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Explainer: Why Brexit could be behind the upsurge in migrants aiming to cross the English Channel

Four in five people who attempted to cross the English Channel in dinghies in 2018 did so in the last three months. But why?

Image: Victoria Jones/PA Images

THE BRITISH NAVY was today preparing to patrol the Channel in response to a wave of mostly Iranian asylum seekers seeking to cross from France in dinghies.

Two people have been arrested – a British national and an Iranian national – on suspicion of facilitating illegal migration across the English Channel.

Attempts to cross into Britain from France are said to have surged in the last three months, with a large number over the Christmas period. 

But why the sudden increase? And what would Brexit have to do with it?

‘Genuine’ asylum seeker

Some 539 people have crossed the Strait of Dover – the Channel’s narrowest part at 33 kilometres wide – last year in what is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Of these, 80% made the journey in the last three months, according to Minister Sajid Javid.

And the British government’s Home Secretary drew sharp criticism for comments he made yesterday about the matter.

Almost all of those who have made it to Britain have requested asylum, Javid said, before questioning whether someone who had left the safety of France could be a “genuine asylum seeker”.

Britain Europe Migrants Sajid Javid Source: Gareth Fuller/PA Images

After two boats were intercepted last Friday, Javid declared the crossings “a major incident” and urged more cooperation with French counterparts.

This spike over the Christmas period has also been described as “deeply concerning” by UK Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes.

“Some of this is clearly facilitated by organised crime groups, while other attempts appear to be opportunistic,” she said.

And these crossings aren’t cheap for those aiming to make the dangerous journey.

A smuggler, who claimed to be a fisherman in Iran, told an undercover BBC reporter late last year: “A boat, it’ll cost you £3,000 to £4,000. I am taking three people with me, they pay in cash. We get a boat and off we go.”

Separately, The Sunday Times newspaper, reporting from a migrant camp on the French coast, said a growing number of well-educated Iranians were attempting the Channel crossing.

It cited Ali, 34, a car salesman from Tehran, as saying his journey from the Iranian capital to Britain would end up costing £15,000, with payments in stages to a Kurd-dominated people smuggling gang.

Britain is reacting to the increased number of migrants attempting to make the trip by redeploying two Border Force cutters – large vessels – from the Mediterranean, with the HMS Mersey “available and ready” for deployment, a source told the Press Association news agency.

Brexit impact

The rise in those attempting the journey by dinghy can be explained partly by how difficult it is for migrants to travel to the UK from mainland Europe. 

Organised gangs are said to help facilitate migrants attempting to hide aboard trucks bound for Britain via sea or rail but this is very expensive.

Britain Europe Migrants Source: Gareth Fuller/AP Photo

Another potential reason for the increases seen in the past three months is the very real possibility that the UK may leave the EU without a deal on 29 March 2019.

The issues that would cause to the borders in Ireland are well known here, but there remains a fear that a no-deal Brexit could see the UK “shut up shop” when it comes to immigration for migrants.

Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, told CNN that smugglers could be using Brexit as leverage to convey to people that this could be their “last chance” to get into Britain.

“If people think the borders are going to change, [the smugglers] could be telling people that as a way of getting them to prop up the money,” he said.

That doesn’t mean there is going to be a change — but that’s how people are exploited. These people have quite often never been in a boat before, so they don’t know what it means. They’re offered a way [across] and they take it.

CNN also spoke to Hadi, a 32-year-old Iranian migrant living in Dunkirk, who said that “once the UK has left Europe”, the crossing will get harder “with more policemen”.

A smuggler, also speaking to a BBC undercover reporter posing as an Iranian migrant in Dunkirk, said: “When [the] UK is out of Europe, the borders will be shut properly. The jungle will be cleared. They will put everyone in jail.”

An Afghan national who made a crossing attempt told the BBC that there is a “rush” going on at present. 

“Everyone is talking about it saying we need to get in quick in case the security gets tighter,” he said.

Going forward

All of those attempting the crossing that are picked up in British waters are brought to British ports. From there they can make applications for asylum.

In light of this, Lisa Doyle, director of advocacy at the Refugee Council charity, labelled Javid’s comments about “genuine asylum seekers” as “deeply concerning”.

“We are hearing time and again that the conditions in France do not make people feel safe, with migrant camps being razed from the ground and people experiencing violence from the authorities,” she said.

It’s a shame that the home secretary seems to need reminding that seeking asylum is a right and the UK has an obligation to assess claims fairly and grant protection to those who need it.

The opposition Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesman Ed Davey echoed the criticism, noting Javid had made the claim with “no evidence” and that it was “completely unacceptable”.

“Many of these people have fled war in Syria or persecution in Iran,” he added.

With the latest arrests in connection with a crossing attempt, and Javid’s comments yesterday, it appears that this issue will persist in the coming weeks at least.

With reporting from AFP

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Sean Murray

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