The UK's extreme incompetence in the English Channel

A stream of bizarre policy proposals shows how little the government understands the migrant crisis

A young boy arriving on UK shores. PA
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With the tragedy in the English Channel that cost 27 people their lives, the migrant crisis on the northern European coast last week became much more serious.

The divisions between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, which spilled into the open in its wake, show that this is not a purely humanitarian catastrophe. Critics of Mr Johnson seldom give enough credit to how the incompetence of his top team blunts the worst policies of his government. It is a mark of this incompetence that the migrant crisis is so important to current politics.

Unfortunately, that also means the migrant tensions are likely to be prolonged and increasingly toxic – not to mention dangerous for all those caught up in the situation.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, who oversees immigration policy, would dearly love to be acclaimed as a hardliner. As a result, the rhetoric is totally out of proportion. The number of people who have come to the UK through the refugee process is just 0.6 per cent of the whole population. The numbers that have arrived in the UK by crossing the English Channel this year is 25,000. Add to that about 16,000 Afghans who were evacuated in the summer.

This is all happening against a backdrop of net migration into the UK slumping from about 200,000 – where it has been hovering for many years – to just over 30,000 in 2020. Indeed, the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit have changed the dynamic for migration trends in the UK.

Dramatic "solutions" pour from Mr Johnson's team and Mrs Patel. One such solution involves ministers scrambling to find a (poor) country to accept British deportations. This is because Brexit – and Mrs Patel was one of the earliest champions of a complete break with the EU in the British political mainstream – has cost London. Only a handful of people have been deported to European countries this year.

Competence has not accompanied this search.

Last week, officials conceded that no country had agreed to enter talks with the UK about accepting deportations. Conservative backbenchers admire the Australian arrangement with the Pacific island of Nauru to act as a migrant processing centre. This has killed the people-smuggling trade that took Afghans, Sri Lankans and others on long boat journeys to reach Australia.

The UK is now eyeing British-controlled territories around the world. One leading figure proposed South Georgia in the Falkland Islands last week, but that is so far away that passenger planes could not reach there and back without refuelling. St Helena off the coast of Africa has a new airport, but a regular deportation corridor with the place where the French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled is also unlikely.

Mrs Patel is also looking to push back the migrants in the Channel into French waters. In fact, a new bill is going through Parliament to make this law. But its proponents fail to appreciate that this is only something that would make sense in international waters – and that the Dover Strait, where the migrants are crossing, is too narrow for international waters. A migrant boat immediately transits from French waters into British waters. So a pushback would either be an encroachment into French waters or the migrants would have legally reached the UK.

The list of contradictions grows with every twist of the British narrative on migrants.

A clamour has emerged to scrap the Human Rights Act so that lawyers cannot use the court to stop a pushback policy. But these statements are made in seeming ignorance that the policy would contravene such international conventions as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, plus the Search and Rescue Convention.

Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel making a statement on the crisis in the English Channel. AFP

More questions concerning competence were raised when an internal UK paper suggested that the pushbacks would, at best, turn around 1 per cent of the boats bound for the UK.

Every time Mrs Patel answers questions on the new legislation, she parades it as a dividing line in British politics. The key issue for her is that migration is not based on the need for a safe haven as a refugee. Rather, it is a matter of push and pull factors. People are pushed to places such as the UK by conflict, climate change and lack of opportunity.

The UK has pull factors of prosperity, cosmopolitan population mix and the English language. But migrants on the way through Europe barely touch the sides. Once inside the UK, more misery is to be piled on the already broken resettlement system. For instance, hardly any of the Afghans brought to the UK have been able to leave hotels for a settled life yet.

Now Mrs Patel's bill is demarcating asylum seekers in different baskets. If they are from countries where they could have claimed asylum, the people involved will not be entitled to the same support as those who arrive in the UK as a first country of refuge. Creating a two-tier, and thus inferior, category of asylum seeker must be the worst idea of all.

In sum, the country can't throw people out, or stop them entering or support them with dignity. I am not sure how much more incompetent the UK policy could get.

Published: November 27, 2021, 2:00 PM