Small Boats Week

Danielle Cohen
By Danielle Cohen Immigration Law Solicitor Linkedin
Danielle Cohen has over 20 years of experience as a lawyer and a reputation for offering professional, honest and expert advice.
29 August 2023

It was billed as ‘small boats week’: a series of government announcements designed to show progress on the issue of cross Channel migration. Meanwhile, 30 or so migrants were being moved to a housing barge off Dorset and had to be moved out after Legionella was found on board. Further, last Thursday saw the highest daily number of people crossing the Channel this year.

On Sky News Daily, Rob Powell asked Peter Walsh from the Migration Observatory if migration policies impact people’s decision to travel to the UK and asked why the government has picked ending small boats crossing as one of his five pledges ahead of the next election.

It is time to get some facts. Five countries, Iran, Albania, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, made up 71% of those crossings in small boats between 2018 and March 2023. 92% of people arriving in small boats between these years claimed asylum. Available data, according to the Migration Observatory, provides no clear or singular explanation for the rise in popularity for small boat routes. The one plausible reason is the enforcement activity has made irregular methods of entry less viable. At this point, 8% of people arriving via small boats between 2018 to March 2023 were referred to the UK’s modern slavery system.

Research on the motivation for asylum seekers finds several reasons that some people prefer to claim asylum in the UK. A knowledge of the UK asylum policy is not one of them. Decisions about how to move depend on a range of factors. The presence of friends and family members in the UK place an important role. Other factors include language and cultural links, the perception of the UK as safe, welcoming and democratic, as well as negative experiences in other European countries. France’s Interior Minister, Mr Darmanin, has suggested that British liberal market regulations act as a pull factor for Channel migrants. According to the Migration Observatory, there is little evidence to indicate that the UK’s lack of an ID card system acts as a draw to migrants.

What are the policies that have been proposed to tackle the small boat arrivals in the UK?

The government’s response is focused primarily on deterrents and physical enforcement. Enforcement strategies included co-operation with France and with Albania. Deterrence policies have included policies to reduce the right of asylum seekers after they arrive, most recently through the Illegal Migration Bill, which aims to prevent people who enter through regular routes from receiving an asylum decision; as well as an agreement with Rwanda to relocate asylum seekers there. By contrast, civil society proposals have focused on providing safe and legal routes for people to claim asylum so they do not have to make the dangerous crossing by boats. For example, The Joint Council for Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) suggested that because the UK is no longer a member of the Durbin Regulation, the UK no longer has the ability to return asylum seekers entering the UK through France, nor is there a mechanism in place, even on paper. The British government will now be seeking to negotiate migration co-operation agreements on a bilateral level with numerous EU controls, most notably France. Another consequence of the completion of Brexit is that it has thrown further into question the system of bilateral co-operation that currently exists on the UK/France borders.

The proposal is the introduction of safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to enter the UK from France and the more efficient functioning of existing routes. The organisation provided the starting framework for what is a workable humanitarian visa system. They propose travel documents for migrants that reflect both the rights and the Geneva Convention, to lodge a claim for international protection in whichever country they feel. They will be able to find safety, regardless of the method of travel, and reflect the UK’s strength and ability to show responsibility for the protection of refugees. In the context of the Home Office increasing restrictions on the right of asylum seekers, the JCWI felt that there is a need to underline the importance of having strict safeguards in place for such a policy that will prevent the further erosion of existing rights.

French Civil Society partners have raised concerns regarding how any new policy in this area might present an opportunity for the UK to further externalise its border controls and asylum process onto French soil, which alongside JCWI firmly opposed. They state it is important that once an individual reaches the UK on a visa, they would go through a regular asylum process and not a fast tracked one, where they risk being detained in high protection and returned to France or removed to their country of origin without proper process. They say there should be a strict limit on processing times to avoid lengthy offshoring processing or a build-up of individuals waiting on French territory.

There should be strict safeguards relating to the welfare of children who may be applying. The existence of these procedures should not be used on a basis to render inadmissible the asylum claim placed by a person who still arrives in the UK spontaneously by irregular means, in accordance with international law.

Finally, they stated there must be guaranteed access to legal advice and recourse and the scheme must not be limited in any way by nationality or nationals of countries with whom the UK has readmission agreements in place.

The conclusion of JCWI is that now we are at the point of urgency and opportunity to change the approach to migrants on the UK’s French border. The proposed responses offered a mix of policies. The UN has proposed a combination of tackling smuggling networks and expansion of safe routes. The Labour Party has argued in favour of new deals with European Countries that will allow Britain to return Channel migrants to countries they previously passed through, along with a crackdown on smuggling and changes to schemes for refugee resettlement.

What happens in other European countries?

In Italy, a series of deals with the Libyan government and other organisations increased policing in exchange for financial and logistics support in 2017. This strategy was criticised following alleged human rights’ violations against migrants in Libya. Spain took a similar approach after a rise in unauthorised arrivals in 2017/18. It asked Morocco to prevent departures, while providing funding to the Country’s border control.