Stopping Channel Crossing: Boris Johnson aims to change UK asylum laws

August 27, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently indicated the UK should change its asylum laws and work with its “French friends” in order to prevent immigrants entering the country illegally via the English Channel.

What does this mean?

If you are a migrant hoping to cross the Channel the shortest (20 miles), and therefore most popular route, is between Calais and Dover. If a migrant is caught in transit by an authority, they are “rescued” and taken back to the country to which the authority belongs. 

Once safely on the shores of either France or Britain, there are several laws that determine what happens next for migrants. 

International Law

  • Everybody has the right to apply for asylum (Article 14 Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
  • Migrants have the right to seek asylum wherever they arrive (1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees)
  • Asylum seekers may use irregular means of travel to reach a country (1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees)

The Dublin Regulation

  • An individual’s asylum application can be transferred to the first EU Member State where an asylum seeker entered (Article 3)
  • There are specific time limits for requests to other Member States to either take back or take charge of an asylum application (Chapter 4)

The UK government wants to replace the EU’s Dublin Regulation when the country leaves the EU, objecting to the time limits that it claims are “abused by migrants and their lawyers”.

What's the big picture effect?

There is a great deal of political pressure surrounding the issue of immigration in the UK. David Cameron and Theresa May both failed to meet their immigration targets. This frustration arguably helped the Vote Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum who promised to “take back control of our borders”.

A new record of migrant arrivals (235) for a single day on Thursday 6 August led 23 Conservative MPs to write to the Home Secretary Priti Patel arguing for a move away from the Dublin Regulation and the recent announcement of an inquiry by the Home Affairs Committee. Now, Johnson is gently addressing the issue which will determine to what extent he can deliver on his Brexit and manifesto promises. 

Working with the French government will be key to deterring migrants crossing the Channel. This has been happening for some time as is reflected in agreements (Treaty of Le Touquet) which allow both countries to carry out migrant checks before they attempt a Channel crossing. Any new asylum law making the deportation of migrants back to France easier would need to be accepted by the French government. Anglo-French cooperation has seen large migrant camps hoping such as the Jungle disappear. But now the problem is different: migrants are spread more widely and favour riskier means of transport run by criminal gangs. Their increase in numbers is also undeniable: over 4000 migrants have made the potentially fatal journey across the English Channel so far this year, up from 434 in 2018.

Ultimately, if migrants are determined to reach a certain destination, it can be very difficult to stop them. Solutions in the form of walls and naval deployments can only do so much. In some cases, anti-immigrant governments, such as the Italian government, have resorted to neglecting their duty of care owed to migrants under international law. The Italian politician Matteo Salvini, who spearheaded such a breach of the law last year, is now facing prosecution. It remains to be seen if the Conservatives’ plans will be effective. If not, then they will be forced to either swallow criticism from backbenchers and parts of the electorate or possibly even resort to more Italian-style action.

Report written by Will Holmes

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