While the somewhat absurd leaks from the Home Office about wave machines in the Channel, using redundant ferries as holding centres, or sending refugees to Moldova, Morocco – or at enormous cost even to Ascension Island, 4000 miles away – may not be true, these stories do at least give an indication of the mindset of the authorities charged with dealing with a continuing flow of migrants across the Channel to this country. It seems likely that these proposals were put out to cause alarm, so that when real ones come out, they will be regarded as relatively mild.
Use of the Navy has also been touted: Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Director, said:
Deploying the Navy to prevent people exercising their right to seek asylum in the UK would be unlawful, reckless and dangerous. It is wholly legitimate for people to seek asylum in this country – even though relatively few people do – and sadly, for some, these dangerous journeys are the only means available.
Meanwhile, the senior civil servant at the Home Office has stated that “all options are on the table.” This suggests that either (a) they don’t have a clue what to do or (b) all options are equally valid, so they don’t care. Ms Patel’s speech to the Conservative Party conference today [4 October 2020] will give a sense of her ideas, but she starts from the assumption that the system is “broken”; it may be that her proposals will take some time to emerge.
The government are believed to be keen to follow the methods employed by recent Australian governments in keeping prospective immigrants in offshore holding camps. But, as Andonea Jon Dickson explains, “a main function of [the Australian] Operation Sovereign Borders is the interception of boats at sea and their forced return to offshore immigration or their origin. This conflicts with the Refugee Convention (1951) and Protocol (1967) in a number of ways, not least by denying a right to asylum.
The UK has been removing asylum seekers to France this year as part of a European Union policy that allows one member state to return asylum seekers to another. When the UK leaves the EU on December 31, however, this policy will no longer apply. There is nothing yet to suggest France would be willing to continue to accept these asylum seekers. Lawyers have also recently exposed how the UK has been removing asylum seekers to France illegally without providing an asylum procedure.”
While there are distinctions to be made between refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants (in terms of the threats they face at home), to the general public they will be seen as one group, dangerous or benign according to taste (and, according to a recent YouGov poll 49% of people here have admitted they have little or no sympathy for those crossing the Channel on dangerous boats).
Once again, an inconvenience has been turned into an existential threat. In 2019, the average rate of asylum applications in the EU was 14 per 100,000 residents. In the UK it was 5 per 100,000. So, although, for example, the universality of the English language is a ‘pull factor’ for migrants, it isn’t that significant, and most migrants have a clear view of where it is best for them to aim for.
Dan O’Mahoney, the preposterously titled ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’ – whose job is to work on “legislative, legal and operational barriers” to migrants – said Border Force is continuing to “crack down on the criminal gangs responsible”. The total number of migrants crossing the Channel this year is around 7,000 so far (it is reckoned that 84,000 attempts to enter were made in 2015), so the crisis may not be quite as great as suggested. In any case, putting the blame on the traffickers as procurers is pointless – they may be heartless, but they are not the cause.
Ms Patel may be playing to her gallery, or she may genuinely dislike enterprising Third World migrants, but inhumane policies cannot just be defended on political grounds, as they have a moral context.
Ian Dunt, of politics.co.uk makes the point:
These proposals are unkind. They are morally wrong, regardless of their efficacy or legality. They lack compassion, a basic ethical temperament which it is not fashionable to talk about but forms a fundamental requirement of government decision-making. 2 October 2020
Amnesty International has been working for many years with other organisations, nationally and internationally, in the fields of refugees and asylum seekers. We campaign for a world where human rights can be enjoyed by everyone, no matter what situation they are in. Amnesty has championed the human rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants for decades. We campaign to make sure governments honour their shared responsibility to protect the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants. We condemn any policies and practices that undermine the rights of people on the move.