A group of migrants are brought into Dover by UK Border Force officers in mid-August © Gareth Fuller/PA

When a young, would-be migrant to the UK was found dead on a French beach earlier this month after trying to cross the English Channel, British home secretary Priti Patel unleashed a volley of tough rhetoric.

She used Twitter to berate “abhorrent criminal gangs” for causing the “upsetting and tragic death” of Abdulfatah Hamdallah, from Sudan — the first documented death of a migrant in a recent upsurge of clandestine crossings of the busy strait between the UK and France. “We are determined to stop them,” she wrote.

Yet, at the same time as Ms Patel was tweeting, officers on a Border Force launch in Dover harbour were taking the details of two groups of young men found hours before on rubber dinghies in the Channel. They led each up a gangplank to the shore where, on recent trends, more than half are likely to gain some form of refugee protection.

The conflict between rhetoric and reality reflects the growing tension between the desire of the ruling Conservative party to control and limit immigration and the legal and practical barriers that stand in their way.

UK Border Force officers tow two inflatable ribs after intercepting a group of migrants as they attempted to cross the Channel this month © Leon Neal/Getty Images

Border control is a key political issue for the UK administration, which is dominated by Brexiters, reflecting prime minister Boris Johnson’s lead role in the successful Leave campaign in the EU referendum in 2016 that tapped into people’s concerns about immigration.

Natalie Elphicke, the MP for Dover, is one of many Conservative backbenchers to have demanded action. On August 16, she published a video of herself next to a rubber dinghy that she said eight young men had just used to land on one of Dover’s beaches.

“This is unacceptable, that people are breaking into Britain,” Ms Elphicke said. “It’s time that, if they arrive here on our shores, they’re returned quickly and promptly to France.”

However, the balance between managing the migrant flow and obeying the UK’s obligations is an “extremely difficult” one to strike, according to Marley Morris, associate director for immigration at IPPR, the left-leaning think-tank. “It’s an issue that successive governments have struggled with for a number of years.”

A still from a video posted by Natalie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover about migrants © Natalie Elphicke/Twitter

Channel crossings make up only a small proportion of the more than 34,423 people who registered asylum claims in the UK in the year to June. But unofficial estimates suggest the numbers using this route have grown: about 5,000 have arrived in dinghies already this year, more than twice the 1,890 in the whole of 2019.

The high-profile small boat arrivals have prompted ministers to grow steadily more strident both in their rhetoric and their legal efforts to combat the trend.

The UK and French governments held talks earlier this months aimed at stopping migrants from making the trip at all. The Home Office said the UK government was working with the French authorities to make the “incredibly dangerous route” unviable. It added the crossings were “illegally facilitated by criminals willing to risk people’s lives for money.”

Chris Philp, the immigration minister, has previously referred to asylum seekers arriving in the UK as “illegal immigrants”.

The Home Office stepped up the rhetoric last week branding the legal representatives of asylum seekers “activist lawyers” in a video on the department’s Twitter feed, which was later deleted.

The video complained that several lawyer groups had “frustrated . . . entirely legitimate” efforts to fly a group of 23 asylum seekers back to Spain, using EU legislation. The so-called Dublin Regulation allows EU member states to return asylum seekers to the first country in the bloc where they made a claim, or where they have been resident for five months or more. That arrangement will no longer cover the UK after the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.

The Law Society, representing solicitors, said the attack on lawyers was “misleading and dangerous.”

Colin Yeo, a leading immigration barrister, pointed out that international law had long allowed people who could show they were refugees to enter countries by clandestine means to seek asylum.

“It’s not illegal for a genuine refugee to break immigration laws,” Mr Yeo said. “It’s wrong to describe it as illegal behaviour.”

Protesters outside the Home Office in London in August © Justin Tallis/AFP

Nearly three-quarters of asylum seekers arriving in the UK manage to pass the tests to show they have fled genuine persecution or danger, according to Home Office statistics. Approvals in the year to June were at nearly record levels.

The UK’s level of asylum applications is dwarfed by the 134,255 applications that Germany received in the 12 months to the end of March, the most recent figures available.

The Home Office insisted small-boat crossings were “totally unnecessary” because refugees could and should claim asylum in France as it was “a safe country with a fully functioning asylum system”.

Mr Yeo disputed the government’s stance, insisting there was no legal obligation to seek asylum in the first safe country.

Michael Tarnoky, legal services director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, a London-based charity, said asylum seekers often chose the UK because they knew people here.

“There’s either family, indirectly or directly, here or a community here that they know if they’re able to get here they’ll be able to integrate with,” he said.

In the absence of any solution, tensions are rising as ultranationalists stoke the flames. Earlier this month, the far-right group Britain First launched its own patrol in the Channel in response to what it called a “migrant invasion”.

French authorities intercept a dinghy carrying migrants in the Channel © Marine Nationale/AFP

Meanwhile, Channel Rescue, which terms itself a “migrant solidarity” group, is planning a monitoring service to ensure migrants suffer no ill-treatment at sea.

Mr Yeo said there was a “strong argument” for creating safe routes to the UK for refugees from other countries in Europe or other places hosting large numbers, as part of any attempt to make the crossing less appealing.

The Home Office insisted those routes were already available to those “in genuine need” — although the Global Resettlement Scheme, the UK’s only existing mechanism for resettling refugees, has a cap of 5,000 people a year and has been frozen since the pandemic hit in March.

In a video last week, the department explained it was seeking to replace the Dublin Regulation with a tougher deal after Brexit. But Mr Yeo said prospects for a strengthened deal between the EU and UK or a standalone deal between the UK and France looked slim.

Even if an agreement were struck it was unlikely to prevent the most desperate people from seeking to join the young men at Dover stepping ashore to seek the UK’s protection, Mr Yeo said. “People move,” he said, “You cannot stop people from wanting to do that.”

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