a tenth of the UK asylum applications received in 2002.
During the twelve months to April, 26,903 asylum applications were received, a 24% decrease from the previous year. In 2019 approximately 690,000 long term international immigrants, individuals who change their country of residence for at least a year, entered the UK.
Such data has encouraged some to believe the Channel ‘crisis’ is a deliberate political construct. A slow response to processing asylum claims has helped create a backlog of 109,000 cases that in turn allows the Home Office to give the impression the system is being overwhelmed by an influx of arrivals.
Legal policy director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Chai Patel, said: “The crisis around Channel crossings is one that has been entirely created by Priti Patel because she is refusing to process their asylum claims or put them in asylum accommodation, instead creating these ex-military style camps which have horrific conditions and creates what appears to be a much more visible crisis, which seems to be the deliberate plan.
He is not alone in noting that the UK’s asylum intake is modest compared to our EU neighbours. When examining the number of asylum applications per head of population, the UK ranks 17th out of the 28 European countries. Germany, for example, counted more that 102,000 applicants last year.
Experts also say that Channel crossings need to be seen in the context of how migrants enter the UK, arguing that boat journeys merely replace a drop off in attempts by lorry, once the preferred route. “More people are crossing by boat than before but that is because all the other routes have stopped to a large extent”.
Entry to the UK by lorry appears to have declined sharply following the closure of the Calais migrant camp in 2016. Figures for the ports of Calais, Dunkirk and the Eurotunnel terminal at Coquelles dropped from 56,000 attempts in 2016 to 32,000 three years later. The numbers are believed to have fallen further during the pandemic. The Home Office, however, will not say how many migrants have recently been intercepted in France or following ‘lorry drops’ in England compared to numbers crossing by boat.
Clare Mosely of charity Care4Calais said a crackdown following the death of 39 Vietnamese in a lorry in Essex in October 2019 has played a part. Vietnamese are among the nationalities who have made a switch from lorries to crossing the Channel by boat.
The asylum seekers ferried into Dover marina by vessels such as the Valiant may feel relief at reaching their destination, yet it is increasingly the beginning of a bleak process. “The Home Office’s objective is not to grant asylum and to deport people. Should it not be asking how it can run the system efficiently and fairly”.
Hotels are being filled with those waiting a decision, another five were recently seconded to hold asylum seekers. Care4Calais has heard of new arrivals being placed in properties after having no screening interview by immigration officials, and also no documentation.
At Napier barracks in Kent, where asylum seekers are housed in dire conditions, residents say they have received ‘notices of intent’ warning that anyone who has travelled through a safe country such as France on their way to the UK will be returned there. The Home Office has however, failed to persuade a single safe country to accept its plans.
Maddie Harris, from Humans for Rights Network says the threats cause more distress for camp residents. “It’s another way of putting their case on hold, of creating a delay. No one knows how this will end”.
Unaccompanied children who arrive by boat are not spared either. Priti Patel’s proposals advocate new age assessments in order to identify adults pretending to be children. Lawyers warn that the Home Office has started classifying many children as adults.
Stuart Luke of legal firm InstaLaw says the recent announcement that the Kent unit to house unaccompanied children was full meant that every new arrival claiming to be a child was being disputed. The Home Office’s approach is damaging the mental health of unaccompanied minors. Bridget Chapman who has worked with refugee children since 2005 says the situation has never been worse. “If you are putting children through more trauma, then you have to assume it’s deliberate”.
Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network states that the Home Office attempts to make it harder to win asylum were causing significant stress. “There are increasing degrees of despair, people talking about suicide and self harm”.
Many are clinging to the hope that much of Patel’s asylum blueprint may unravel. The Crown Prosecution recently dealt her plans a blow by announcing it would no longer prosecute migrants, but instead would focus on the smugglers. Her proposals also feature new powers for the Border Force to be able to divert vessels suspected of carrying illegal migrants. Volunteers for the Dover based group Channel Rescue hope border officials will rebel against directions asking them to stop rescuing vulnerable people. “There’s always the potential that people might say we’re not prepared to do that”.
Patel’s proposals ignore the fact that they won’t stem the global factors that drive migration. “We are not going to stop people making this journey, so the question is how do we deal with it so people feel they have an option that doesn’t involve them risking their lives” says Chapman.