Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

France and UK can stop deaths in Channel – but not by increasing border patrols

Stopping refugees from moving does not solve refugee migration. Here are the building blocks of a sustainable alternative

Lucy Mayblin
26 November 2021, 7.00am
Dover Harbour, September 2021
Peter Nicholls/Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The UK and French governments are facing a crisis at their mutual border which is of their own making. This is because stopping refugees from moving does not solve refugee migration.

Refugee migration is caused by events such as wars, and so in itself it cannot be solved by closing borders to refugees. The refugees still exist no matter how many doors slam shut to them. Imagining them away by keeping them out of your own country is therefore only ever a displacement strategy – never a sustainable solution.

Most people don’t actually get very far. A full 85% of the world’s refugees are in countries neighbouring the one they fled, so the burden of hosting them mainly falls on less wealthy countries. But some do travel further afield, and saying they are economic migrants or blocking their passage will not make them disappear. It will instead almost always lead to more deaths.

UK asylum applications have not increased significantly in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels (they plummeted during the pandemic). The reason we’ve been seeing an increase in small boat Channel crossings is because people are now choosing to try this risky route over other possible routes, such as stowing away in lorries. This is a common outcome. All over the world, research has consistently found that refugees seek alternative, more dangerous routes when safer options become blocked. They almost never just turn around, because they are almost always in desperate situations.

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Strict border controls therefore funnel people into the arms of smugglers. They create a business model for smugglers. And the outcome is a deadly spiral of increasingly dangerous routes, stricter border controls, and more deaths. The response of the UK government to Channel crossings is creating this death spiral. It can only lead to more people dying.

Strict border controls funnel people into the arms of smugglers.

So if refugee migration cannot be solved by border controls, what could stop people dying in the Channel? Here are five ideas to consider:

One: There are no solutions to refugee migration, apart from ending all wars, but there are more sustainable responses. Sustainable responses recognise that the issue is long term and complex, and cannot be solved today by giving the French Police more money or putting a wave machine in the Channel.

Two: The only sustainable responses are multilateral, there are no national solutions.

Three: Multilateral responses have to involve wealthy states accepting that refugees exist and agreeing to play a serious role in hosting them. Currently, wealthy countries’ main contribution is funding for the UNHCR to quarantine people in camps in their regions of origin, and spending billions every year on border fences, patrols, pushbacks, deportations, and detention centres. The UK hosts less than 1% of the world’s refugees. Developing sustainable multilateral responses would be a good way to start playing our part.

Four: Decision makers need to put human dignity at the heart of any answer to the question ‘how can we stop people risking their lives to cross the Channel?’ The answer then becomes focussed on securing people’s access to basic human rights: sanitary accommodation, access to healthcare, free legal advice, freedom from police harassment and brutality, securing access to family reunification, and so on.

Five: We need to recognise that there is no economic case for stopping refugees moving. Borders controls are hugely expensive. The UK Home Office is advertising £385 million worth of contracts for border controls in Calais next year alone. How might this money be spent if human dignity were put at the heart of a plan to develop sustainable responses?

What we have at the moment are two governments creating a crisis that they are then trying to be seen to solve. But they have no tools in their toolbox to solve this problem. Blaming smugglers (and sometimes accidentally confusing them with traffickers), blaming French border patrols, and ploughing more and more money into border controls will not stop refugee movement towards the UK. It will only either increase Channel crossings further or compel refugees to attempt something even more dangerous. And both scenarios will only lead to more people dying. What we need are serious proposals for ending the death spiral and developing responses which are sustainable in the long term.

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