At any one time, for the past several decades, there has been a steady population of a couple of thousand homeless, destitute and desperate migrants in northern France, seeking to come to the UK.
On a disturbingly regular cycle, the media seizes on this issue, hysterically covering the news with scenes of chaos and misery, whipping up hysteria about an uncontrollable mass of so-called illegal entrants. Successive Home Secretaries, from Theresa May, via Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid and now Priti Patel have each in turn responded to this cycle in the exact same way.
The dehumanizing rhetoric amps up, high-level meetings are scheduled with French counterparts, promises to send every last one back and stop up the leaks in our border barriers are made. This approach has failed and will continue to fail us. As long as we continue to block safe and legal means for asylum seekers to reach the UK, they will be forced into ever more dangerous irregular journeys.
It is hard to understand, however, why indeed they are “forced” to make these journeys at all. Even those of us with the utmost sympathy for asylum seekers can legitimately question why it is that refugees are still risking their lives to flee France – a seemingly safe and prosperous country.
In order to understand why migrants are seeking to come to the UK from France, it is first important to know that only a very small proportion of the asylum seekers who enter France do actually try to do this. France received 143,000 asylum applications in 2019, while that same year the UK received under 35,000. These figures have been more or less constant for the past five years, so we can immediately see that the problem is not France shirking its responsibilities and palming asylum seekers off en masse to the UK. Rather, it is the UK that takes on a disproportionately small responsibility for the protection of asylum seekers as compared to our European counterparts.
While many refugees do indeed find sanctuary in France, the reality is that not all of them are able to find protection there. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have condemned the French authorities repeatedly for many years for failing to provide adequate shelter and support to asylum seekers and for extreme police brutality against migrants sleeping rough or in makeshift tent settlements.
In July of this year, the situation had got so bad that the European Court of Human Rights found that France was violating migrants’ human right to protection from inhuman and degrading treatment. The Court found that even where asylum seekers had formally lodged applications with the French authorities, they were in many cases being left destitute, without shelter, food or protection from being targeted by predatory criminal gangs and traffickers.
Of particular concern is the risk to unaccompanied children and vulnerable adults such as women and survivors of torture, who are not protected by the French asylum system and are at risk of trafficking and slavery. Migrants and refugees who are left to sleep rough without support in these dangerous conditions cannot avail themselves of the protection of the French state – in fact they are regularly beaten and abused by the French authorities themselves.
Under such circumstances, objectively verified by the courts and NGOs, is it any surprise that they do not feel that they have reached safety yet in France, and seek to escape to reach the UK, even by drastic and dangerous means?
Many migrants in these circumstances may have other reasons for thinking that the UK will offer them the best possible future as well. A high proportion have been found to have family members already settled in the UK and are seeking to join them, while others already speak English and come from countries with strong historic ties to the UK. It is a natural fact reflected in all global migration patterns that the existence of a diaspora community from your country of origin is a strong factor in migrant choices of where they will be able to settle.
In some cases, however, there really is no good reason or logic. In fact, many migrants are entirely in the hands of smugglers, who tell them where to go, what to pay, what vehicle to get into. These migrants experience an incredibly frightening journey, often spending months being told where to go without knowing why, entirely dependent on smuggling gangs for food, transport and protection.
These smugglers could be put out of business and the dangerous, chaotic journeys eliminated if the UK government accepted the valid reasons some migrants seek to continue fleeing, even out of the ostensibly safe France, and stepped up to take on a fair share of responsibility.
The provision of safe and legal routes is the one solution that, year after year, our Home Secretaries never put forward, and yet it is the only way to truly prevent this cycle of chaos and misery from continuing. We know from their countries of origin – Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – that many of these migrants are fleeing horrors from which we should be able to offer protection. It is time to break the cycle of making legitimate refugee journeys illegal, and offer generous legal pathways to safety.
Zoe Gardner is a Policy Adviser for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.