Rise in migrants crossing Channel ‘blown out of proportion’, campaigners say

Immigration lawyers and charities said the spike in predominantly Iranian nationals reaching UK shores by boat was not unheard of or unprecedented amid a continuous flow of people reaching Britain illegally

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 30 December 2018 17:01
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Group of migrants from Syria and Iran rescued from English Channel before being treated for hypothermia

The recent rise in migrants crossing the Channel illegally on small boats is being “blown out of proportion” as the numbers arriving constitute a “tiny proportion” of people coming to Britain to seek asylum, lawyers and campaigners have warned.

The Home Office has declared a recent surge in clandestine arrivals on dinghies, which has seen more than 220 people cross from France to the UK since November, to be a “major incident” and national media outlets have devoted lengthy coverage to the “crisis”.

The recent arrivals included six men, all Iranian nationals, who were found on a beach at Kingsdown in Kent on Sunday morning, while a further 12 men were intercepted in two separate boats off the Kent coast on Friday morning.

But immigration lawyers and charities said that while there had been a spike in predominantly Iranian nationals reaching British shores by boat, this was “not unheard of or unprecedented” amid a continuous flow of people reaching Britain illegally.

Government figures show there were an estimated 1,832 clandestine entrants – including people arriving on small boats as well as in ferries and in the back of lorries – to UK south coast ports in 2017/18. This marked a decrease of 23 per cent on the year before when it stood at 2,366.

The number of asylum seekers applying for sanctuary in the UK was meanwhile just under 28,000 last year – down from 34,000 at the height of the migrant crisis in 2016.

Meanwhile, 16,600 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea from north Africa and Turkey in the first three months of 2018. There are currently around 69,300 displaced people in Greece, many of whom are living in overcrowded camps.

Leading immigration and asylum barrister Colin Yeo said accused UK politicians of “ramping up” the issue of migrants crossing the Channel, saying: “The numbers seem pretty low – there have been plenty of arrivals previously. It’s not exactly a new thing.

“It’s dangerous for the refugees concerned – I don’t want to downplay that, but this isn’t a major incident when it comes down to it. It’s been turned into a big news story when there’s really not that much to see here.”

Mr Yeo added: “Over the past 20 years, you see politicians thinking that they’ve got to talk tough on immigration in order to assuage public concern. But what they actually do by ramping up the rhetoric is create and feed public concern, and it then gets out of their control and there is nothing that they can do at that point to meet the demands they’ve created.”

Maddy Allen, field manager for Calais-based charity Help Refugees, said the “invasion rhetoric” behind the rise in migrants crossing the Channel was diverting attention from a “crisis” in Britain’s asylum system affecting “hundreds and thousands of people” – of which those making desperate journeys by boat constitute a “tiny proportion”.

She added: “A lot of people have crossed on boats in recent months and there’s been a spike in the Iranian population doing this, but this is not unheard of, it’s not unprecedented in any way, and people are continuing to cross in the ways that they have done previously, on lorries and through other forms of getting to the UK.

“It seems this is a very specific route that’s opened up, but it’s not a scale that requires being declared as an emergency or a crisis in this way. We have to keep some kind of scale of proportion on what’s happening, because the numbers in northern France are relatively small.”

Ms Allen said that while she was concerned about the safety of those attempting the dangerous crossings, this was nothing particularly new and there had not detected any dramatic spike in the number of displaced people sleeping rough in northern France.

“It’s frustrating that we deal with this day-in-day-out. For us it’s kind of business as usual. There’s no crisis happening – people are getting across and they always have. But all these images of border force in the Channel is putting a different and unnecessary spin on the situation,” she said.

“The migration human flow on the move is huge across the globe, and in Europe a tiny, tiny percentage of these people are in northern France. It gets blown out of proportion in this kind of situation, and you end up with a news agenda that’s incredibly imbalanced.”

It comes after the UN accused tech companies of failing to crack down on people-smugglers using their platforms to lure migrants “to their deaths” with promise of safe passage to Europe.

A spokesperson for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) told The Independent social networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp were “enabling criminal activity” by traffickers who entrap victims who are unaware of the dangers they face.

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