LONDON — Britain wants a tough migration policy, but it can’t have one without help from its neighbors.
Pressure on Boris Johnson’s government to act is mounting again after dozens of undocumented migrants drowned in the English Channel on Wednesday, in the worst disaster on record involving migrants in the sea separating France and the U.K.
Yet the tragedy looks unlikely to stop the political squabbling which has so far hindered efforts to curb the sharply rising numbers of arrivals in the U.K. on small boats.
Johnson also faces domestic pressure from his own MPs after it was revealed that the man responsible for a bomb detonated in the city of Liverpool nearly two weeks ago was a migrant whose asylum claim had been rejected in 2014.
In the aftermath of the Channel drownings, the British prime minister urged Europe to engage with Britain to break the business model of people smugglers who he warned “are literally getting away with murder.”
Johnson offered to increase British support to tackle smugglers on French beaches and said he wants to speed up legislation aimed at breaking the business model of smugglers by ramping up sentences, penalties and border controls, as well as tackling backlogs of asylum claims.
But that bill contains two controversial proposals — returning migrants to the first country deemed safe that they entered en route to the U.K., and the creation of offshore processing centers for asylum seekers. Those plans rely on finding international partners willing to take these people. It’s here that observers see a big problem for Britain, no matter how tough its rhetoric.
Brexit bad blood
Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee and migrant rights director at Amnesty International, said the U.K.’s stance as revealed in those proposals is that asylum should be “someone else’s responsibility.”
That, he argued, is encouraging other countries to either take the same attitude or to feel there is a limit to how much they can do. “If that continues, the U.K. will be unlikely to find any partners willing to receive more people into their systems.”
The British government believes there is no shortage of EU countries demanding a stronger response to the migration crisis — but it accuses Brussels of failing to act. The U.K. is engaging bilaterally with Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland on asylum because of a “lack of leadership on this issue” from the European Commission, British Home Secretary Priti Patel told the House of Commons Monday.
British frustration with the Commission is two-fold: London argues the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) should be more active in France — a call also made by French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday night — and it accuses the EU executive of refusing to discuss a new post-Brexit asylum pact with the U.K.
Since Britain’s EU departure, the country no longer takes part in the EU’s Dublin agreement on migration, which allowed for 289 returns of undocumented migrants in 2020. This year, returns to the EU plummeted to just five, according to U.K. Immigration Minister Tom Pursglove.
Emmanuel Comte, a historian of European migration at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, argues that through Brexit “the British government has achieved, at an excessive cost, more control of declining inflows from EU countries, but it has lost access to useful EU instruments to control rising inflows from third countries.”
A British government official said the U.K. pursued a returns agreement with France but was reminded it should talk to Brussels. London is now trying to reach a new accord with the EU, but the official said the Commission “doesn’t want to discuss it.” The U.K. hopes an overarching agreement with the EU on returns can be reached once France takes over the presidency of the Council of the EU in January.
“Getting the European Commission to do things is slightly more difficult,” the official said. “The French have told us they want to work on returns with us, but it is an EU competency, we have to wait until they agree with the Commission. They accepted the need to do something because the Dublin system does not particularly work for them either.”
Macron has said his government will try to reform the EU’s border control and migration policy, but he has not confirmed whether he would favor a pact with the British.
The European Commission did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.K. has reached asylum agreements with India, Pakistan and Albania. But Conservative MPs continue to vent their anger at Paris. Tory MP Peter Bone urged Johnson to “put the maximum pressure on France” to accept more returns.
In the meantime, Johnson and Macron have blamed each other’s governments for the recent rise in Channel crossings.
Asylum claims in the U.K. reached their highest number in nearly two decades, according to Home Office data released Thursday. The department received 37,562 applications in the year to September.
The British premier said Wednesday that Britain has had “difficulties persuading” the French to take measures London believes would be effective in curbing crossings. In turn, the French president said he expected Britain to “fully cooperate and forbear from instrumentalizing a dramatic situation for political purposes.”
Bilateral conversations with France on migration have been regular but difficult, with Macron accusing Britain of oscillating “between partnership and provocation.”
The two countries agree on the need to fight smugglers; prevent the establishment of lasting camps in northern France; and work closely with countries of origin to prevent departures in the first place.
But the U.K. government believes French police and border officers are overwhelmed and need more support. Earlier this year, the British government committed to pay £54 million in installments to the French to help them deal with the crisis. On Wednesday, Johnson restated a U.K. offer to deploy British Border Force officers along the French coast.
Yet where Britain sees a weakness, Paris sees an attempt to interfere in its sovereignty and place all the blame on the French. Pierre-Henri Dumont, MP for Calais, told the BBC: “I’m not sure the British people would accept it the other way round, with the French army patrolling the British shore.”
On Thursday, Macron announced plans to mobilize army reserves and said the French government is going to ask for “extra help” from the British “because all these men and these women don’t want to stay in France.”
Paris argues that London must make it harder for undocumented migrants to find work in the U.K., and says it should allow migrants to apply for asylum in Britain while they are in France — removing one reason for embarking on the dangerous journey.
Under British rules, an asylum seeker can see their claim rejected if they applied from an EU country, or traveled to the U.K. through a country the Home Office deems safe.
But Johnson’s official spokesman repeated the familiar refrain Thursday that allowing migrants to claim U.K. asylum from France “would create an additional pull factor” toward Calais and the surrounding area.
Valdez-Symonds of Amnesty fears Britain’s continued hardline approach will fail to curb risky Channel crossings. “We will only have more people making more journeys, only more secretly — and living probably extremely dangerous and exploited lives in this country — because they will not come forward to seek asylum for fear or what will happen to them,” he argued.
Lack of interest
For the time being, the U.K. has considered about 10 countries as potential hosts for offshore processing centers, most of them in northern Africa and the Balkans. Yet not a single one has shown an interest in hosting these facilities, Immigration Minister Kevin Foster admitted Wednesday in an interview with the BBC.
Although the department refuses to name any country, officials and a British minister have this year pointed to Rwanda, Turkey, Morocco and Albania as countries with whom negotiations are taking place. All these nations have denied being in talks with the U.K. government to host these facilities.
Albania’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Olta Xhaçka called the reports “fake news” while Prime Minister Edi Rama said Albania — which aims to join the EU — would “never” be a place where rich countries can open camps for their migrants.
Even jurisdictions with much closer relationships with Britain, such as Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, and the Isle of Man, a self-governing crown dependency, have rejected suggestions they could house such facilities. The government also considered Ascension Island and St Helena, two remote U.K. territories in the Atlantic Ocean, as potential hosts but decided not to proceed.
Valdez-Symonds argues that there’s no incentive for these places to cooperate unless the U.K. is willing to pay them potentially large sums of money.
The same U.K. official quoted above denied that Britain lacks allies, and suggested instead that domestic politics plays a role in some of the refusals. “Their comms are a matter for them,” the official said of potential hosts. “It’s early days. There are countries out there that we feel there’s potential to explore this further with.”
Privately, Conservative MPs are also questioning the track record of Patel, the U.K.’s home secretary.
But the U.K. official countered that tackling the issue of Channel crossings requires exactly the kind of “long-term reform” which Patel is working on. “I’ve seen a lot of sniping from the sidelines in the last few days but not real policy solutions for any of the problems that we’re facing that the home secretary hasn’t already suggested,” they added.
On Wednesday, Johnson reiterated his confidence in Patel. However, Downing Street has tasked Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay with supporting the Home Office’s work on Channel crossings in order to, in the words of Johnson’s spokesperson, “step up efforts to prevent those crossings.”