Channel deaths: What are the options for combatting the crisis?


More than 25,000 people have made the perilous journey to the UK in small boats this year with politicians on both sides of the Channel under fresh pressure to prevent people putting their lives at risk.

In the summer of 2019, both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel promised action to limit the number of Channel crossings to the UK by prospective migrants.

But, more than two years later, the number of people making successful journeys has soared to record levels, while some are losing their lives in other attempted crossings.

Those deaths are piling pressure not only on Mr Johnson and Ms Patel, but also French President Emmanuel Macron.

France’s authorities are accused of not doing enough to disrupt people smuggling gangs and to prevent people attempting Channel crossings.

Here, Sky News takes a look at some of the measures being called for to combat the crisis:

New UK asylum laws

A key plank of the government’s proposed new immigration legislation, the Nationality and Borders Bill, is aimed at deterring illegal entry into the UK, breaking the business model of criminal trafficking networks, and saving lives.

The proposed legislation would, in effect, create a two-tier system of asylum claims in the UK.

Under the government’s plans, whether people enter the UK legally or illegally will have an impact on how their asylum claim progresses, and on their status in the UK if that claim is successful.

Ms Patel has said she wants to “create safe and legal routes” for those fleeing persecution, but that those who enter the UK illegally will no longer have the same entitlements as those who arrive legally.

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Refugee: Why I fled to UK

Those who arrive illegally, but still manage to successfully claim asylum, will receive a new “temporary protection status” rather than an automatic right to settle.

People entering illegally will also have limited family reunion rights and reduced access to benefits.

The government hopes the differentiation between asylum seekers who use “legal” and “illegal” routes will help deter people from making journeys across the Channel in small boats in the first place.

Use ‘pushback’ tactics

Countries such as Australia, Greece and Italy have used “pushback” tactics in recent years to turn around migrant boats heading towards their shores.

The UK’s Border Force has been training to use the tactics after being authorised to do so by Ms Patel.

However, critics have said the tactics are cruel, unsafe and breach international law.

Immigration minister Kevin Foster has kept the door open to using such tactics in the Channel, stressing that “any maritime tactics would be deployed appropriately” and as determined by commanders.

Increase pressure on France

In July this year, the UK agreed to give France £54m to help expand the country’s efforts to stem the number of small boats crossing the Channel.

The Home Office said, as part of the deal, the number of police patrolling French beaches would more than double.

With Channel crossings having now reached record levels, it has been argued that the UK is seeing little value for its investment and that pressure should be increased on France to demonstrate how it is using the cash.

Some Conservative MPs have accused the government of “throwing good money after bad” after previous cash also failed to limit the number of crossings.

And some have also argued France should be responsible for the costs.

However, it is unclear how much of the £54m France has actually received, with suggestions it had received less than one-third of the sum so far.

Put British police in France

The prime minister has renewed a previous offer to send UK police and Border Force officers to France in order to mount joint patrols with their French counterparts.

France has rejected that offer on the grounds that it would impede on their sovereignty.

But the UK government is said to be hoping France could reconsider its stance if the situation in the Channel continues to worsen.

New returns agreements with EU countries

The UK government recently admitted that just five migrants who crossed the Channel by boat to the UK had been returned to European countries so far this year.

It has led to accusations that the ability of the UK to return migrants to the EU has got “substantially worse” following the end of an asylum agreement with the bloc after Brexit.

Home Office minister Tom Pursglove told MPs that there had been “some difficulties around securing returns” but he also blamed the impact of the COVID pandemic.

He added the government retains an “ambition” to secure returns agreements with European countries as well as, potentially, the EU itself.

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Migrants promised ‘El Dorado’ in England

Under the EU’s “Dublin arrangements”, the UK used to be able to ask other member states to take back people they could prove had passed through safe EU countries on their journey to Britain.

However, since Brexit, the UK no longer has such a returns arrangement.

It has been suggested that, with a viable returns arrangement, migrants would be less inclined to journey across the Channel if they believed they could soon be returned to France or other EU countries.

Yet, it is worth noting that even before the UK left the EU, the total number of Dublin transfers that took place was a small fraction of the total number of asylum seekers.

According to the Migration Observatory, in the five-year period between 2016 to 2020, around 194,000 people applied for asylum in the UK – while there were only around 1,250 Dublin transfers out of the country.

Create safe routes

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) is among a number of charities to have proposed the creation of safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to enter the UK from France.

This would help discourage many from choosing to take the perilous option of crossing the Channel in a small boat.

The JCWI has said that there is an opportunity to “end 30 years of tried, tested and failed policies that have left migrants dead, in limbo, and in the hands of smugglers and traffickers”.

Labour is also calling for safe and legal routes for refugees, including the reopening of the “Dubs scheme”.

Named after its proponent, the Labour peer Lord Dubs who was among Jewish children to escape the Nazis in the 1930s, the scheme brought unaccompanied child refugees to the UK from Europe following the Syrian refugee crisis.

The government has since closed the scheme, with a total of 478 children transferred to the UK.

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Patel: ‘No quick fix’ over channel crossings

Amid the calls for the creation of new safe and legal routes between the UK and France, Ms Patel has said that people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach and that “nobody needs to flee France in order to be safe”.

Instead, the home secretary has not ruled out sending asylum seekers abroad to third countries while their claims are processed in the UK.

Gibraltar, the Isle of Man and Albania have all been touted as the location of possible processing centres, although each of them have strongly rejected those suggestions.

The theory is that by moving to an “offshore” system of processing asylum applications, people making claims will be less likely to try and get to the UK.

It would follow the example of Australia.

However, as well as human rights concerns and the possibility of a legal challenge, the plans have been dismissed as hugely costly.

Afghanistan resettlement scheme

It has been reported that some of those who are attempting to cross the Channel are Afghans who have fled their country following the Taliban takeover.

According to The Times, among those recently rescued from a boat in the Channel was an Afghan soldier who had worked with British forces.

His family had decided to risk their lives crossing the Channel after they “waited so long for help” from Britain, the newspaper said.

Following the initial “Operation Pitting” evacuation effort from Kabul in the immediate wake of the Taliban takeover, the UK government also promised to take in up to 20,000 refugees under the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.

However, more than three months after the Taliban entered Kabul, the scheme is still not open.

Restore the UK’s foreign aid commitment

Labour has linked government cuts to the UK’s foreign aid budget (from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income) to the Channel crisis.

The cuts are claimed to have reduced the amount of work being done to reduce the “push” factors that prompt people to travel the world in seek of asylum in the first place.

Shadow minister Jo Stevens told Sky News: “People are fleeing other countries, they haven’t originated in France in terms of their journey.

“This is an international problem for the international community.

“The government has shut down the Department for International Development, which is the very department that works with other countries to stop people fleeing, or help people that have to flee from other countries in the first place because they are in fear of their lives.”

Clear the asylum backlog

Recent figures have shown that the backlog of asylum cases in the UK is at a record high.

A total of 67,547 asylum applications were awaiting an initial decision at the end of September – up 41% year-on-year and the highest since current records began in June 2010.

A further 3,261 were awaiting a review, which includes some of those waiting to receive decisions about appeals.

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Arrests should be made before tragedies – Starmer

Some 62% of cases (44,018) have been waiting for an initial decision for more than six months.

There have been calls for more investment in the asylum system to clear the backlog and to shorten the amount of time that people’s cases take to be dealt with.

Ditch human rights law

The prime minister’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has argued that human rights law should be “set aside” in order to deal with the Channel crossings crisis – a view that has been echoed by some Tory MPs.

It has been claimed that removing human rights obligations would allow the UK to take a tougher stance on migration issues.

However, any reform to human rights law would be politically tricky and hugely controversial for the government.



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