Why record Channel drownings are unlikely to deter migrants

Desperation and hopes of a better life outweigh fears about perilous crossing

Migrants on the Channel
(Image credit: Getty Images)

At least 27 people including a pregnant woman died trying to cross the English Channel in a small boat yesterday in the worst migrant tragedy in the Channel since records began.

Three children, seven women and 17 men were confirmed to have drowned after the inflatable boat capsized, according to the French authorities. The Guardian reported that Paris and London have “traded accusations” over who is to blame for the deaths and the rise in dangerous crossings of the Channel by migrants.

Rising numbers

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The tragedy on Wednesday has triggered fresh calls for action over the growing number of people attempting to cross one of the busiest, most dangerous shipping lanes in the world in inflatable dinghies and other makeshift vessels.

Home Office data suggests that the number of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats has soared in the past three years. Almost 26,000 people are believed to have arrived in Britain since January after crossing the Channel on a small boat – an increase of almost 8,700% on the 299 recorded in 2018.

The tally of people who have reached the UK via the Channel so far this year is “roughly equivalent to the population of Staines-upon-Thames, in Surrey”, said the i news site.

In the past, many migrants sought to smuggle themselves aboard trucks that regularly cross the Channel on ferries or by rail from France. But a migration expert told CNN in 2019 that the UK had “invested a lot of money” in blocking such access, and that people-smugglers had increased their fees for the routes that remained.

The Covid-19 crisis has also fuelled the increase in Channel crossings, because lockdowns have made road, rail and air routes more difficult to access.

And in recent weeks, the weather has been “less stormy than is usual for autumn, which has meant the crossings have continued beyond summer”, The Telegraph added.

Patel’s dilemma

The possible options available to Home Secretary Priti Patel to try to prevent migrants from crossing the Channel all have practical, political or moral drawbacks.

Everyone agrees that “the system is broken and in desperate need of reform”, said The Times. “What they disagree on is why the system is broken and the methods for fixing it.”

Some migrants are attracted to the UK because of the relatively high levels of “irregular work”, such as at car washes,the paper continued. But enforcing stricter rules for employing people would be a “sledgehammer approach to cracking the problem as it would hurt the whole economy”.

Intercepting migrant boats in the Channel could breach international maritime law and Border Force guidance rules that the tactic can only be used under very limited circumstances and in a particular section of the waters that is just 1.8 miles wide.

Patel has agreed two multimillion-pound deals with Paris since 2019 to pay for more surveillance of the French coast, but the agreements have failed to reduce migrant crossing numbers and have caused political tensions.

The home secretary has also introduced rules barring people who have travelled through “safe” third countries from claiming asylum. But while 4,561 people who crossed the Channel in the first six months after the rules came into effect post-Brexit were flagged as “inadmissible”, a lack of evidence meant only seven were eventually judged to be so by officials.

A bid to shake up the UK’s asylum laws has met with criticism too. Opponents claim that the Nationality and Borders Bill will not prevent arrivals from becoming a drain on national resources and could face a legal challenge.

Other possible options to tackle the Channel crossings crisis, including new criminal offences and offshore processing and reception centres, have been deemed inadequate or impractical.

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