To Nigel Farage it is an "invasion". The UK Government has deployed military. Once again, migrant crossings of the English Channel are in the news. Indeed, both Farage's self-parodying outburst and the Government's attempt at a tough response are themselves designed to present a news-worthy narrative.
I think that when any modern democratic and relatively wealthy nation feels that the solution to the arrival of rubber dinghies requires a military response it should give us pause for thought.
The UK response is to treat the matter as an enforcement issue but to take this simplistic approach fails to understand the motivations of those making the crossing and as a result inhibits the development of long-term policy solutions.
It must also be acknowledged that this is by no means solely a matter for British policy makers. When one reaches a predicament in which people are risking their lives and spending thousands of pounds on crossing the world's busiest shipping lane to get from affluent, democratic and peaceful France to arrive in affluent, democratic and peaceful Britain, there is a fundamental collective policy failure across Europe.
To develop policy solutions, we must first appreciate that there is a logic which we can comprehend as to why the journey is being made. At the heart of this is the often over-looked issue that the principles of asylum and economic migration, while distinct, are not mutually exclusive. This nuance does not easily fit within the narrative of either those who advocate for refugee rights or those who seek to limit immigration, but it is important to understand.
Before I go any further on that point, I'd like to reflect on the instinctive human nature that underpins migration. It is to put oneself and one's family in a better position. It is why my ancestors, along with thousands of others, moved to South Wales during the industrial revolution. Today, it is why cities with high quality, well paid employment such as Cambridge and Bristol are growing so rapidly. The decision of my ancestors to move to South Wales was economic migration, albeit from within the UK. Economic migration is a natural instinct of humankind.
With that in mind, let us consider the journey of a migrant who may eventually be seeking to cross the Channel. Their journey begins by fleeing a hostile regime or conflict. This will have involved a dangerous covert journey initially within a nation which is likely to be far larger than the UK and then across borders into potentially further danger. It is quite possible that even at this stage there is a payment made to a people smuggler as it is the only way to get past border security if the individual is being persecuted by their state. Neighbouring nations may be no more friendly or themselves have ongoing conflict. This level of risk could be experienced repeatedly before the person makes it to the Mediterranean Sea. The crossing to Europe is itself is incredibly dangerous. This journey to date has been about finding safety, sanctuary and the ability to rebuild one's life. It is the portion of the journey which is motivated by the need to seek asylum.
There is no legal obligation on someone who is seeking asylum to do so in the first safe country in which they arrive. What is sometimes conflated to suggest this is the case is the Dublin Regulation which allows that if a migrant is fingerprinted and added to the database of one country and then seeks to relocate to another, there is scope for them to be returned to the first nation. While there have been iterations of the Dublin Regulations to gradually reduce the onus on the first EU country reached, often Greece, Italy or Malta, there is still an expectation that the nation which first receives migrants into the EU will be their long-term host. Accepting asylum seekers can be economically advantageous to a country in the long run but politically tends to be unpopular in the short-term. Thus, there is little incentive for governments of the reception nations to put too much effort into registering migrants. To break it down to a very simplified analogy, if you board a train at a station without a ticket office / machine and you know the station you are going to doesn't have ticket barriers, do you pro-actively seek out the 'Train Manager' to buy a ticket or do you wait to see if anyone comes around.
Why then might someone who had a legitimate claim to asylum not simply stop in the first EU nation they reach and why in particular might they try and make it to Britain? The reasons could be many but let us look at a few simple examples:
- They may well have better English language skills than Greek or Italian and thus be drawn to the UK and Ireland
- They may have family settled in Britain and want to rejoin them
- Even if there is not a direct family tie, if there is an existing community from their homeland this would be an understandable draw
- The process of rebuilding one's life is likely to benefit from living in a country with a strong economy and well established rule of law