The issue of immigration is at the heart of the Brexit debate | Photo: picture-alliance/empics/T. Melville
The issue of immigration is at the heart of the Brexit debate | Photo: picture-alliance/empics/T. Melville

More and more people are arriving in the UK on boats or are intercepted in the English Channel. At the same time, overall migration to the UK remains at a steady level. Politicians, however, are still using images of dinghies washing up on British shores as political capital. And with a key Brexit deadline looming, things might get even more complicated in Brexit-Britain.

According to official government figures, more than 4,000 people have attempted to cross the English Channel from the French coast during the first five months of 2021. And according to the BBC, there was a new record broken last month -- more than 2,000 crossings were attempted in June.

These numbers seem to be on track to topping last year's figures, when more than 8,000 migrants managed to make their way to the UK throughout 2020. However, the ratio of migrants trying to make their way to the UK might generally be fairly low in comparison to other European countries like Germany, and there is no dramatic overall increase expected.

Still, the rising trend of recent months appears to have some people in the UK worry -- especially certain politicians.

Boris Johnson, Britain's conservative Prime Minister has promised zero tolerance on irregular migration | Photo: Reuters
Boris Johnson, Britain's conservative Prime Minister has promised zero tolerance on irregular migration | Photo: Reuters

'Take back control'

The issue of migration is a particularly delicate one in the UK on account of the country's departure from the European Union last year, also known as "Brexit". One of the main rallying cries of the "Vote Leave" campaign in the run-up to the vote to depart from the EU had been for the UK to "take back control" over its own borders. The reason for the slogan was that prior to Brexit, the country's immigration laws had to be in line with EU legislation and, above all, allow for freedom of movement and work for EU citizens coming to the UK in exchange of allowing Brits to settle anywhere in the EU.

Britain's exit from the European Union doesn't just mean that the days of free movement are over. Asylum seekers will now also be affected by changes that are intrinsically linked to the Brexit idea of regaining control over Britain's border. But the issue is far from only amounting to a theoretical change in law that might affect only few migrants: Hundreds of people arriving in the UK using irregular means of migration might suffer disadvantages for years to come.

Home Secretary Priti Patel wants to curb migration to the UK despite the fact that it is not a desirable destination for many migrants | Photo: Imago
Home Secretary Priti Patel wants to curb migration to the UK despite the fact that it is not a desirable destination for many migrants | Photo: Imago


Still, images of migrants arriving on the shores of Dover and other parts of the British coastline are widely being regarded as a sign of failure to assert that notion of Britain reclaiming political control among hardline Brexiteers -- especially among members of the Conservative Party like Home Secretary Priti Patel and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, under whom the terms and conditions of Brexit were negotiated.

And with the COVID-19 pandemic having severely limited train and ferry journeys to the UK from the European mainland, the number of boat arrivals has increased, making for headlines that appear to inconvenience some of the UK's most vociferous pro-Brexit politicians.

Read more: Post-Brexit Britain begins to close doors to unaccompanied children without relatives in the UK

Defending a political brand

Now that the United Kingdom has fully left the bloc, Brexiteer politicians are still trying to go the extra mile to make good on their promise to take over control over the UK's borders. However, the view that Britain has to double down its commitment to secure its borders might be unjustified, says Jonathan Portes, an immigration expert at the "UK in a Changing Europe" think-tank. He told the dpa news agency that immigration is now regarded as much less of an issue among the British population than it was five years ago, when the Brexit vote surprised the nation and the EU alike. 

By finally delivering Brexit, the majority of Leave voters feel that their expectations have been delivered, and that immigration is no longer outside their control as it was during the UK's decades-long membership of the EU. However, Portes explains that Home Secretary Patel is trying to defend her reputation "for being an ideological, right-wing conservative pro-Brexit hardliner. She has built her career on that."

And there are plenty of examples of her devotion to portraying that image of herself. The 49-year-old home secretary, who herself hails from an Indian-Ugandan family, recently made headlines with a photo opportunity, where she was seen standing next to the police during the arrest of migrant smugglers. 

Patel has also likened the interception of rubber dinghies in the English Channel to encounters at sea with foreign warships, and has also been more than outspoken about future changes that she might want to champion to the UK's changing immigration system: "We do not rule out any option that could reduce illegal migration and ease the pressure on our broken asylum system," Patel said in a recent interview.

And in her rhetoric, Patel has often focused primarily on the bad eggs among migrants to the UK, highlighting deportations of criminals rather than showcasing success stories of people fleeing recent wars and conflict.

Scathing words from the United Nations

According to her latest plans, Patel plans to introduce a two-tier asylum system, whereby refugees and migrants who have arrived in the UK by irregular means of migration will suffer long-term disadvantages and restrictions compared to those who arrive in the UK by legal means -- such as UN resettlement programs.

But with such options for legal immigration to the UK being complicated and highly limited, Patel has even drawn criticism from the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

The UN even went so far as to saying in a statement that if the British were to implement a "discriminatory two-tier system" to asylum as planned, it would violate the UN Refugee Convention, which it played a key role in agreeing to in 1951. 

The UNHCR has also stressed that by the very nature of the UK being an island nation, it is not an attractive destination for many migrants and refugees -- despite the fact that more people are migrating around the world than ever have before.

Read more: Brexit: UK government denies rumors about welcoming more asylum seekers

The UK's migration problem -- in France

The recent increase in arrivals in the UK, however, is not a testament to this global trend. Rather, the treatment of migrants in northern France -- particularly around the port city of Calais -- has been deteriorating for years, leaving many little other choice than to attempt their luck elsewhere by crossing the Channel. 

Time and again, various migrant camps around Calais have been demolished by French authorities, with no alternatives set in place to replace these makeshift accommodations. In 2016, thousands of people who had been living in degrading conditions, were evicted from the infamous Calais Jungle -- a camp built in the forests surrounding the town, where migrants were trying to survive under squalid conditions. 

Migrants and refugees continue to congregate in Calais, with locals feeling that they receive little assistance or help | Photo: RFI
Migrants and refugees continue to congregate in Calais, with locals feeling that they receive little assistance or help | Photo: RFI


Civil associations on the ground in Calais have raised complaints that since then, there has been no lasting alternative offered to these migrants, as further people have moved into the area. Local politicians say they receive little help from central government in Paris, but are also critical of the UK's attempts to stem the migrant flows across the Channel.

Most recently, 46 people were intercepted from small boats traveling in the English Channel during several rescue operations. According to the French AFP news agency, 11 of them were in a state of hypothermia, while one woman suffered burns on her legs.

Goodbye, Dublin agreement

Despite migrant numbers to the UK remaining at a de facto manageable level, politicians like Home Secretary Patel continue to try to explore ways to lay the blame on Europe. She has been pushing to persuade EU states to take back refugees coming to the UK using irregular means -- with no success so far.

"This was pretty predictable," immigration expert Portes told dpa. "With Brexit, the government knowingly opted out of the Dublin Agreement, which provided for similar rules," he explained, highlighting the mechanism under which EU member states under most circumstances have a legal obligation to take back any migrants or refugees to where they have first registered in the EU.

"For EU countries, which often have to cope with much higher numbers of refugees, there is therefore no incentive to do Britain this favor," Portes added, now that Britain has completely departed from the EU.

A growing number of migrants are hoping to reach the coast of Kent in the UK | Photo: G. Fuller/picture-alliance
A growing number of migrants are hoping to reach the coast of Kent in the UK | Photo: G. Fuller/picture-alliance

EU citizens next in line to suffer dire consequences

Britain's self-chartered course to isolation might bring about further problems in weeks and months to come. On June 30, a final deadline for EU citizens living in the UK to register there comes to an end, with hundreds or even thousands of European nationals being at risk of being deported. However, in the Home Office's own words, the settlement scheme has been presented as a success, with millions of EU citizens taking part in the program.

Some experts worry that human traffickers might now also target and exploit EU citizens in Britain who failed to meet the deadline to apply for residency. Eliza Stachowska of campaign group Hope for Justice, meanwhile, said that some EU citizens living in Britain simply lacked documentation to show how long they had been in the country, and that trafficking gangs could seize this as an opportunity.

Luke Piper, head of policy at the3million, a campaign group for EU citizens in Britain, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that criminals could mislead people who had missed the deadline for any reason by telling them that "you're in trouble, the police will deport you, stay with us -- we'll protect you."

"Those who perpetuate ... slavery and trafficking take advantage of things like this (deadline)," he added.

A 2020 study by the Justice and Care charity and The Centre for Social Justice think tank estimated that Britain is home to at least 100,000 people living under modern-day slavery condition. Many of those victims come from EU countries such as Lithuania, Poland and Romania. They are often exploited at farms, factories and construction sites, as well as in the sex trade or for domestic servitude purposes.

Despite repeated calls, the UK Home Office has refused to postpone the June 30 deadline, saying that it would show leniency in case where there was a good reason why the residency application hadn't been filed earlier.

with dpa, Reuters

 

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