Why are migrants in small boats a heated issue in the UK?

LONDON (AP) — British Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s message to asylum seekers was grim. “If you enter Britain illegally you will be detained and quickly removed.”

The government hopes a decisive – and divisive – measure will prevent tens of thousands of migrants from reaching Britain in boats across the English Channel.

Behind the harsh talk, however, many legal, practical and ethical questions are hidden. Condemned by rights groups and questioned by legal experts, the Illegal Migration Bill is the latest in a long line of UK government efforts to control unauthorized migration.


The issue is not new, nor is it unique to the war in the UK. Famine, poverty and political repression have displaced millions of people around the world. Britain will receive fewer asylum seekers than European countries including Italy, Germany and France – nine per 100,000 people in 2021, compared to an average of 16 per 100,000 in the European Union.

But for decades, thousands of migrants have been traveling to the north of France every year in the hopes of reaching the UK. Many are drawn to family ties, the English language or the belief that it is easy to find work in the UK

After the Eurotunnel opened under the Channel between France and England in 1994, refugees and migrants gathered in Calais, the nearest French city, hoping to hide in vehicles on their way to Britain. They gathered in overcrowded makeshift camps, including a sprawling, violent settlement called “The Jungle.”

Neither repeated brooms to close the camps nor increased security patrols stopped the flow of people.


As the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic virtually halted rail, air and ship travel and disrupted freight traffic, people smugglers began packing migrants into inflatable sloops and other small boats. In 2018, only 300 people reached Britain that way. The number increased to 8,500 in 2020, 28,000 in 2021 and 45,000 in 2022.

Dozens have died in the frigid channel, including 27 people in a single sinking in November 2021.

The newcomers are much more visible than those who arrive by plane or as stowaways in a truck. Almost every day, groups of migrants arrive on beaches or in lifeboats along the south coast of England, putting the asylum issue on the news and on the political agenda.


The UK government says many of those making the journey are economic migrants rather than refugees, pointing to a rise last year in arrivals from Albania, a European country the UK considers safe.

The other main countries of origin last year were Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Of those whose applications were processed, a large majority were granted asylum in the UK

HOW DID THE UK Government respond?

The British Conservative Party, in power since 2010, has introduced a series of measures to discourage canal crossings.

The UK has struck a series of agreements with France to increase beach patrols and intelligence sharing in an effort to disrupt smuggling gangs – all of which have had only limited impact.

Last year, Britain announced a deal with Rwanda to send migrants arriving by boat for a one-way trip to the East African country, where their asylum applications would be processed and, if successful, would remain. The policy was condemned by human rights groups and has been embroiled in legal challenges. No one has been sent to Rwanda yet.

The 2022 Nationality and Borders Act banned people from seeking asylum in Britain if they had traveled through a safe country like France. But in practice it has made little difference, as people fleeing war and persecution cannot be sent home, and no other country – except Rwanda and Albania – has agreed to accept deportees.

This week Britain unveiled the Illegal Migration Bill, its toughest measure yet, which calls for people arriving via unauthorized routes to be detained, deported to their home country or “a safe third country” and the UK not let more in.


The United Nations Refugee Agency says the bill amounts to an “asylum ban” and is in clear violation of the UN Refugee Convention. The British government acknowledges that the bill may conflict with Britain’s international human rights obligations and says it expects legal challenges.

Sunder Katwala, head of identity and immigration think tank British Future, said in a blog post that “the pledge to detain and remove all people crossing the Channel has no prospect of being honored in the next two years.” He said that, apart from legal issues, the government “doesn’t have enough places of detention; and it cannot deport everyone if it does not have agreements with other countries to do so safely.”

The UK government says the country’s asylum system has been “overwhelmed” by small boat arrivals. But critics blame a bureaucratic and cumbersome asylum system, exacerbated by the pandemic, which has accumulated a backlog of 160,000 applications.

Brexit has also played a role: it has made it more difficult for Britain to send migrants to other European countries and has cut off the UK’s access to some EU-wide information databases.

The government has vowed to pass the bill into law and says the British public wants to see tough action. “Stopping the boats is not just my priority, it’s the people’s priority,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said said Wednesday.

There are indications that public opinion is mixed. The desire to control immigration was a big factor behind Britain’s 2016 vote to withdraw from the European Union. But overall immigration increased rather than decreased after Brexit, reaching a record high of more than 500,000 in the year to June 2022. Britain also took in a record number of refugees last year, including 160,000 from Ukraine and 150,000 from Hong Kong.

At the same time, polls show that immigration is no longer an important issue for many voters. Jonathan Portes, senior fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, said there has been a “continued shift towards a more positive attitude towards migration” since Brexit.

As for asylum seekers, he said the British want the country to be “relatively generous to genuine refugees. But how that is defined is highly controversial.” ___

Follow AP’s coverage of global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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