After more than 30 lives were lost in the worst ever shipwreck in the Channel, NGOs on both sides have expressed their anger at government failings. UK activist group Channel Rescue is planning to take the Home Office to court over plans to intercept and return boats at sea. While Channel crossings have increased three-fold on 2020 numbers, the UK receives relatively few boat arrivals and asylum claims when compared to its European counterparts.

At least 31 people have died after a boat capsized in the Channel on 24 November in what the French interior minister has deemed the biggest tragedy on the route to date. UK, French and EU officials responded by blaming smugglers and “criminal gangs” for exploiting desperate people. Critics described this as “cheap rhetoric”, saying politicians were wrong to blame the tragedy entirely on smugglers without acknowledging the lack of safe pathways to asylum as a driving factor. The head of the French humanitarian organisation l’Auberge des Migrants, Maya Konforti, said: “the existence of smugglers is in response to a need; a need because there’s no legal way to go and seek asylum in Britain”. According to Minnie Rahman, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI):“Instead of accepting that there is a real need to ensure that people can get to the UK [to seek asylum, the [UK] government …pursues ever-more draconian proposals like illegal pushbacks at sea and even higher fences”. The French minister, Gerald Darmanin announced on 24 November that five presumed smugglers had been arrested following the tragedy. Just days prior, the minister announced 11 million euro of new spending on drones, more than 100 vehicles, thermal cameras and other technology to securitise the coastline of northern France. “This securitised policy simply increasing the fees charged by smugglers, enriching smugglers, and making the crossing more dangerous”, said a spokesperson from France Fraternité. More than 45 people have died so far in 2021 whilst trying to reach the UK.

An activist group formed to monitor and prevent human rights abuses at sea are seeking to raise 30,000 GBP to take the head of the UK Home Office, Priti Patel, to court. The legal challenge was provoked when the group, named Channel Rescue, witnessed UK border force staff training to use jet skis to employ ‘pushback’ tactics at sea. The case challenges the approach, both on grounds that the policy should have been publicised, and that it is in breach of international and domestic maritime law. According to the organisation: “The Home Office’s plans are in stark contrast to these legal obligations. Seeking to turn around boats carrying migrants will inevitably risk the lives of children, women and men who want nothing more than sanctuary”.

An increasing number of people fleeing conflict, violence or poverty are risking the dangerous Channel journey, with more than 25,600 crossings recorded so far in 2021. Yet, the UK continues to see far fewer boat arrivals and asylum claims than many of its European counterparts. Mediterranean countries recorded 105,135 sea arrivals to date in 2021, according to figures from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).  In the first half of 2021, the UK received 14,670 first-time asylum applications, while France received 42,250 and Germany received 50,905. Per capita, UK ranked 14th in 2020 for the number of applications when compared to the 27 EU countries. Further, the numbers of people seeking asylum in the UK are less than half what they were in 2002, when they peaked at 84,132. In 2019, asylum seekers made up only around 6% of immigrants to the UK.

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Photo by Luke Moss on Unsplash. 

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.