29 November 2021

How many more must die in the Channel before the government changes course?

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It was only a matter of time before we saw such a tragedy. Last Wednesday, at least 27 people, including a pregnant woman and a girl, drowned while attempting to reach Britain in the biggest single loss of life in the English Channel on record. This incident, and many others like it, was entirely avoidable. The Government’s response to escalating numbers of attempted Channel crossings will make the situation even worse.

Rather than providing safe, legal routes for asylum seekers, the Home Office is doubling down on futile attempts to play whack-a-mole with routes into the UK. By doing so, they bear responsibility for driving refugees into the welcoming arms of people smugglers, who are rubbing their hands with glee at the opportunity to hike their prices even higher.

Three months after its announcement, the widely publicised Afghan resettlement scheme is still not operational. Those forced to flee are well aware that the Taliban do not offer a 90-day grace period before they come knocking at your door: a fact the Government would do well to remember. After leaving the Dublin Regulation at the start of 2021, family unification routes are also shamefully closed to those in Europe.

Through its Nationality and Borders Bill, the Government looks set to make these crossings even more lethal. Proposed ‘pushbacks’ and legal protections for officers who cause deaths in the Channel would be – aside from their clear incompatibility with international law – ineffective at discouraging dangerous journeys. New powers aimed at tackling smuggling gangs will instead end up criminalising asylum seekers who share a boat on the basis that they would be ‘facilitating entry’.

The Bill would also create further problems for most of those who do manage to make it to our shores. Our existing approach is already harsh by international standards: support payments are less generous than France’s and our wrong-headed 12-month work ban is far more draconian than our European neighbours. But new proposals for a ‘two-tier’ asylum system would discriminate against refugees who arrive via irregular routes: introducing a new series of hoops asylum seekers would have to jump through. Current plans would be patently inconsistent with international law, harm integration prospects and leave asylum seekers with even greater uncertainty about their future safety.

The Home Office’s justification for such measures is to tackle the ‘pull factors’ that make the UK an attractive destination for asylum seekers. But the notion of pull factors is largely a myth. Unfortunately, there seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding among many MPs about the reasons why refugees choose to travel here. The kneejerk ‘why don’t they stay in France?’ – a common refrain from many on the other side of this debate – is the perfect illustration. The overwhelming majority of refugees flee to neighbouring countries and those who do make the journey to Europe are far more likely to apply for asylum in France than the UK; less than 3% of refugees in Europe come to the UK. Those who do seek asylum on our shores tend to do so because of connections to family and friends, English language familiarity, previous work with the British military or other cultural connections with these islands. They do not tend to come here because of an extensive familiarity with the UK’s asylum system, because all the evidence shows they don’t possess such detailed knowledge.

Put simply, no amount of tough talk, two-tiered systems or towbacks will exert a significant deterrence effect on people already willing to risk their lives crossing a dangerous stretch of water on dinghies. Even in the wake of Wednesday’s tragic events, around 40 migrants were reportedly brought to Dover by the RNLI the following morning.

Public opinion on refugee rights is by no means as clear-cut as the Government seems to assume. Although a majority of the population appear to support various harsher measures, they – maddeningly – also tend to think that these won’t reduce numbers. In one recent poll just 17% of people thought refugees should be treated differently depending on how they arrived in the UK: despite this being a key part of the Borders Bill.

Brits are frustrated by continual, predictable failures on both sides of the Channel to deal with unsafe crossings and are sceptical that more of the same will make any difference. It’s disgraceful that this month French police stood idly as migrants pushed a small boat into the water. But from our end, the Government should be honest with us, admit that harsher enforcement has never worked, and change its course before it condemns more poor souls to the bottom of the sea.

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Daniel Pryor is Head of Programmes at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.