Migrant Crisis: Why are people crossing the English Channel? Is it illegal? What are the UK and France doing about it?

People are risking their lives to cross the English Channel in migrant boats. Here’s why.

An inflatable craft carrying migrant men, women and children across the English Channel (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Yesterday at least 27 people died after a boat sank while attempting to cross the English Channel from France.

Among those who drowned were three children, seven women – including a pregnant woman – and 17 men, in what has been named the biggest loss of life in the Channel since records began.

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The tragedy has sparked an outpouring of concern and anger about the issue.

Protesters demonstrate against the British Government's policy on immigration and border controls outside of the Home Office in London (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

But why are people risking their lives to make this dangerous journey?

Why are people crossing the English Channel from France in migrant boats?

So far in 2021, 25,700 people have made the perilous journey across the busiest shipping lane in the world.

There are many factors driving this. Some are fleeing war-torn countries like Afghanistan. Others face persecution in their home country.

Ninety-eight per cent of those who successfully cross the Channel to the UK claim asylum here.

The Refugee Council said: “Behind every single person that needlessly lost their life last night will be a person who was looking for safety, for protection and who had hope of a new life that now will never be realised.”

Why don’t migrants and refugees stay in France?

Some people argue migrants wanting to get to the UK should simply stay in France, another safe country.

But the issue is far more complicated than that, and there and many reasons why people want to travel on to the UK.

First of all, the conditions for many refugees in France are not safe. The European Court of Human Rights has condemned France for “inhumane and degrading living conditions” of homeless asylum seekers.

Secondly, those who are trying to seek asylum here in the UK often have ties to the country. For example, they may have served with our military, have family members who live here, or speak the language (rather than being able to speak French).

Due to our colonial history and our more recent intervention in conflicts around the world, many argue the UK has a responsibility to do its part and take in refugees.

There are more than 26.2 million refugees around the world, according to the Refugee Council. Though refugees do not have to claim asylum in the first ‘safe’ country they reach, 85 per cent of the world’s refugees are in developing countries.

Here in the UK, we received 25,903 asylum applications in the year leading up to March 2021 – a small percentage of the global refugee number.

The UK also took less than other European countries of similar wealth – over the same period Germany had 122,015 applicants, and France had 93,475.

Is it illegal for migrants to cross the English Channel?

There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker, and it is not illegal to enter the UK to claim asylum.

Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country.

The UN Refugee Convention also recognises people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means to escape and claim asylum in another country, and they cannot be penalised for doing so.

It is also a requirement under International Maritime Law for states to rescue people in trouble at sea.

What is illegal is people smuggling – four suspected traffickers have been arrested following the incident on Wednesday.

What are the UK and French Governments doing about Channel crossings?

Home Secretary Priti Patel has put forward a Nationality and Borders Bill which aims to make Channel crossings “unviable”.

Among the proposals, it would consider whether someone arrived in the UK “legally or illegally” when deciding whether to grant them asylum. It will also consider “pushing” boats back to France.

The United Nations Refugee Agency has criticised the proposed bill, saying it “would penalise most refugees seeking asylum in the country, creating an asylum model that undermines established international refugee protection rules”.

And the UK Government’s own assessment of the proposed policies admitted there is a risk that increased security and deterrence could encourage migrants to “attempt riskier means” of entering the UK.

Instead, humanitarian groups like Amnesty International and the Refugee Council have called for the UK to provide safe and legal routes for migrants to travel to the UK.

But, following Wednesday’s tragedy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for British police patrols along the French coast.

The French have rejected this idea, with Calais MP Pierre-Henri Dumont saying it “wouldn't work”.

He said: “I'm not sure that having more police officers or more materials on the French shore will help to stop these crossings because we have 200 or 300 kilometres of shore to monitor 24/7.

"It only takes five to 10 minutes to take a boat and put it at sea filled with migrants.”

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