The vote to leave the European Union was many things, but perhaps above all it was a vote to control immigration.
Now, the legacy of Brexit is making it harder to prevent an appalling human tragedy unfolding in the English Channel, as record numbers of people attempt the treacherous crossing in small boats in their search for a better life in the UK.
Without a joint plan from Britain and France, the fate of thousands of migrants will remain in peril but souring relations between Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron are wrecking hopes for a deal.
Personally, Johnson has never been one of those Tory right-wingers who regards immigrants as toxic invaders to be repelled. He disliked the Vote Leave emphasis in 2016 on the trumped-up threat from Turkish migration almost as much as he loathed Nigel Farage’s more openly hostile campaign.
Yet the Prime Minister would privately acknowledge that Vote Leave needed Farage and company to make their argument about migrants “coming in and taking jobs” to win that vote in 2016.
The effect of the Brexit vote on the migration debate was dramatic. It almost instantly took the sting out of the issue, which for years had been near the top of the list of voters’ concerns (and Conservative Party obsessions). Suddenly immigration plummeted down the league table of public priorities as the future of the entire UK-EU relationship dominated political debate.
Migration from the EU also fell sharply in the years after the referendum. In 2020, as the pandemic struck, net migration for EU nationals was negative, with 94,000 more EU nationals estimated to have left the UK than to have arrived, the Office for National Statistics said on Thursday (25 November).
Yet while officially sanctioned routes for economic migrants from the continent have been drying up, a growing humanitarian crisis of displaced people fleeing poverty and conflict zones has arrived on British shores.
Since the start of this year, more than 25,000 people have made the crossing over the Channel in flimsy dinghies launched from French beaches, and landing or being rescued off the coast of Kent. In November, for the first time more than 1,000 people came ashore in a single day.
Even though temperatures are now close to freezing and winter is on the way, the small boats keep coming. A tragedy seemed inevitable and, on 24 November, at least 27 people, including a pregnant woman and multiple children, drowned.
Johnson and Macron spoke by phone immediately afterwards. The two leaders agreed to step up cooperation to tackle the crisis. But that unity quickly fragmented, with Johnson’s administration claiming France was not doing enough to stop migrants attempting the crossing. The French hit back, telling Britain to cooperate and to stop politicising a human disaster.
The mood worsened on Friday, when French interior minister Gerald Darmanin cancelled a meeting with Home Secretary Priti Patel in protest Johnson’s call for France to do more to take back migrants who arrive on British shores.
On Thursday night Johnson sent a letter to Macron in which he outlined a five-point plan to tackle the crisis – including joint patrols and a deal to make sure people are “swiftly returned” – and offered to meet the French president personally. Instead, the letter seems to have angered Paris and damaged hopes for progress in a joint plan to act.
The truth is the Channel migrants crisis is inevitably political – for both sides – and Brexit isn’t helping. Relations between the UK and France were already in their worst state for a generation, again thanks to Brexit, with Macron and Johnson clashing over fishing rights and trade rules repeatedly this year.
In the UK, Johnson’s allies will fear a return of immigration as a political battleground, especially with Farage making noises about a possible comeback. Immigration has started to rise again as an issue of concern to voters. It was named as one of the top three most important issues facing the country by 22 per cent of respondents to a YouGov survey this week, up from 18 per cent in January, though down from a high of 30 per cent in August.
There are many reasons why the UK is an attractive destination for desperate people gathered in Calais. The grim irony is that one such attraction may just be that it is now harder for the UK to send them back again.
While an EU member state, Britain was able to use the Dublin III rule, which meant that asylum seekers could be returned for processing to the EU country they first entered. Outside the bloc, it has no such option. Patel has been seeking an agreement with France on returns to replace the Dublin arrangement, but so far no deal has been struck.
Johnson and Patel have focused on this issue with increasing intensity but the boats keep coming. British ministers have already pledged £54m to France to help pay for increased patrols this year and now want to send officers to conduct joint searches along French beaches.
There is more than 100 miles of coastline from which dinghies could be launched, and French commentators say it is not possible for French police to patrol them all effectively and stop the criminal organisations responsible for trafficking vulnerable people.
But France has rejected the offer of UK personnel, apparently because it wants to protect its national sovereignty from an influx of British state officers operating in French territory. It’s an argument Brexiteers would surely understand. Restoring British sovereignty, after all, was a central motive for many Conservative Eurosceptics. Taking back control over British borders was integral to that promise.
But in their efforts to protect their own national sovereignty, the UK and France are at risk of grossly neglecting the needs of tens of thousands of people with none.