The sea between France and England risks becoming Europe’s next watery graveyard for migrants and refugees as thousands risk its choppy waters in small boats to reach Britain.
So far this year between 3,500 and 4,000 people have arrived in the UK this way, picked up on England’s east coast by border control and customs officers.
And as French police crack down on the makeshift refugee camps on the French coast, and with a reduced number of trucks going through the Channel Tunnel, it was possible the number of people attempting the crossing by boat could increase.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
More than 200 migrants from Yemen, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, Palestine, Iran, Kuwait, Egypt, Chad, Mali and Iraq crossed the English Channel in 20 boats last Thursday, a record number for a single day, according to the UK Home Office.
Thirty came on inflatable dinghies, landing on beaches in the Kent seaside towns of Deal and Walmer.
The arrivals were taken to the port of Dover where they were transferred to immigration officials.
A day later, nine boats carrying 96 migrants were intercepted.
“It’s really concerning for us when we get asked for things like life jackets,” said Poppy Cleary, a British volunteer in the French port of Calais with the refugee charity Collective Aid. The group works at the camps in France and also in Bosnia and Serbia, the first port of call for many migrants crossing into Europe.
“We have to counteract false information. We get asked is it true we can swim the channel easily – or better to cross by night.”
In 2019, 2,758 migrants were rescued by the French and British authorities while trying to make the crossing – four times more than in 2018, according to French officials.
Although the crossings are not yet on the scale of migration between Libya and Italy in recent years, where the boats used are much larger, there are fears that the surge in crossings could lead to a major loss of life that has been seen in the Mediterranean. The number of deaths during crossings from Libya to Italy and Malta fell from 4,581 to 1,262 between 2016 and 2019. With the many of the vessels crossing the English Channel being so small, it is impossible to know how many people have already died.
“Not that long ago a body was pulled out of the water and was only identifiable because of a bracelet he had on with his name on – you could tell by his skin tone and clothes that he was definitely a refugee,” Cleary said.
Cleary, who was studying at Hong Kong City University until she had to leave because of the pro-democracy protests where she witnessed violence on both sides.
Now the law graduate says she and other aid workers face constant harassment from the French police, with volunteers being stopped at least three times a day.
“The problem we are seeing ever increasing at the moment is police brutality against the people we are trying to help,” she said.
“I can’t say the amount of times I have sat in a van trying to do our normal operations and the police are tear-gassing camps or they come along with knives and slash the tents and plastic tarpaulin people use to have some kind of shelter.
“They also confiscate a lot of personal belongings. I met a man in the middle of lockdown who collapsed during one of our distributions because he was diabetic and his tent was taken which had insulin in it.”
France shut down the infamous “Jungle” camp in Calais two years ago. However there are still a number of camps on the French and Belgian coast where would-be migrants to the UK gather waiting for people traffickers to get them across the channel on boats, where they are picked up by the UK coastguard. The cost for passage is up to GBP4,500 (US$5,900) per person, aid agencies say.
Many taking that journey would have already claimed asylum in another European Union country, but have family or other connections in the UK.
Middle Eastern families from Iran, Syria and Iraq are more likely to have money to pay traffickers send families on larger boats, said Tony Smith, the former director general of the UK’s Border Force who now runs Fortinus Global, a consultancy advising on border control issues.
Migrants and refugees from Africa tend to have less money and generally took greater risks, like crossing on paddleboats.
“We are seeing the start of uncontrolled migration on the English Channel and it could become very messy unless we sort it out,” he said.
“The traffickers are international criminals and their only motivation is pure greed,” said Smith. “They have no regard for women and children drowning – they don’t care and basically they can get away with it now.”
Smith says that although the UK government has made a number of arrests, the people behind the trafficking gangs are sophisticated international crime syndicates.
UK Home Secretary Priti Patel travelled to France last month for meetings with the new French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin. They agreed to work on a joint intelligence centre to clamp down on cross-channel people smugglers.
A plethora of other treaties between the UK and France over the past two decades have tried but failed to stop the flow.
In the past, most undocumented migrants and asylum seekers made their way from mainland Europe to the UK hidden in the back of lorries.
Under an agreement between France and the UK, British border forces operate out of Calais searching lorries while French immigration officials do the same from Dover.
Smith said what is required is a system of taking asylum claims for the UK in Paris, and a firm agreement with French to share more of the burden of responsibility for intercepting vessels at sea.
Although most of the existing treaties with France are bilateral, once the UK ends its post-Brexit transition arrangements with the EU on December 31, a new asylum agreement will be needed to replace the EU’s much criticised Dublin Regulation that regulates asylum rules. The regulation has been unable to stop migrants from “asylum shopping” by moving from one state to another until they get to their preferred destination.
“The best chance in tackling international organised crime is cut out supply chains. The only way to stop the supply chain is stop the incentive.” Smith said.
He also believes the UK should be able to vet those seeking asylum in Britain in France, and those the UK would like to come should be given legal and safe passage.
However, many of the poorest migrants, especially from Africa are unlikely to meet the UK criteria.
The exodus comes as the UK prepares to shake-up its migration rules to allow those to enter if they have a job paying more than GBP25,000 a year. Anti-migration group MigrationWatch UK says tens of millions of people around the world could be eligible.
The UK has also offered residency starting from next year for to up to 3 million Hongkongers who are holders of British National (Overseas) passports.
Cleary, who says she supports the aims of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement is nevertheless planning a thesis on how different types of migrants are portrayed in the UK.
Last week, The Daily Mail ran a story accusing some young African men who arrived in Dover of taking Instagram selfies. In fact, some of the pictures showed groups of exhausted and anxious looking men. Videos have also circulated on Twitter of groups of migrants sitting in people’s gardens.
The lack of empathy of some of those who posted the videos, as well as on The Daily Mail comment sections, shows just how hardened some of the UK public have become towards migrants and refugees.
“Hongkongers are seen as academics and intellectuals who will be a benefit to our society – not to downplay the fact they have had their rights taken away – yet I’ve seen people who are shot by the Taliban and they are not seen as worthy.” Cleary said.
Purchase the 120+ page China Internet Report 2020 Pro Edition, brought to you by SCMP Research, and enjoy a 30% discount (original price US$400). The report includes deep-dive analysis, trends, and case studies on the 10 most important internet sectors. Now in its 3rd year, this go-to source for understanding China tech also comes with exclusive access to 6+ webinars with C-level executives, including Charles Li, CEO of HKEX, James Peng, CEO/founder of Pony.ai, and senior executives from Alibaba, Huawei, Kuaishou, Pinduoduo, and more. Offer valid until 31 August 2020. To purchase, please click here.
More Articles from SCMP
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.