Over the course of a year in which 45,756 people crossed the channel in unsafe vessels, there was rarely a break in coverage of these small boat crossings. The issue has been at the top of the agenda all year, for successive prime ministers and home secretaries. In the wake of the High Court’s ruling on Rwanda, the small boat tragedy in early December, and evidence of overcrowded conditions and diphtheria at Manston asylum centre, many people will be asking the same questions:
Why do people risk their lives crossing the channel? What is it about the UK that is so compelling? And how can we stop small boat disasters?
On 13th December, the home secretary and prime minister gave their answers to these questions in a statement that outlined a five-point plan to reform the asylum system and ‘tackle’ boat arrivals. Central to these plans is the intention to further criminalise those travelling to the UK by small boats and to immediately remove them to a third country, such as Rwanda. Echoing the rhetoric of the Nationality and Borders Act (and its dubious legality), the plans reinforce the assumption that many asylum seekers choose to come to the UK because of its ‘welcoming’ conditions. Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, says he wants to create a system “where deterrence is suffused through the whole thing” and to look at “how we treat people on arrival, so that nobody thinks that coming to the UK is a soft touch, and the UK is not a better site for ‘asylum shoppers’ than our EU neighbour”.
In the wake of this messaging, it’s important that we set some facts straight: the idea that people arriving on small boats have less legitimate claims to asylum, and should be treated differently, is wrong. Indeed, 94% of small boat arrivals submit an asylum claim and the main nationalities represented include individuals from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, and Iran. Further, the UK does not take in more asylum seekers than its European neighbours. In 2021, there were 9 asylum applications for every 10,000 people living in the UK. The UK ranks 16th among EU27 countries on this measure, below the average rate for EU countries. So the idea that disproportionate numbers of people come to the UK to ‘shop’ for asylum is far-fetched.
This rhetoric around ‘welcome’ and the presence of ‘pull factors’ to the UK simply does not resonate with the reality of seeking asylum, and conditions in the UK’s asylum system.
The decision to leave your home country and to claim asylum elsewhere is impossible to attribute to one motivating factor. Academic research shows that asylum seekers have individual sets of motivations, and often don’t have complete autonomy over where they claim asylum as they are transported at the hands of people smugglers.
It is true that people would prefer to claim asylum in nations where they have: existing family and friends; language familiarity; confidence in a nation’s human rights track record; and colonial ties between the country of origin and destination. These are not extravagant concerns. It seems more than sensible that people should be able to claim asylum where they can meaningfully rebuild their lives with their family, are able to communicate and work, and feel safe.
Holding steadfast to the belief that asylum seekers come to the UK because it presents an ‘easier’ or softer option, the Home Office’s solution is to continue to create an ever more hostile environment for people seeking asylum in the UK.
Yet research produced by the Home Office itself has revealed that making the system increasingly hostile simply does not stop people from crossing the channel.
This research shows that most asylum seekers have little knowledge of conditions in the UK and their rights and entitlements before coming here. This undermines the rationale behind the government’s policy of further criminalising arrivals and implementing increasingly restrictive migration policies, like the Nationality and Borders Act. Unsurprisingly, ministers tried to supress the release of this research at the time.
Why do asylum seekers risk their lives crossing the channel? Even the question contains the assumption that there is an overwhelming force ‘pulling’ asylum seekers to the UK, and that it is these ‘pull factors’ that should be eradicated if we are to stop channel crossings.
The Home Office research has helped us to see that, in order to properly address the question, we must move the conversation from ‘pull factors’ to ‘push factors’.
The real issue at stake here is that, as our home secretary has recognised, people with legitimate asylum claims have no other routes available to them to reach the UK to join family or friends and rebuild their lives. As a reminder, there is no international legislation requiring asylum seekers to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’ – not ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in the first safe country they reach asylum from persecution.’ Thus, failing to claim asylum in another country before reaching the UK should not delegitimise an asylum claim.
There isn’t one easy solution to halting channel crossings, but it is clear that the government has to open safe and legal routes for people to get to the UK to claim asylum; suggestions include humanitarian visas issued in Northern France and the (re)introduction of a treaty to bring the UK back into the Dublin Regulation.
For a more detailed exploration of the causes and potential solutions to small boat arrivals see this article by the BBC and this report by the Institute for Public Policy Research.