LONDON — If Britain thought leaving the EU would solve its worries about migration, it was wrong.
The rapid spike in people trying to cross the English Channel in small boats has triggered a new sense of crisis — among Tory MPs, at least — and left the U.K. government grappling with a shortage of emergency accommodation, a clogged asylum and return system, and spiraling costs to the taxpayer.
Worse, thousands of desperate new arrivals find themselves trapped in unsuitable accommodation for weeks, months and even years, unable to work, their futures in limbo.
Tory hardliner Suella Braverman is just the latest in a long line of U.K. home secretaries to try — and, so far, fail — to solve the problem.
“The system is broken,” Braverman told the House of Commons on Monday. “Illegal migration is out of control.”
Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper agreed urgent action is needed, but blamed the Tory government for a near-total collapse in decision-making for asylum cases.
Monday’s debate was focused on dangerous overcrowding at a specific asylum processing center in southern England. Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said Tuesday night the number of migrants at the Manston center had now been “reduced substantially.”
But the broader picture is complex, and bleak. Arrivals across the Channel are steadily increasing, from 8,400 in 2020 to 28,500 in 2021, and up to about 40,000 this year.
Ironically, experts say this is in part due to the success of previous clampdowns on migrants stowing away in the backs of lorries at the French border.
“One of the reasons people believe we have the small boats phenomenon in the first place is that it is the result of successful enforcement around the lorry terminals in northern France,” said Madeleine Sumption, director of the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory. “So if you close off one route, you create pressure for people to explore new options.”
Britain, of course, is just the last link of the chain.
Asylum seeker numbers have been rising all over the EU over recent years, reaching levels unseen since the 2015 refugee crisis, and putting processing systems across the Continent under heavy strain. Lack of accommodation is an equally painful issue in countries such as Austria, where the government has started to house refugees in tents.
Priti Patel, the U.K.’s previous home secretary appointed in 2019, had vowed to make migration crossings an “infrequent phenomenon” by the following spring. Having failed to hit her target, she pledged to make the Channel an “unviable” route through a controversial plan for U.K. border officials to start actively pushing back small boats. She was later forced to abandon the proposal as impractical.
Astonishingly, more than 100,000 asylum seekers are currently awaiting a decision from the Home Office, and as they wait in limbo they must be financially supported by the taxpayer as they are banned from working under U.K. law.
Seemingly unable either to speed up the processing of asylum applications or to halt the crossings themselves, successive home secretaries have instead focused on the only other option available: removals.
In April 2022, the U.K. sealed a £120-million deal with Rwanda to offshore asylum seekers to the Eastern African country. Seven months on, no removal flight has even left the runway amid a flurry of challenges in the courts.
Patel also struck a bilateral deal with the Albanian government last year to accelerate returns of Albanian nationals who fail to obtain asylum, after a sudden spike in the arrivals from the Balkan nation. The Home Office blames the surge on family pull factors, specific targeting by Albanian people-smugglers, and a new route into Europe through the Balkans.
British and Albanian officials and police officers are now working closely together in a bid to tackle the migratory flows at their source. Braverman told parliament the scheme has “had some success in removing people back to Albania within quite a short period of time,” but admitted it must “go further and faster” to make a real impact.
In the years after the 2016 Brexit vote, successive Conservative governments had insisted a patchwork of similar bilateral return deals with EU nations would prove the ideal substitute for the EU-wide migration system which is meant to coordinate asylum requests among member countries. Britain chose to leave this so-called Dublin convention when it departed the wider bloc in 2020.
But no such deals with EU nations have been signed.
EU member countries are resisting Britain’s demands that migrants be returned to the first country deemed safe which they enter into. Accepting this logic would see EU countries on the frontline of mass arrivals — such as Greece, and others on the Continent’s southern border — having to accept even more asylum seekers into their already-crowded systems.
The U.K. has engaged bilaterally with Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland on asylum — only to be told that it needs to speak to Brussels direct.
Although there’s ample consensus that a new EU-U.K. migration pact is desirable, the prospects look bleak — with London blaming the European Commission for not wanting to even open discussions.
Internally and externally, migration remains the bloc’s most divisive issue, and as former British Prime Minister Liz Truss complained privately during her six-week leadership, it rarely receives sufficient attention at international summits.
Hopes for UK-France deal
With the arrival of Rishi Sunak at No. 10 Downing Street, there are renewed hopes of a bilateral migration deal with France, aimed at improving Channel patrols and law enforcement.
Officials are expected to review a draft deal that includes targets for interception of boats in the Channel and a minimum number of French gendarmerie officials patrolling the French northern shore.
The bigger prize, however, would be for France to process asylum claims on French soil, and the U.K. in exchange accepting those granted protection who express an interest in settling down in Britain.
“If a deal with France reduced the number of people crossing the Channel and meant that there was a larger number of people coming through a safe and orderly route, then that could be attractive” for the U.K., said the Migration Observatory’s Sumption.
“People’s concern about this route is not just about the numbers, it’s about the way that people are coming, the risks that they’re taking, and the difficulty that the government has controlling it.”
Last week, Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed Channel crossings in their first telephone conversation since the new PM took office, according to the British government. The issue was not mentioned in the French readout of the call, however.
But years of deteriorating relations with successive British prime ministers, plus a long-running row over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, have decreased the appetite in Paris for any bilateral deal with London.
A French diplomat said the U.K. has adopted a more constructive approach on migration in recent times, however, and “better understands” now that it “cannot divide” EU member countries on this issue.
In the meantime, thousands more people keep crossing the Channel each week.