Turning migrants back a sign of weakness in post-Brexit UK
For many of those in the UK who voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, controlling immigration ranked highest in determining their choice. “Enough,” they would say, claiming that there were too many European migrants and non-integrated foreigners in the country (the newly arrived Afghans could be among those, of course, in addition to Iraqis, Somalis, Yemenis and, recently, Syrians).
Brexit was supposed to draw the curtain on this age-old problem, but clearly not, as the country now seems to be on the brink of breaking international maritime law in an attempt to prevent migrants from reaching its shores. This will impact the “Global Britain” brand that this populist, right-wing Conservative government is trying to promote domestically and internationally.
More than 14,000 people have crossed the English Channel to British shores in small boats so far this year, which is 6,000 more than in the whole of 2020, according to the Press Association. A record 828 people crossed from France on a single day in late August, as traffickers took advantage of the favorable late summer weather.
Though French police try to intercept migrants before they set off on their journey toward the English coast, controlling a 700 km-long coastline is not easy, despite French-British cooperation and funds made available by London to increase French patrols and manpower in the area.
The French maritime authorities also have a policy of not intercepting or turning back migrant boats unless they are at risk or ask for help, and usually they get escorted to British waters as per their wishes, not back to France. That angers pro-Brexit government officials like Home Secretary Priti Patel, who accuses the French of taking British money and shirking their responsibility to stem the flow of people willing to cross to the UK at any price.
France has rejected the latest proposed solution, sanctioned by Patel, to send migrants back where they came from — usually to camps in the Calais area, where many refugees congregate as they await the chance to cross the Channel.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin was dismayed by Patel’s plan to break international law, while also stressing that his country would not succumb to London’s financial blackmail. This came after Patel had alluded to her party’s MPs that she would suspend payments to France to step up its police patrols unless there was an increase in the number of migrants intercepted.
To be fair, the problem of human trafficking — with traffickers or criminal gangs helping migrants stow away in trucks or trains from the continent to the UK’s shores — has been an issue for the past three decades, and has been used for electioneering purposes by all political parties.
To me, the problem is clearly not with the migrants’ arrivals or in turning them back, but a broken immigration system that is failing despite numerous reforms. The system needs to meet the country’s ambition of attracting the best talents and economic assets, while still showing the compassionate side of a tolerant and multicultural UK.
Many believe that the war of words with France on migrants crossing the Channel is unlikely to worsen an already lukewarm relationship between post-Brexit UK and the EU generally and France specifically
Many believe that the war of words with France on migrants crossing the Channel is unlikely to worsen an already lukewarm relationship between post-Brexit UK and the EU generally and France specifically. Look, for example, at the so-called fishing rights protests, the vaccine nationalism saga, and Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol and London’s maneuverings to free itself of certain clauses, even if it means breaking international law.
Or maybe Patel hoped that her threats would magically deter Syrians, Somalis, Sudanese, Iraqis, Iranians and even Afghans from making the perilous journey across the globe to reach British shores out of fear of being sent back to French waters by Border Force vessels.
Unfortunately, migration, which is part of human nature, will not suddenly become less attractive. People have roamed the planet for millions of years in search of shelter, food or to escape natural disasters or, in today’s world, persecution and conflict.
Thousands wait for years in Calais after spending months, if not years, moving between countries in the Middle East or North Africa seeking the chance to cross the Mediterranean or Eastern Europe en route to countries such as the UK.
Patel must ask herself why so many want to reach the UK. Is it due to the country’s lenient immigration and asylum laws? Is it due to Britain’s post-Brexit employment opportunities? Or is it due to the country’s generous health, education and social security systems? I would say maybe all of the above.
Many companies in the UK today are complaining about a shortage of truck drivers, which has disrupted the supply of vital daily supplies to supermarkets and shops across the country. Previously, there was a shortage of bar and restaurant staff, and before that a lack of seasonal harvest workers, perhaps due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Amid Brexit, there was even a shortage of nurses and doctors at the height of the pandemic. This list is indicative of a country under pressure not just from a dysfunctional migration or immigration management system, but perhaps a bigger problem of failing to conceive policies that best meet the country’s supply and demand needs, economic growth, and the Global Britain image it wishes to promote to the world. This is an image that will be dented by a lack of empathy and compassion regardless of Brexit, the weakening democratic and liberal values in the Western world, the further erosion of the rule of law and a lack of stability in many places abroad and maybe at home too.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.