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Why are migrants in small boats a hot issue in the UK?


LONDON — The message to asylum seekers from UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman was clear: “If you enter Britain illegally, you will be detained and quickly deported.

The government hopes this decisive – and divisive – measure will prevent tens of thousands of migrants from reaching Britain by boat across the English Channel.

Behind the harsh rhetoric, however, lie a host of legal, practical and ethical issues. Condemned by rights groups and questioned by legal experts, the Illegal Migration Bill is the latest in a long line of efforts by the UK government to control unauthorized migration.


The problem is neither new nor unique to the UK. War, famine, poverty and political repression have displaced millions around the world. Britain receives fewer asylum seekers than European nations, including Italy, Germany and France.

But for decades, thousands of migrants have traveled to northern France every year in the hope of reaching the UK. Many are attracted by family ties, the English language or the belief that it is easy to find work in the UK.

After the Eurotunnel linking France and England under the English Channel opened in 1994, refugees and migrants gathered near the French end in the hope of hiding in vehicles. They gathered in overcrowded makeshift camps, including a sprawling and violent colony dubbed “The Jungle.”

Neither the repeated sweeps to close the camps nor the intensification of security patrols have stopped the flow of people.


When the COVID-19 pandemic brought travel by train, plane and boat to a virtual halt and disrupted the transport of goods in 2020, smugglers began putting migrants in dinghies and other small boats.

In 2018, only 300 people reached Britain this way. The number increased to 8,500 in 2020, 28,000 in 2021 and 45,000 in 2022.

Dozens of people have died in the freezing channel, including 27 people in a single shipwreck in November 2021.

Groups of migrants arrive almost daily on beaches or in lifeboats along the south coast of England, making the issue of asylum the news and the political agenda.


The UK government says many of those making the journey are economic migrants rather than refugees, and points to an increase last year in arrivals from Albania, a European country the UK considers safe.

Last year, the other main countries of origin were Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Of those whose applications have been processed, a large majority have been granted asylum in the UK


The British Conservative Party, in power since 2010, has put in place a series of measures to deter Channel crossings.

The UK has struck a series of deals with France to increase beach patrols and share intelligence in a bid to disrupt smuggling gangs – all of which have had only a limited impact.

Britain last year announced a deal with Rwanda to send migrants arriving by boat one way to the East African country, where their asylum claims would be heard and, if of success, they would stay. The policy has been condemned by human rights groups and is mired in legal challenges. No one has yet been sent to Rwanda.

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 prohibited people from seeking asylum in Britain if they had passed through a safe country such as France. But in practice, people fleeing war and persecution cannot be sent home, and no country – other than Rwanda and Albania – has agreed to take in people deported.

This week, Britain unveiled the Illegal Migration Bill, its toughest measure yet, which calls for people arriving via unauthorized routes to be detained, deported to their countries of origin or “ a safe third country’ and prohibited from returning to the UK.


The UN refugee agency says the bill amounts to an “asylum ban” and is a clear breach of the UN refugee convention. The UK government acknowledges the bill could breach Britain’s international human rights commitments and says it expects legal challenges.

Sunder Katwala, head of identity and immigration think tank British Future, said in a blog post that “the pledge to detain and deport everyone who crosses the Channel has no chance of lasting. ‘to be honored over the next two years’.

The UK government says the country’s asylum system has been “overwhelmed” by the arrivals of small boats. Braverman, who called the arrivals an “invasion,” said Tuesday that “the law-abiding patriotic majority said enough is enough.”

His words have been criticized as inflammatory. BBC football pundit Gary Lineker drew a mix of praise and criticism for saying some government terms were “no different to those used by Germany in the 1930s”.

Critics say the asylum system creaks because heavy bureaucracy, exacerbated by the pandemic, has created a large backlog of applications.


The government has pledged to push the bill through, saying the British public wants to see strong action. “Stopping the boats is not just my priority, it’s the people’s priority,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Wednesday.

Evidence suggests that public opinion is mixed. The desire to control immigration was a driving factor in the UK’s vote in 2016 to withdraw from the European Union. But overall immigration rose, rather than fell, after Brexit, hitting a record high of more than 500,000 in the year to June 2022. Britain also took in record numbers of refugees the last year, including 160,000 from Ukraine and 150,000 from Hong Kong.

At the same time, polls suggest that immigration is no longer a major issue for many voters. Jonathan Portes, senior researcher at the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, said there had been “a sustained shift towards more positive attitudes towards migration” since Brexit.

As for asylum seekers, he said the British want the country to be “relatively generous towards genuine refugees. But how this is defined is highly contested. ___

Follow AP’s coverage of global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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