Why are migrants in small boats a heated issue in the U.K.?
The message to asylum seekers from British Home Secretary Suella Braverman was stark: “If you enter Britain illegally, you will be detained and swiftly removed.”
The government hopes that a decisive — and divisive — measure will stop tens of thousands of migrants from attempting to reach Britain in boats across the English Channel.
Behind the tough talk, however, lie a host of legal, practical and ethical questions. Condemned by rights groups and challenged by legal experts, the Illegal Migration Bill is the latest in a long line of British government efforts to control unauthorized migration.
Is this a new problem?
The issue is neither new nor unique to the U.K. War, famine, poverty and political repression have put millions on the move around the globe. Britain receives fewer asylum seekers than other European nations including Italy, Germany and France.
But for decades, thousands of migrants have traveled to northern France each year in hopes of reaching the U.K. Many are drawn by family ties, the English language or the belief that it’s easy to find work in Britain.
After the Eurotunnel connecting France and England under the channel opened in 1994, refugees and migrants congregated near the French end in hopes of stowing away on vehicles. They gathered in crowded makeshift camps, including a sprawling and often violent settlement dubbed “The Jungle.”
Neither repeated sweeps to shut down the camps nor increased security patrols stopped the flow of people.
Why are people now crossing by boat?
When the COVID-19 pandemic all but halted rail, air and ship travel and disrupted freight transport in 2020, human smugglers began to put migrants into inflatable dinghies and other small boats.
In 2018, only 300 people reached Britain that way. The number rose to 8,500 in 2020, 28,000 in 2021 and 45,000 in 2022.
Dozens have died in the channel’s frigid waters, including 27 people in a single sinking in November 2021.
Groups of migrants arrive almost daily on beaches or in lifeboats along England’s southern coast, pushing the asylum issue higher up the news and political agenda.
Who is in the boats?
The British government says many of those making the journey are economic migrants rather than refugees, and points to an upswing last year in arrivals from Albania, a European country that the U.K. considers safe.
The other main countries of origin last year were Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Of those whose applications have been processed, a large majority were granted asylum in the U.K.
How has the British government responded?
Britain’s Conservative Party, in power since 2010, has brought in a series of measures aimed at deterring channel crossers.
The U.K. has struck a series of deals with France to increase patrols of beaches and share intelligence in an attempt to disrupt smuggling gangs — all of which have had only a limited impact.
Last year, Britain announced a deal with Rwanda to send migrants arriving by boat on a one-way trip to the East African country, where their asylum claims would be heard and, if successful, they would stay. The policy was condemned by human rights groups and is mired in legal challenges. No one has yet been sent to Rwanda.
The 2022 Nationality and Borders Act barred people from claiming asylum in Britain if they had passed through a safe country such as France. But in practice, people fleeing war and persecution can’t be sent home, and no countries — other than Rwanda and Albania — have agreed to take deportees.
This week, Britain unveiled the Illegal Migration Bill, its toughest measure yet, which calls for people arriving by unauthorized routes to be detained, deported to their homeland or “a safe third country” and banned from ever reentering the U.K.
Will it work?
The United Nations refugee agency says the bill amounts to an “asylum ban” and is a clear breach of the U.N. refugee convention. The U.K. government acknowledges the bill may violate Britain’s international human rights commitments, and says it expects legal challenges.
Sunder Katwala, head of the identity and immigration think-tank British Future, said in a blog post that “the pledge to detain and remove all people who cross the Channel has no prospect of being honored in the next two years.”
The British government says the country’s asylum system has been “overwhelmed” by the small-boat arrivals. Braverman, who has called the arrivals an “invasion,” said Tuesday that “the law-abiding, patriotic majority have said: Enough is enough.”
Her words have been criticized as inflammatory. BBC soccer pundit Gary Lineker drew a mix of praise and criticism for saying some of the government’s language was “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s.”
Critics say the asylum system is creaking because cumbersome bureaucracy, exacerbated by the pandemic, has created a big backlog in applications.
What does the British public think?
The government has vowed to push the bill into law, saying the British public wants to see tough action. “Stopping the boats is not just my priority, it is the people’s priority,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Wednesday.
Evidence suggests the public’s view is mixed. A desire to control immigration was a huge factor behind the U.K.’s 2016 vote to pull out of the European Union. But overall immigration rose, rather than fell, after Brexit, hitting a record high of more than 500,000 entries in the year to June 2022. Britain also took in a record number of refugees last year, including 160,000 from Ukraine and 150,000 from Hong Kong.
At the same time, polls suggest immigration is no longer a top issue for many voters. Jonathan Portes, senior fellow at the think-tank U.K. in a Changing Europe, said there has been a “sustained shift towards more positive attitudes towards migration” since Brexit.
As for asylum seekers, he said Britons want the country to be “relatively generous towards genuine refugees. But how that is defined is highly contested.”
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