Following the deaths of 27 asylum seekers seeking to reach the United Kingdom in the Channel this week, the UK government has again sought to deflect responsibility onto France for allowing them to make such a perilous crossing. This has led to yet another unseemly war of words between the UK and France, on top of the disputes that were already under way in relation to fishing rights and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
I do not intend to rehearse what has been said on both sides. However, the French government’s official spokesperson, Gabriel Attal, yesterday put forward a very constructive suggestion. He said: “What we need is for the British to send immigration officers to France to examine here, on French territory, demands for asylum in Britain.”
Gabriel Attal’s suggestion reminded me of a post I put on this site over six years ago, in July 2015. The title of that post was ‘The Migrant Crisis: The UK Is Trying to Have Its Cake and Eat it Too’. I wrote it following the deaths of asylum seekers seeking to reach the UK from camps along the French coast near Calais. I referred to the then UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s unfeeling description of asylum seekers crossing from Calais as ‘a swarm’; our current Prime Minister Boris Johnson and our Home Secretary do not use such emotive language, but it appears they fully share David Cameron’s disdain for asylum seekers. Our government’s view is that no-one should need to seek asylum in the UK, because they must reach us through other countries where they could claim asylum instead. We are also an island and by definition should be able to prevent asylum seekers from entering. It must be admitted as well that a significant proportion of the British population share these views.
I recommended in my 2015 post that we needed an EU wide solution to asylum claims, with claims being examined in the countries in which individuals first arrived by immigration officers from all EU countries. Here is an excerpt from that post:
“The migrant crisis is one of those issues that cries out for an EU wide solution. It is only by working together that the UK and other EU countries will be able to create a lasting solution to this crisis. The solution will have to comprise the following key elements:
- a co-ordinated system for processing claims by asylum seekers, which would allocate successful claims proportionately across the EU;
- the return of unsuccessful asylum seekers and economic migrants to their home countries;
- targeted support for countries from which migrants are fleeing, to help them develop their economies so that would be economic migrants are not tempted to leave.
Asylum claims should all be dealt with quickly in the countries in which migrants arrive, with immigration officers from all EU countries processing the claims. Unsuccessful claimants and economic migrants should also be returned quickly to their home countries. If these processes are implemented, I believe that the number of migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean would fall significantly, as economic migrants would realise that they would very likely be returned to their home countries and be much less likely to set out for Europe in the first place.“
I wrote the above post before the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016. The irony for the UK is that now we have the EU, we have far less influence over the policies of other EU member countries than we had before, but we need their cooperation in dealing with asylum claims as much as we ever did. The ‘disinvitation’ of Priti Patel from a meeting of EU ministers in Brussels this weekend underlines the fact that France can, if it chooses, just sit back and allow asylum seekers to take to boats and cross over to the UK. They have absolutely no obligation to help us.
Solving this problem will be enormously difficult. Gabriel Attal’s suggestion (and my own in 2015) that the cases of asylum seekers should be examined in the countries where they arrive assume that such examinations can be carried out quickly. But it typically takes years in the UK to deal with an asylum seeker’s claim. The process needs to be drastically streamlined. And there will have to be deep and lasting cooperation between the UK and its former EU partners to devise and implement a long term plan that enables asylum seekers with valid claims to asylum to be granted the asylum status to which they are entitled under international law.
Otherwise people will continue to die in the English Channel to our continuing shame as a supposedly civilised country.
Michael Ingle – firstname.lastname@example.org