Confusion abounds in Poole. The Conservative MP for the area, Sir Robert Syms, has revealed that his constituents are “perplexed” as to why asylum seekers might cross the Channel to the UK in unsafe boats when they are themselves happy to go on holiday to France. It is somewhat surprising that Tories, of all people, would be shocked that someone would choose Britain over France, and it shows how the debate around cross-Channel migrants has been taken over by soundbites.
The question of why those seeking asylum bypass safe countries is rather a red herring. Although EU and UK domestic law makes some provision for migrants to be returned to the first “safe” country they entered in certain circumstances, international law places no such requirement on those fleeing their homeland. It is, however, a minority of migrants who push through the whole continent to come to Britain, with Greece, Germany, France and Spain each receiving more asylum applications than we have in recent years.
The motives of those who do try to make it to the UK are varied, but the pull of Britain isn’t hard to understand. Around half of the migrants who cross the Channel have relatives in Britain and are looking to link up with them. Many are attracted because they already speak English, or because rightly or wrongly they believe Britain offers them a better life than elsewhere, either because they see it as more tolerant or as an easier place to find work. Others will have been trafficked, destined for the UK’s underground economy.
Those that choose the fraught and dangerous Channel crossing to do this because few other routes exist. Under UK law it is impossible to claim asylum from outside the country. There is no temporary visa for entering the UK to claim asylum and entering on another visa to then claim asylum is an offence. As an island, we ensure these rules are policed at foreign ports and airports, and so prevent almost all entry by regular means of transport. As a result, if you want to claim asylum in Britain the only way is to find an irregular route into the country. It is no wonder the people smugglers are flourishing.
The problem is compounded by politics. Co-operation between French and British authorities seems to have diminished following Brexit and the rising numbers of irregular Channel crossings. There is a certain self-interest at play here, with migrants ceasing to be France’s problem once they embark across the Channel and the British obviously having an incentive to keep migrants in France. Neither side has found a solution to the problem, and the French cannot be bought off as easily as, say, the Moroccans have been by Spain, which has given them cash to police borders around Spanish exclaves in North Africa.
The answer to the confusion of the constituents of Poole is that as a prosperous, tolerant and English-speaking country Britain will always be an attractive destination for migrants, and that irregular boat crossings are the only way to get here. No one wants to see migrants drowning in the Channel, but the answer doesn’t come from soundbites. The international flow of refugees is not something Britain can simply exclude itself from. Preventing Channel crossings will require not just tougher enforcement against criminal gangs, but also attainable routes of legal entry, especially directly from affected nations, backed by an asylum regime that is robust but not heartless.
[See also: Suella Braverman shows how Rishi Sunak will struggle to escape the past]