In December 2018 the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, cut short his Christmas holidays to go to the Channel and stare at boats. Two hundred illegal migrants had crossed from France in the previous two months and Javid, buckling to public pressure, declared a ‘major incident’. On that basis his successor, Priti Patel, should cancel any holiday plans for the foreseeable future. The number of migrants coming in through this illegal route reached more than 2,000 in June, setting a new record. And this is just the start. The summer crossings are under way — and the British government seems to have no idea what to do about it.
The figures themselves could not be clearer. The number of migrants arriving across the Channel in illegal boats last year was four times higher than it was the year before (1,844 in 2019 against 8,400 in 2020). And the number for 2021 so far has already exceeded last year’s total. To date more than 9,000 migrants have arrived by boat this year, and the daily record of migrants crossing was broken on 19 July when at least 430 made the journey.
There are many possible responses to this. One is to say: so what? The UK has a population of more than 66 million, so what is a few hundred extra people coming in every few days?
There are quite a number of answers to that. The first is that Britain has borders. It also has a legal immigration and asylum system. But the Channel crossings are now a parallel asylum system — one that privileges people who have broken the law, paying the smuggling gangs around £5,000 each to break into Britain illegally, safe in the knowledge that once they are in (or just on a British vessel) they will be allowed to stay.
This is great for the trafficking gangs, who have a good business model going — the same one that led to the deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean. Experience there suggests that as the British coastguard do more and more of the smugglers’ job, the gangs send out less and less seaworthy vessels. The current model aids the smugglers and incentivises law-breaking.
The second reason is that contrary to the dreams of the open borders left, these people are not going to add to the wonderful diversity of Britain. Most of them will end up entering the black economy. Almost all will be a drain on the British taxpayer. Few if any will ever return in taxation what they will take out in benefits. And even if you are one of those who believes that a little generosity is a good thing, why favour such a grotesquely unfair system?
Because of all the terrible ways to run an asylum system, a ‘first over the Channel in a dinghy’ competition is the worst. These migrants come from a bewildering array of countries across the Far East, Middle East and Africa. Recent weeks have seen an upsurge in arrivals from Vietnam. Some will have legitimate asylum claims; many will not. And the majority will continue to be young Muslim men, sent by their families to make money in Britain to send back home. Among last year’s arrivals 74 per cent were aged between 18 and 39, and 87 per cent were male. It may be easy to see how this benefits the migrants. But how exactly does it benefit Britain?
So the flow should be stopped for a whole range of reasons. Yet the British government seems stuck in some terrible indecision about the matter — which is strange because it is not as though similar questions have not faced other developed countries in recent years.
Of course our political mainstream continues to find immigration and asylum distinctly icky subjects to deal with. They fear accusations of racism, or coming across as uncaring or ungenerous. Yet perfectly decent, liberal democracies have found ways to dissuade illegal migration into their countries. None of them have become totalitarian backwaters.
When Australia faced a problem with people trying to arrive there illegally by boat in the last decade it embarked on a very successful policy to stop the flow. This was based on deterring people and letting them know that if they paid the smugglers to get them in they would be wasting their money. Australia achieved this by turning the boats around and by offshoring, meaning that the migrants are put on remote islands to have their cases adjudicated there. The advantage of this system is that it prevents the problem all liberal democracies have encountered, which is that once someone is in (even illegally) they are afforded rights that basically make it impossible to expel them. Australia has solved the problem of illegal boat arrivals because the government took the necessary action.
Countries closer to home have also managed to get their illegal migrant entries down to a minimum. Denmark, for instance, passed 114 new restrictions on immigration and asylum between 2015 and 2019. Under a conservative government and now under a left-wing government, these restrictions have proved not only popular with the public, but wildly successful. When the country cut the benefits available for non-EU immigrants arriving into Denmark, it immediately cut the number trying to come in — as evidenced by the fact that when the policy was briefly reversed the effect was also reversed. Denmark does not want to be a draw for migrants and it has successfully ensured that it no longer is. The number of asylum seekers trying to enter the country has fallen by more than ten times from what it was six years ago.
So what is the British government doing about our problem? Well, currently it appears to be stuck in a stasis of its own creation. Back in March the Home Secretary announced a raft of new proposals to tackle illegal migration. But, as during the last Labour government, it looks like our current leaders are talking tough to please the public while doing almost nothing. Conservative MPs I have spoken to say that the Prime Minister is prevaricating, and that without backing from him the Home Secretary cannot go out on a political limb. Meanwhile, almost 600 people were intercepted trying to break into our country this past weekend.
What should the government be considering? There should be a whole raft of measures to repel the boats. They should start with turning around the vessels at sea — which is what the Greek border authorities now do. Since they started turning around boats at the beginning of 2020 they have seen a near complete halt in crossings, with no reported loss of life or injury and with no halt in the number of British tourists wanting to take their holidays in the country. Why should the Greeks be able to do in the Aegean what we pretend is so unthinkable in the Channel?
Currently the British authorities find every reason to avoid doing what they need to do. The French navy effectively shadows many of the migrant vessels until they are into UK waters and then the UK Border Force guides the boats to safety in Britain. Thus the UK Border Force has effectively become an arm of the smugglers’ network. The smugglers send their boats out a little way and the British taxpayer does the rest. If there is a genuine legal problem with turning the boats around then the British government should change the law, ignoring the irrelevant fringe of activists who always object to us having borders.
Instead the UK authorities appear to be going the other way. This month the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would not prosecute migrants illegally landing in boats from across the English Channel, which is exactly the wrong message. The message the British government should be sending out is clear: don’t cross — if you do you will be prosecuted and returned. At present the government likes to talk of the evils of the smuggling networks. But that’s the easy part. The message must be conveyed that if you pay the smuggling gangs, you are breaking the law and will be wasting your family’s money to make a journey that will always be unsuccessful.
The government should also be putting all its weight behind Australian-style offshoring arrangements to process people picked up on the boats. Every time this is suggested there is some handkerchief--sniffing among those who profess themselves embarrassed to live in a country that would even consider such a thing. But since the anti-restrictionists have come up with no answers of their own other than ‘let them in’, they’ll have to put up with answers tried and tested by our respected allies.
Finally, the government should be honest about why this is happening. France could solve this problem overnight if they agreed to take back anyone illegally crossing the Channel. Presently the British government doesn’t like saying this, for fear the French government will do even less than it currently does to stop the boats. But there is no reason why people should be passing through multiple safe countries, including France, and then illegally crossing to enter another safe country. This allows migrants to choose from Europe as from a buffet cart, with Britain a particularly attractive option. The fact that there is a bottleneck at the French coast should be a problem for the French authorities before it is a problem for the British.
But what this comes down to is a test of political will at the top of the British government. In fact, it comes down to the question of whether Boris Johnson is simply a political opportunist or not. If he is, then all that stuff he said in recent years about ‘taking back control’ was just a handy phrase, rattled off because he thought it might help him win. If he means it, then he must get control of this country’s borders. In the realm of sovereignty, nothing matters more.
At present the government seems not to mind, or thinks the problem is too complicated, nasty or small. But the longer it delays, the worse the problem will get. If 20,000 illegal migrants crossing the Channel is permissible then why not 30,000 or 50,000? What is the tolerable limit? Perhaps we will soon see.
In the meantime the government is relying on French beach patrols to protect Britain’s borders, and is now actually paying the French to police their own beaches. It is a ludicrous, unsustainable situation. And it is not what the electorate expected when it voted for this Conservative government led by this Conservative Prime Minister.