Why do asylum seekers cross the English Channel? Is it illegal? Priti Patel announces plans to send people to Rwanda

The UK Government has announced plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. But why do people try and cross the English Channel?

In the wake of Boris Johnson being fined over partygate, the UK Government announced plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The deal would mean single men who arrive in Kent on small boats could be flown 4,000 miles on a one-way ticket to Rwanda while their case is considered.

It would “deal a major blow” to people smugglers, according to Home Secretary Priti Patel, but the plans have been criticised as inhumane and even racist.

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

Nicola Sturgeon condemned the scheme as “despicable" and “shameful”, while the Scottish Refugee Council said it would “breach international law”.

It comes after at least 27 people died in November 2021 when 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.

But why do people risk their lives to make this dangerous journey?

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)

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

In 2021, at least 28,000 people attempted the perilous journey across the busiest shipping lane in the world. And so far in 2022, more than 4,000 people are reported to have attempted it.

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 says: “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 more complicated than that, and there are many reasons why people want to travel on to the UK.

First of all, the European Court of Human Rights has previously 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.

Due to our colonial history and our more recent intervention in conflicts around the globe, 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.

The UK received 48,540 asylum applications in 2021, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

By comparison, Germany received 127,730 applications in the same period and France received 96,510.

Is it illegal for asylum seekers 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 were arrested following the incident back in November.

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.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously 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.”

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.