Political Storm Swirls Around Britain’s Refugee Surge
Some held their hands aloft in celebration; others simply slumped to the ground in the 24°C heat, exhausted from the ordeal they’d just endured.
That was the scene on the south coast of England this week, when at least 430 migrants — including infants too young to walk — made landfall. They had braved the 20-mile crossing from either France or Belgium, navigating the world’s busiest shipping lane aboard flimsy inflatable boats.
Meanwhile, 70 miles away in Westminster, the fate of those who’ll arrive in the months and years ahead was being aired, as UK lawmakers debated the government’s planned reform of refugee policy.
Undocumented migration is a convulsive political issue in post-Brexit Britain. Departure from Europe was sold as a chance to buttress the country’s creaking borders — yet, since the start of the year, some 8,000 people have reached British soil with the help of boat-borne smugglers. Monday’s surge represented the highest number of arrivals on record, with 2020’s total of 8,417 likely to be topped in the coming weeks.
Addressing this is the job of UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, a divisive politician who’s pinned her reputation on stemming the flow of refugees.
She is the brains behind the ‘Nationality and Borders Bill’ — legislation that will make it a criminal offence to enter the country without permission, with a penalty of up to four years in prison. It also raises the prospect of a new overseas detention scheme, in which asylum-seekers could be sent to a “safe third country” while their claims are considered. Thus far, no third-party nation has agreed to participate.
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It would be a firm but fair system, Patel says, designed to deter vulnerable people from placing their lives in the hands of unscrupulous traffickers. Instead of crossing to the UK, asylum applications should be made wherever in Europe refugees first find themselves, the government argues.
It’s a legally dubious position. Though, under European law, migrants should have their claims processed in the jurisdiction of their arrival, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention makes clear that asylum-seekers must face no legal discrimination, and suggests that their unlawful entry to a country shouldn’t result in prosecution.
And there’s another, more human consideration that critics say must be accounted for: that no amount of securitisation will deter needy people enticed by the UK’s reputation for defending human rights, offering legal protection to those in direst need, upholding the rule of law, and celebrating — not condemning — multiculturalism .
That is why migrants have always been drawn to British shores, often in far, far greater numbers than those seen today. (Arrivals topped 100,000 per year in the early 2000s).
The difference now, partly thanks to COVID-19 shutting rail and road migration routes, is that their arrival is a more visible, maritime spectacle. Headlines are hard for politicians, but photos of foreigners wading ashore is a whole different level. Coupled with a bureaucratic meltdown at the Home Office — the number of asylum-seekers awaiting a decision has doubled since 2014 — it’s little surprise the British government is coming down hard.
The truth, however, is that the UK’s refugee situation is far less onerous than it is for its nearest neighbours. Britain ranks 17th out of 28 European countries in terms of asylum applications, with around a third of those confronting authorities in France and Germany.
Such stats obscure the human story. That every one is a person, often vulnerable and fleeing persecution or poverty, willing to risk it all for a better, brighter future.