At a small cultural event near Dover, on England's south coast, I was listening to the music when a friend interrupted my thoughts. "Eighty migrants arrived today," he said of the beach where he lived. "The most I've seen so far."
According to British Border Force figures, a record 1,185 migrants crossed from France to England that day, most landing in Kent. The weather was fine, the sea calm, although the water temperature is dropping as winter approaches. At least three migrants were suspected lost at sea that day.
Even in calm weather, the crossing is extremely hazardous, but the official figures are stunning. More than 23,000 migrants have made the crossing from France to England by boat so far this year. That is almost three times the figure of 8,404 migrants for all of 2020. Put simply, British government policy has failed and will continue to fail until it is re-thought.
The policy, trumpeted as taking a hard line by Home Secretary Priti Patel, includes threats to "push back" migrant boats in some way, and to pay France to keep migrants on their shores. Pushing back boats is dangerous and could result in migrants dying at sea. The UK has earmarked millions of pounds to pay France, but policing around 200 kilometres of French coast has proved extremely difficult. British government sources complain that the French authorities are not up to the job.
This row is a mirror image of Brexit, in which the Boris Johnson government also blames others instead of proceeding calmly and rationally to examine why Britain’s own policies have failed.
To be sure, on migration, the UK is far from alone in its obvious difficulties. Events at the other ends of Europe, on the Poland-Belarus border, in the Mediterranean, or in North America, show that co-operation between governments on migration is essential. That depends on goodwill rather than blaming neighbours.
We should also be clearer on definitions. Despite Ms Patel and others speaking of "illegal migrants" – implying that the root causes are economic – a whopping 98 per cent of those who arrived in the UK in 2020 claimed asylum, according to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. They say they are escaping conflict or repression of some kind. The number of UK asylum applications so far in 2021 is 35,737. In all of 2020 it was 29,815.
A list of the countries involved gives some idea why so many unfortunate people are risking their lives. Many of the asylum seekers come from Chad, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. There are now so many arrivals that the Immigration Service Union – the union that represents the UK's Border Force staff – accepts that the conditions in which many asylum seekers are held are unacceptable. The BBC reported that last week, 500-plus asylum seekers spent more than 24 hours in a cold, empty building in Dover sleeping on a concrete floor and sharing just two portable toilets. Charities including the British Red Cross want a change in the failed UK policy, noting that "nobody puts their life at risk unless they are absolutely desperate and feel they have no other options".
The real problem is difficult to solve but quite simple to explain.
The perilous journeys in small boats are organised by criminal gangs of people-traffickers who are reported to charge about €3,000 ($3,400) per person. The asylum seekers choose this route because there are no safe and legal routes for them to come to the UK from France. Until British and French officials establish a fair process to enable genuine asylum seekers to travel legally to Britain, the trade will continue and quite possibly increase. But for several years Conservative governments in the UK have openly talked of creating what they once called a "hostile environment" for so-called illegal migrants.
Creating a humane system, therefore, would alienate some Conservative voters and supporters. And yet, many of those who do manage to get to the UK have a good chance of achieving asylum because their cases are genuine. Some 59 per cent of appeals by Iranians, 69 per cent by Sudanese asylum seekers and 73 per cent by Syrians are successful. Under British law, they truly are seen to be people in great need.
Human rights groups want a total rethink. This would involve creating "humanitarian visas", enabling asylum seekers to substantiate their claims legally rather than risking their lives on the sea. I have also witnessed some of those who have come ashore near the white cliffs of Dover. Typically they sit on the road where they are held by Border Force and police, anxiously waiting to be "processed". Looking at the faces of those who have risked everything and perhaps lost everything, the words on America's Statue of Liberty come to mind.
"... your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
In Britain right now, we need to lift our own lamp of welcome beside our own golden door. The world needs a better way to deal with those yearning to breathe free.