Opinion & Analysis

Small boats, big problems: Why the UK is struggling to ‘take back control’ of its borders

On 10 March, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron announced an agreement aimed at reducing illegal migration across the Channel. Joseph Downing writes that while the deal represented an improvement in UK-French relations, it is unlikely to produce a meaningful reduction in migrant crossings.

Much was made of the first Anglo-French summit since 2018 that took place in Paris in March. Relations between France and the UK reached rock bottom under Boris Johnson and his successor Liz Truss. Truss’s now infamous comment that the “jury is out” on whether French President Emmanuel Macron was a friend or foe shocked diplomats around the world because it demonstrated an unprecedented level of distrust between the two parties.

Yet, as Rishi Sunak and Macron smiled, embraced, and made declarations about “new beginnings” at the Anglo-French summit, it was easy to see a new, cooperative, and importantly for the anti-immigrant voices within British politics, effective relationship developing. However, all is not as it seems when it comes to immigration across the Channel and a range of local and global factors will make it extremely difficult for post-Brexit Britain to “take back control” of its borders in the short to medium term.

Failing to take back control

The first and most important factor in the small boats issue is the paradox of Britian’s new position outside of the EU when it comes to migration. The much-venerated promise of pro-Brexit politicians to “take back control” of immigration policy could only ever deliver when it came to stopping the freedom of movement of EU citizens. Brexit has delivered this, but at a high economic cost and without reducing overall migration. There has been a parallel increase in the numbers of migrants arriving from countries outside the EU such as Nigeria and from states with specific schemes in place such as Hong Kong and Ukraine.

However, in relation to asylum, leaving the EU has paradoxically reduced the ability of the UK to take back control of its borders. This has been dramatically demonstrated, and thus politicised, by the recent focus on Channel crossings. These have become controversial due to the idea that those arriving across the Channel are arriving from a safe country, France.

The fact that migrants often do not stay in the first EU country they arrive in has long posed a challenge for EU policymakers. The EU’s response was the Dublin Regulation, which states that asylum seekers must have their claims processed by the first Dublin country they arrive in. On exiting the EU, the UK ceased to be covered by this principle and thus paradoxically Brexit means the UK has lost an important lever of control. Importantly, Macron did not commit to resurrecting a similar arrangement at the Anglo-French summit and thus there will be no provision for the return of asylum seekers to the EU.

Ineffective countermeasures

Reading the triumphant nature of the joint statement issued, it would be easy to think this was the first such deal to be struck between the two countries on migration. This is far from the truth. Repeated attempts at bilateral arrangements to slow border crossings have been attempted over recent decades, with very little effect.

The landmark policy outcome from the summit was a British commitment to spend an extra £500 million over three years and construct a purpose-built migrant detention centre. However, it is unclear exactly what this will do to stop migration. Indeed, the new centre could instead become a destination point for those seeking to cross the Channel. While not analogous, the agreement brings to mind the infamous Sangatte Refugee Camp established by the French Red Cross in 1999 that was a source of tension between the two states until its closure in 2002.

Indeed, while Britain will fund the centre, it is unclear how much control they will have over its operation, and with little incentive on the French side to stop crossings, it is questionable whether any centre would be enough to satisfy British demands. The additional police officers and drones announced have a difficult task ahead of them, as other highly securitised borders like the US-Mexico border have become arenas for constantly evolving games of cat and mouse between migrants and authorities.

A fundamental lack of understanding

An important and neglected aspect of the broader discussion is the fundamental lack of understanding of the asylum context and what drives people to cross the Channel. For instance, between March 2021 and March 2022, 76% of asylum claims were accepted in the UK. Indeed, rates of acceptance have been on an upwards trajectory for some time: in 2004, only 12% of asylum applicants were accepted at the initial decision. Thus, while much attention has been given to ‘bogus’ asylum claims, there are many genuine refugees that reach British shores and warrant protection under international law.

The UK is seen as a more desirable destination for starting a new life for several reasons. While some have argued that the UK’s ‘generous’ welfare provision is a driver of asylum applications, during my fieldwork in France this was never mentioned to me. One factor in some cases was the existence of family connections to the UK. An additional perception that was repeatedly expressed to me was that the UK was less racist and more economically open to new arrivals than other EU member states.

Whether this perception is a reality is to a large extent irrelevant. What is clear is that the first step in tackling problems associated with small boats crossing the Channel is to better understand why people make these journeys in the first place. In the absence of this understanding, it seems highly unlikely that policy initiatives such as the UK’s deal with France will meaningfully stop migration flows.

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