At its peak in 2015, the European migrant crisis saw 1.3 million people requesting asylum in the EU. This increase was accompanied by a surge of deaths in the Mediterranean, as more migrants attempted the risky crossing to Southern Europe. Although the number of deaths in the Mediterranean has been steadily decreasing since then, the number of migrants dying in attempted traversals of another European waterway has since risen. The UK, which emerged from the crises of 2015 relatively unscathed, is now facing a critical migration challenge as asylum requests soar and deaths in the English channel multiply. Thus far, the UK and French governments have proved unable to cope with the crossings, and the situation risks developing into a further tragedy if preventative steps are not taken.
The UK was far less impacted than mainland Europe by the 2015 migrant crisis. In contrast to Germany, which received 442,000 applications for asylum, or Hungary, which received 174,000, the UK government recorded only 39,000 applications (Conner, 2016). This was due to several factors; nations such as Germany which maintained a publicly open stance on refugees were likely viewed more favorably by asylum-seekers, while Hungary, although unfriendly towards asylum seekers, was located on the primary migratory corridor for people entering Europe via the Aegean. The sheer geographic distances involved also made the UK a less likely destination for asylum seekers, most of whom started their journeys in the Middle East and Africa.
Since the peak of the crisis, the flow of asylum applications has eased, with first time EU applications numbering 535,000 in 2021. However, there are two key differences between the current asylum situation and that of 2015.
First, the distribution of countries receiving applications has changed. Although Germany has retained the number one spot, its uni-popularity is far below what it was in 2015. France is now the second most popular destination of asylum seekers, receiving 103,000 applications to Germany’s 148,000 (European Commission, 2022). This increase in applications comes as the administration of Emmanuel Macron faces pressure from the French far right and public to crack down on immigration. As a result, the acceptance rate for French asylum applications dropped to a record low of 22% in 2021 (European Council on Refugees and Exiles, 2022). Those whose applications are rejected have few choices. They face the prospect of deportation, staying illegally with few economic opportunities, or having another shot at the process in a neighboring country — usually the UK.
Second, the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU has had a sizable impact on the migration dynamics of the region. The UK can no longer use the Dublin Regulation – an EU agreement mandating that migrants must apply for asylum in the first European country they enter, and be sent to that country if found in another afterwards – to relocate asylum seekers to the first European country they set foot in. As a result, the number of asylum seekers removed from the UK has dropped sharply. While 56,000 people claimed asylum in the UK in 2021, only 2,761 were deported. Additionally, the UK asylum grant rate has reached a record high of 77% (Corban, 2022). The UK government and public are both displeased with the situation, as the UK is spending millions of pounds a day on migrant housing. The UK Home-Office has been working on alternatives, such as the Rwandan relocation plan, but removing migrants once they reach the UK has become unmistakably difficult.
These conditions have prompted a flood of migrants to attempt crossing the English Channel. The number of asylum-seekers traversing the waterway in the last three years has soared. In 2018, a mere 218 people crossed the Channel. By 2022, that number had risen to over 45,000 (BBC, 2022). Setting off in small boats provided by smugglers, migrants brave freezing temperatures and rough seas. The majority of migrants either succeed in the crossing or are picked up by the UK Border Force. Only a fraction are turned back to France.
Unfortunately, as crossings multiply, so does the potential for catastrophe. In November 2021, thirty-two people, including several children and a pregnant woman, drowned when their overcrowded dinghy sank. Disturbingly, it appeared that neither the British or French governments responded to the frantic calls from the vessel in time, hoping that their counterparts across the channel would handle it (Bunkall, 2022). Both blamed each other for the disaster. More than seventy deaths have been documented in the channel since 2020, and the actual numbers are likely higher (Missing Migrants Project, n.d.). This toll can be expected to rise as more and more migrants try to seek asylum in the UK. Short of a drastic change in the attractiveness of the UK to migrants, the pace of the arrivals will likely continue unabated.
The responses from the British and French governments have proved insufficient to tackle the crisis. The two partners are in confrontation on everything from fishing rights to the aftermath of the AUKUS submarine deal. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French president Emmanuel Macron had an especially tumultuous relationship, which led to French reluctance to work with the UK on the crisis. French cooperation is vital to stop crossings. The only way to prevent smugglers from sending people out to sea is patrolling the French coastline to detect boats before they set out. All of this must be done by the French, who in turn receive additional funding for these operations from the British government.
While relations have calmed since the ascent of Rishi Sunak to 10 Downing Street, they remain tense. The two governments recently signed a new deal to post more officers on the beaches of Calais, but to what extent this will curb the crisis is yet to be seen. Finding smugglers along dozens of miles of coastline is hard. The UK has stepped up its efforts in recent months, establishing a “National Small Boat Command Center” and devoting more resources to tackle the crisis, but it is far from inevitable that these investments will be effective long-term.
The present state of affairs in the English Channel is unsustainable, and has the potential to become much, much worse. Letting thousands of migrants continue to risk their lives crossing the Channel is unacceptable. What can be done? One solution is the adoption of a new strategy from the UK that utilizes the lessons learned from the Mediterranean migrant crisis. As migrant numbers soared and deaths multiplied, governments began working with Search-and-Rescue NGOs. The NGOs eventually became responsible for over 40% of migrant rescues in the Mediterranean, saving over 23,000 people at the peak of the crisis in 2015. These NGOs fit into the larger framework of governmental operations under the supervision of the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (Riebl, 2017). Working together under joint control, the Italian government and NGOs formed an effective force.
This effective public-private coordination can serve as a model for the response to the Channel crisis. The UK government is operating under dismal economic conditions and has no desire to further increase the payments to France or the Border Force budget. Shifting the operational framework to include NGOs would not only help save lives but would also do so at a decreased cost. The NGOs could be integrated into the newly established National Small Boat Command Center, where they would be able to work in close conjunction with the Border Force and respond to major incidents. Such an approach would minimize the chances of a mass casualty event and ensure that more migrants survive the dangerous journey.
While this approach will decrease deaths in the channel, steps are also needed to reduce overall migrant inflows. Improved rescue measures will likely result in an increase in the amount of migrants willing to attempt the journey as they know that they probably will be rescued and taken to the UK. As such, steps must be taken to minimize the flow of migrants before they set off from France. This will require heavy negotiations with the French government, negotiations which will likely result in a concession on one of the various issues dividing the two neighbors or a sizable monetary incentive. Ultimately, the UK must remember that a concession or payment will be far less costly in the long run than the upkeep and associated costs of tens of thousands of asylum seekers.
The crisis could hardly come at a worst time for the UK. It faces an economic recession and a strained relationship with France. There is no solution which will not require negotiation and sacrifice. But the potential for human tragedy requires steadfast determination. Disaster can and must be avoided; it is merely a question of will.
Alexander Peris is a student in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a deep passion for international affairs. He speaks Russian, is learning Mandarin, and hopes to serve his country as a diplomat. He is the founding president of his school’s chapter of the High School Foreign Service Association.