A boat patrols the English Channel waters | Photo: Picture-alliance/G.Fuller
A boat patrols the English Channel waters | Photo: Picture-alliance/G.Fuller

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have in a joint statement expressed concern about the UK’s plans to intercept and return migrants attempting to cross the English Channel irregularly on boats.

Proposals to deploy naval vessels designed to discourage such irregular crossings of the English Channel may “result in harmful and fatal incidents,” the joint statement read.

The document also stressed that the numbers of migrants trying to cross the channel, which is the busiest shipping route in the world, remained “low and manageable” despite the recent increase of attempts during the summer months.

“Irregular movements in the Channel represent a challenge for all states concerned, as do similar situations in other regions of Europe. These multi-faceted challenges require practical solutions and cooperation,” said UNHCR Director for Europe Pascale Moreau.

“Our collective response should be comprehensive and complementary -- from saving lives to combating smuggling rings, expanding legal options, and ensuring that all those who are in need of protection can effectively access it.”  

Saving lives — rather than risking lives

The statement highlighted the fact that the dangers migrants and refugees encounter on the English Channel could rise with the deployment of military vessels, stressing that “(s)aving lives should be the first priority – both on land and at sea."

The two UN-bodies suggested strengthening existing solutions-oriented approaches, such as bolstering the asylum system for those who qualify and introducing further complementary mechanisms “for those in need of other forms of protection such as victims of trafficking and unaccompanied children.”

Read more: New record for numbers of migrants crossing the Channel

They also called for easing of restrictions and regulations with regard to the right of people to return to their home countries. “Effectively ensuring that asylum seekers and migrants are aware of their legal options and adequately supported in pursuing them needs to be a priority,” the document read.

Children particularly at risk

The IOM and the UNHCR also emphasized the importance of protecting the most vulnerable among migrant populations, especially unaccompanied minors. They said in their joint statement that family reunifications should be further facilitated to keep young migrants from embarking on otherwise perilous journeys. The UNHCR said that delays and administrative barriers to family reunification programs increased “the likelihood of people turning to smugglers as an alternative.”

“The immediate concern is the dangers the crossings present particularly to the most vulnerable, including many children,” said Ola Henrikson, Director of IOM’s Regional Office in Brussels. 

“Border cooperation is very important but should be balanced, proportionate and part of a larger, comprehensive response.”

Read more: UK flies military plane over English Channel in continued effort to make migration there 'unviable'

14 migrants trying to cross the English Channel were rescued by the French coast guard on March 25 2020  Photo Prfecture maritime de la Manche-Mer du NordFamily reunifications post-Brexit

With the UK’s departure from the European Union scheduled to be completed by the end of 2020, the UK government has already started discussing changes to its immigrations policies it might want to introduce upon the completion of its departure from the bloc -- including changes to family reunification programs.

The UNHCR and IOM stressed that any new immigration guidelines departing from EU standards should ensure that vulnerable migrants in particular continue to have their right to family reunifications:

“In the wake of the UK’s departure from the European Union, viable mechanisms need to continue to ensure that people -- first and foremost unaccompanied children -- in various EU countries who have family or other important links to the UK can continue to travel or transfer safely.”

Read more: UK parliament votes against reuniting child refugees with families


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