World

Can Britain stop migrants crossing the Channel?

2 July 2021

6:00 PM

2 July 2021

6:00 PM

How do we stop those pesky boats from crossing the English Channel? How about yet another reorganisation of the Home Office, that most reorganised of all Whitehall departments, as the government announced this week?

This is not actually as silly as it sounds. Since the last round of reorganisations, and reorganisations to the reorganisations, the immigration side of the Home Office has been divided into three ‘directorates’: UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), Immigration Enforcement and Border Force.

It is now proposed that UKVI and the passport office will form a Services Directorate, that directly interacts with the public, and that the Enforcement and Border Force directorates will be re-merged. This is partly an attempt by the new permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, to stamp his authority on the department but it should also make the current cross-channel mess in and around Dover a little bit easier to handle.

At present Border Force officers are responsible for everyone arriving at the UK border and the cutters and ribs that patrol the coastline and English Channel. But once people arrive illegally the responsibility switches to Enforcement. It would make much more sense if they both operated under a single command structure.

This will not by itself improve the situation at Tug Haven near Dover, where make-shift refugee camps are overflowing with some of the nearly 6,000 people who have made the crossing already this year, nearly double the figure for the same period last year and heading for well over 10,000 for the year.

It will nonetheless simplify the bureaucratic response to this new irregular migration by sea and might also prompt a rationalisation of authority at the sea border itself. More than a dozen different departments and authorities currently have an interest in the coastline and it would make sense to have a single unified authority for the sea border similar to that in the US and France, as proposed in my Policy Exchange report, The Border Audit, in 2018.

The flow of small boats across the channel is a relatively new problem. No more than a handful of people a year came through this route until three years ago, and so fresh organisational thinking is demanded. Better allocation of Home Office assets can help with the more efficient and humane processing of people. Ultimately, however, stopping the flow itself will require some kind of new arrangement between the UK and France, as has happened in the past, as the game of cat and mouse at the border evolves.


The boat story is highly visible, and so embarrassing politically. It offends against a common sense idea that we should be able to stop people coming or return them directly to an obviously safe country like France. But common sense and the web of international agreements that govern refugee movements are not always closely aligned.

It is also worth recalling that the overall numbers of illegal would-be asylum seekers entering the country is still lower than in the recent past. The number topped 100,000 a year in the early 2000s, arising mainly from conflict in the Balkans, when people arrived on ferries and trains. That hole was plugged by requiring commercial carriers to pre-clear people before they arrived.

Then attention switched to people trying to board cross channel trains. More recently there has been a steady flow of people smuggling themselves across on lorries, with maybe as many as 15,000 a year succeeding in using that route.

It is partly thanks to the success of the Border Force in catching more people on lorries in Calais and Dunkirk that the people smugglers have sought a new outlet on the boats. That success has been based on two things: detection technology and the so-called ‘juxtaposed controls’ under which France allows the UK border, and the officers who enforce it, to operate on French soil, checking documents and searching vehicles.

The juxtaposed border arrangement has survived Brexit, much to the relief of Home Office officials. But might it be possible to reach a ‘safe third country’ returns deal under which France agrees to take back anyone who has arrived on a boat from France?

On the face of it, the chances look slim. One reason that our post-Brexit withdrawal from the EU’S Dublin Convention (which required countries to receive back asylum-seekers who had already registered with them) makes very little difference to this story is that France and most other EU states did not really observe it. The UK actually received back more refugees under Dublin, mainly from Ireland, than it was able to deport back to safe EU countries.

Nor will France countenance interceptions in the channel which means that the smugglers need only set their human cargo adrift towards the Kent coast to achieve their stated ambition. And with returns at an all-time low, this simply fuels the demand for more to follow.

But France has been less uncooperative than it sometimes appears. Deals, such as those on juxtaposed borders, have been struck in the past, and the UK pays the French authorities for its cooperation. According to Tony Smith, a former head of Border Force and now a borders consultant, serious attempts are made by the French authorities to stop people boarding boats on the French coastline but it is impossible to stop them all.

Moreover, Xavier Bertrand, the Hauts-de-France political leader and now contender for the French presidency, does not want his region to be a hot-bed of refugee smuggler gangs. There is, says Smith, a mutual interest in sending the problem somewhere else.

In the meantime all that Priti Patel can do is try to deter people from crossing with a ‘hostile environment’ for those who continue to arrive illegally while encouraging those in direst need to apply from refugee camps. She can also bring pressure on the poor countries, where most of the illegal entrants come from, to take them back on pain of losing development aid. The hope is that all this will deter at least some of the mainly young men who make the hazardous cross-channel journey, a journey that the authorities once thought was almost impossible.

Processing would-be asylum seekers off-shore, in Africa or elsewhere, is often floated as a way of preventing illegal immigrants automatically enjoying the high level of legal protection that even non-citizens enjoy in liberal states. Australia gets away with this but it would be much harder for a European country to do so. Processing people, and housing them, in former cruise liners or Royal Navy vessels is not so outlandish and is being actively investigated by the Home Office.

Like Covid, Channel crossings are something we will have to live with for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the problem will probably get worse before it gets better. The EU-Turkey deal that has kept things relatively quiet in the East Mediterranean for the past few years hangs by a thread and fresh global conflicts can spring up at any time. Some of the ripples from these events are likely to land on our shores. Illegal immigration is not, in principle, an insoluble problem but it has so many moving parts and mutual interdependencies that for now it is only possible to envisage incremental change to a messy reality. And a deal with France on automatic returns is, in the medium term, the only answer to the Channel boats.

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