The Conversation

I’ve been watching desperate people seek protection in Europe for 20 years – it’s time the narrative, and policies, changed

Despite the exceptional circumstances of 2020, it is just like any other year in one way. Like clockwork, just as summer arrives, we are bombarded with stories of the “migrant invasion”. This year the pictures are of people crossing the channel in flimsy boats. Priti Patel, the UK’s home secretary, has appointed a Clandestine Channel Threat Commander to reduce the number of people crossing. Something, she tells us, must be done.

We’ve been here before. Many times.

The summer of 2015 was marked by an endless stream of images of small boats making the perilous crossing across the Mediterranean. More than a million people were fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and elsewhere. They were often depicted as “chancers”, “cheats” and would-be “terrorists”. There was a flurry of compassion when the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi was washed up on a Turkish beach, but it was short lived.

In the summer of 2016 the focus shifted to the “The Jungle” – a makeshift camp close to Calais where residents were living in dire conditions. Utterly frustrated by their inability to secure protection in France, they hid in the backs of lorries or under trains in an effort to cross the Channel. Theresa May, then home secretary, promised to invest in fencing, CCTV, flood lighting and infrared detection technology to secure the port.

A new “control and command centre” was set up to “relentlessly pursue” people-smuggling gangs. An extra 500 police were deployed with sniffer dogs to hunt down those described by then British prime minister David Cameron as a “swarm” trying to “break into” the UK illegally.

Why history matters

Even then, the summertime scare stories were nothing new. It was the summer of 2002, shortly after I started working at the UK Home Office, that the annual ritual of the “migrant invasion” first began.

Sitting at my desk, I was handed a stapled bundle of photocopied newspaper clippings. The stories were almost exclusively about Sangatte, a Red Cross centre close to Calais that had attracted the attention of the British media over the slow news days that summer. Then, as now, images of people trying to cross the channel were accompanied by headlines implying invasion. Ministers were called away from their holidays to discuss the “crisis”. It was clear that most of those at Sangatte were fleeing conflict and persecution. Quietly, and without too much fuss, around 2,000 refugees – mostly Afghans and Iraqi Kurds – were brought to the UK and given work permits and a chance to rebuild their lives.

The centre at Sangatte was eventually dismantled and the news moved on. Meanwhile those who weren’t allowed to enter the UK relocated to a makeshift camp in the woods near an industrial area that was known as “The Jungle”. The rest, as they say, is history.

Nearly 20 years later here we are again, only now the narrative has hardened further still. There is no pragmatic policymaking or acknowledgement that many of those crossing the Channel in search of protection come from countries in which there is well-documented conflict and human rights abuse. There is no admission that it is actually impossible for anyone to legally enter the UK in order to claim asylum, as is their right under international law. No acknowledgement that people are not obligated under international law to claim asylum in the first country they arrive in. This policy has been developed primarily by the EU to prevent so-called “asylum shopping” and, ultimately, to keep people out of the wealthier countries of northern Europe that are harder to reach.

What’s more, there is virtually no recognition of the extensive body of research what drives migrants to make the choices they do – including research commissioned by the Home Office when I worked there.

This research has repeatedly shown that only a very small proportion of the millions of people displaced globally claim asylum in Europe, far fewer still in the UK. An estimated 85% move to countries in the Global South because they lack the resources, social connections or inclination to travel further afield.

Those who travel to Europe often do so because of connections with friends or family members who can help them to rebuild their lives, because they speak a specific language or because of an opportunity – or necessity – that arose during the journey. Without understanding all this, migration policies cannot be effective.

It’s clear that while people need to be safe, this is not, in and of itself, sufficient. People also need hope and the possibility of a life beyond misery and destitution. Having travelled so far and lost so much, it is hope that drives them forward. After all, they have nothing else to lose.

Access to protection

Until everyone has the same access to protection, people will continue to risk everything for this hope of a better future. Poorer people in particular are less able to access opportunities for protection – and their chances are getting slimmer every year.

Even those who are able to travel find that decisions about their future will be determined not only by their personal experiences but by their nationality and the country in which their claim for protection is made. Asylum seekers continue to face a lottery in Europe, with the chances of securing protection varying dramatically from one country to another – even for those coming from the same country. For example, 94.2% of Iraqis claiming asylum in Italy in 2018 were recognised as refugees compared with 26% in Sweden and 12% in Bulgaria. Hardly surprising, then, that those refused protection in one country are willing to take their chances elsewhere.

Buying fencing, CCTV and infrared detection technology or sending boats into the Channel to intercept desperate people does absolutely nothing to address these issues. If, as we keep being told, there is a “migrant invasion” then we need to find better ways to win the war.

Heaven Crawley receives funding from UKRI