On August 21st, 2021, more than 800 migrants arrived on the English coast in makeshift boats. This is a new daily record, exceeding the number reported on August 12th, when 592 people arrived in one day. While the amount of asylum applications in the UK has decreased by 20% in 2021 compared to 2020, small boat crossings of the English Channel keep increasing. Indeed, only 539 arrivals were recorded in 2018, compared to 1,844 in 2019 and 8,400 in 2020[1]. The UK Home Office has released no official figures yet for 2021, but it would appear that 12,400 individuals have made the crossing since the beginning of this year, according to the British news agency PA[2].

However, this sea route is not secure at all. As most of the crossings are made at night, with very dense traffic in this area, there is a strong possibility that a ship will collide with a makeshift boat that is not very visible. These boats are totally unsuited to face the natural phenomena of the region such as currents and weather (strong winds, poor visibility, cold temperatures, especially at night, etc.).

They are also overloaded; the number of people on board greatly exceeds the number foreseen by the utilization standards. Finally, in addition to motorless small boats that are totally inadequate for the crossing, many boats encounter incidents such as breakdowns or leaks, which can be extremely dangerous if they are not equipped properly (with life jackets, distress signals, or means of communication with land) not to mention the lack of navigational knowledge of the “crew”[3].

Source: PA Media

In 2019-2020, at least a dozen migrants have died trying to cross the English Channel.  However, knowing the exact number of people who have lost their lives remains very complicated, as it is impossible to know if other accidents have occurred without being spotted or reported.

In addition to the danger of death, many migrants arrive on British soil hypothermic or injured (many cases of burns due to a mixture of saltwater and fuel leaking on board have been reported). In addition, the trauma of facing “imminent death” has important consequences on the mental health of migrants[4].

Finally, the risk of becoming a victim of human trafficking is high. A smuggling network was dismantled in October 2020. The price they had set for boarding a small boat was between 2,000 and 3,000 euros per person[5]. As the cost of the crossing is extremely high, people wishing to reach the UK go into debt and are exploited once they arrive to pay for their journey[6].

Thus, far from being safe, it seems that more and more migrants take the sea route to reach the UK. Loan Torondel, a social worker, outlines the possible causes of this increase in a recently published report[7]. First of all, the difficulty of using other routes has led many people to cross the Channel in makeshift boats.

Indeed, over the past 35 years, the UK and France have concluded more than twenty treaties and agreements on the surveillance and control of their border[8]. These include the Sangatte Protocol (1991), the Treaty from Le Touquet (2003), the Arrangement of 6 July 2009, and the Sandhurst Treaty (January 2018) – to name only a few -, all of which have contributed to the strengthening of controls and the restriction of access to the port, the tunnel and the parking areas for heavy goods vehicles making the crossing[9]. As a result, the price for the truck journey has risen so much (between 6,000 and 10,000 euros) that it is now cheaper to pay for a small boat[10].

France has banned the sale of inflatable dinghies from towns by the Channel to try to stop migrant crossings [Getty]

Some migrants have also argued that they are in a hurry to reach the UK as soon as possible, as they fear that with Brexit, the country will tighten its migration and border control policy. This has already been illustrated by the new immigration plan launched by Home Secretary Priti Patel, which she describes as “fair but firm” but which has been denounced by several NGOs defending human rights[11].

Other displaced persons explained that the living conditions in the refugee camps were becoming unbearable, with numerous expulsions from the area, and that this had led them to take additional risks in order to have better living conditions[12].

Last but not least, there are very few legal and safe passage routes. Thus, crossing the Channel illegally, whether by land or by sea, seems more accessible even if more risky and dangerous than having recourse to family reunification, especially following the Brexit, which removed the UK from its obligations from the Dublin regulation[13].

The question now is to think about possible solutions to avoid more fatal accidents during Channel crossings. In the short term, in order to reduce the risk, it would be necessary to provide basic maritime knowledge to people wishing to take this route, as the “Watch the Channel” NGO is already doing through the distribution of explanatory flyers. The importance of improving the care of people rescued at sea is also high, particularly when they are returned to France, where there are no adequate facilities to support them.

Torondel stresses the need for field research to better understand the profiles of those who make the crossing and why the UK is the “destination of choice” for so many migrants in order to find appropriate solutions[14].

Although the joint French-British strategy of deterrence through control and interception of migrants has had the effect of containing the extent of the phenomenon, it seems that there has been no systemic change in the number of people attempting to reach the UK by sea[15]. However, it has had a negative impact on their safety, making them more dependent on smugglers and pushing them to take more dangerous and risky routes. In order to improve the situation, the UK would need to soften its migration policies, particularly those relating to family reunification, so that the legal route is not so far out of reach for most displaced people.

Furthermore, the country should cooperate closely with the European Union on migration policy, but rather on a basis of solidarity, protection, and humanitarian law than on border control and security perspective. This could be done, for example, through “resettlement”, a solidarity mechanism between European countries, whereby a person seeking international protection is transferred to another state that has agreed to grant it to him/her.

One thing is certain: if nothing is done to improve the current situation, the incidents during channel crossings in small boats will only increase over time.


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