The death this week of at least 27 migrants off the French coast – the single deadliest channel crossing on record – has sparked fierce debate about who is to blame: with some directing anger at the people smugglers who profit off human misery, some pointing to the failures of French border patrols, and others pinning the blame on the UK government for closing off safe, legal routes for asylum seekers.
While there are various proposed solutions to tackle the problem, those across the political spectrum generally agree that the current immigration system is in need of reform and that perilous crossings of this sort must be prevented.
But the tragedy raises another, perhaps more straightforward question: why is it that migrants are prepared to go to such extreme lengths to reach Britain instead of seeking asylum in France?
Channel crossings are now the main means of entry into the UK for asylum seekers. And an ever-greater number of migrants are journeying across in makeshift vessels. Over 23,500 have crossed the channel in small boats this year – almost triple the number that did so in 2020. (This growth is partly because the pandemic has restricted other means of travel to the UK – such as air, road and rail.)
Yet it is still only a minority of migrants who use France as a through-route to the UK. Roughly four times as many people claim asylum in France every year as they do in the UK. Meanwhile, Germany deals with around 10 times more asylum claims than Britain. Nevertheless, the question still stands: why are those who make the crossing from France so intent on building a life in the UK?
One common misconception is that it’s because of the UK’s “generous” welfare system. In reality, the £43.50 weekly allowance given to those awaiting an asylum decision in France is slightly more generous than the £39.63 per week provided in the UK. Those in Germany, get over £65.
What’s more, the UK only allows asylum seekers to start looking for work if their applications have taken over a year to process. – which means living off £5 a day for 12 months – whereas those in Germany can start working after three months and those in France, after six.
The NHS is often thought to be a pull factor, and it’s true that asylum seekers are able to see a doctor or access hospital treatment for free in the UK. Yet those in France are also eligible for free healthcare thanks to the country’s universal healthcare insurance system.
So if migrants don’t have access to any more benefits in Britain, what motivates them to make such a dangerous journey? The lure of the UK is in large part down to cultural ties, whether it be with existing communities and relatives living here or the belief that a shared language will aid integration. Unsurprisingly, some studies have shown that the higher a migrant’s proficiency in English, the more likely they are to choose Britain. This same logic explains why, for instance, France has a greater number of asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Of course, another factor is that not all migrants making the journey wish to claim asylum: others plan to enter the country incognito to remain as undocumented workers. And informal work – be it at a car wash, nail bar or so on – is far more readily available in the UK compared to France. France’s obsession with national identity cards, job-protecting labour laws and strict regime of payroll taxes makes it much harder – and more risky – to employ anyone unofficially. But in Britain, as Matthieu Tardis, an expert in migration policy at the French Institute of International Relations, puts it: “The economy is far less regulated; there are more opportunities. It’s a very liberal economy that needs labour that isn’t that well paid, and foreigners typically accept these types of positions.”
It’s still not clear exactly how many of those entering the UK on small boats are refugees who would qualify for asylum. In early November, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, told a parliamentary committee that 70% of individuals on small boats are single men who “are effectively economic migrants, not genuine asylum seekers.”
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However, this contradicts the findings in a recent report from the Refugee Council. According to this new study, which used Home Office data and FOI requests, almost two thirds of migrants entering the UK on small boats are individuals fleeing war zones, who would qualify for refugee protection, and would likely be allowed to stay in the UK after their asylum claim was processed.
That being said, a new post-Brexit law introduced by Patel casts doubt on how many of those crossing the Channel would qualify for asylum in reality, even if they were fleeing genuine persecution. According to the new rules, anyone who has travelled through a “safe” third country en route to Britain is barred from claiming asylum in the UK. Home Office immigration officials are given six months to uncover migrant’s routes and prove their claims are invalid for this reason.
In theory, this would disqualify anyone arriving on a small boat from France. Though it’s dubious how much of an impact this policy will really make: in the first six months of the rules coming to effect, 4,561 people who crossed the Channel were flagged as “inadmissible” thanks to their “safe” through-route, yet only seven were eventually judged by officials to be “inadmissible” due to lack of evidence.
Speaking of insufficient evidence, another ambiguity is the number of undocumented migrants currently living in the UK. The National Audit Office has managed to provide a vague figure – estimating it could be anywhere between 600,000 to 1.2 million.