Boris Johnson’s Government Struggles to Stop Migration across the English Channel

Migrants are brought to Dover harbor by Border Force in Dover, England, August 12, 2020. (Matthew Childs/Reuters)
Despite the British public’s appetite for tighter borders, addressing the problem has proven difficult.

According to the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person who has “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” in his home country.

When one thinks of countries where such fears are common, North Korea, China, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Laos, Ethiopia, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Libya, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia might come to mind. France almost certainly would not, yet each year, several thousand migrants flee from there across the 20-mile English Channel in dinghies, seeking asylum in Britain.

This has become a hot-button political issue in the U.K. The British public has expressed a desire for more tightly controlled borders in direct polling on the question, and such sentiment played a key part in the vote to leave the European Union. A YouGov survey carried out last Tuesday found that 27 percent of Britons have “no sympathy at all” and 22 percent of them have “not much sympathy” for the migrants who travel across the Channel.

There is real appetite for swift and decisive government action. Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the journey these migrants make not only unnecessary but “stupid,” “dangerous,” and “criminal.” Johnson is right that the people who benefit most from the migration are people smugglers, who charge thousands of dollars for passage in often-unseaworthy vessels. He wants to put a stop to it, as does his home secretary, Priti Patel.

Unfortunately, there are two major obstacles standing in their way. First, without the cooperation of France, it is difficult to stop migrants from sailing to Britain. Second, without major changes to the U.K.’s immigration laws, it is even more difficult to send them back.

Both problems are complicated by Brexit. Indeed, much to Remainers’ delight, leaving the European Union might actually make it more difficult for Britain to deal with the problem in the short term. While Britain was part of the European bloc, asylum seekers who crossed the Channel could be sent back to their first country of entry under the Dublin Convention. Now, having left the EU, Britain will have to adapt its legal system as well as its immigration policy. In this regard, the Conservative immigration minister, Chris Philip, seems hopeful. He has promised a “new comprehensive action plan” and reassured the public that both Britain and France have “renewed and reaffirmed their absolute commitment to make sure this border is properly policed and this route is completely ended.” But he has yet to make the specific details of his master plan clear.

The rights of migrants once they arrive on British soil are not insignificant. Lily Parrott, a lawyer representing migrants who come from France, has said that “whether the government likes it or not, under British and international law people are allowed to migrate for the purpose of seeking asylum — even if it means they have to use ‘irregular’ routes.” Johnson has said he intends to correct “the panoply of laws that an illegal immigrant has at his or her disposal that allow them to stay here.” No one should envy him that task.