By Alex Meredith – Regular Contributor
The UK is slowly beginning to emerge from the coronavirus lockdown, but one key area in which little to no attention has been demonstrated towards is the familiar, yet shifting nature, of migrant crossings across the English Channel from Calais to Dover. Migration has remained a heavily controversial topic in British politics, with mainstream political discussion remaining sensitive and somewhat limited. Despite the impact of coronavirus on EU negotiations and the unwillingness of the UK government to back down on its initial terms, as the Brexit transition deadline approaches, the nature of migrant crossings and how the UK government is handling it requires a greater array of attention and awareness.
The so called ‘soft touch Britain’ and its recent development
Describing the UKs immigration policy as ‘soft touch’ was a referral frequently used by former nationalist and far-right political parties, most prominently the British National Party (BNP). Although it was later banned by the BBC, the BNP’s 2014 European election broadcast used a cartoon image of multiple groups of people arriving at the white cliffs of Dover with ‘Soft touch Britain’ written on the cliffs. Mainstream political figures, including Nigel Farage, were pictured handing migrant’s paperwork giving them their right to permanently remain in the UK.
‘Soft touch Britain’ was meant to symbolise how Britain is viewed by many overseas, especially in developing countries. A welcoming, opening and inclusive country that is easy to access, and one in which treats its new arrivals with various luxuries, including money, housing, school places and various other benefits. The BNP’s campaign initially gave them various successes in regional and national elections, most prominently the 2009 European elections that saw them win two seats, and success in councils particularly across much of East London and in the north of England. However, having failed to win a single seat in the 2010 general and 2014 European elections, the rise of UKIP fed into increased Euroscepticism and concerns around migration. UKIP’s stance was that Britain, as member of the European Union, was unable to control its own borders, fully bounded by the freedom of movement laws in which membership of the Union entails. In the run up to the 2016 EU referendum, more than a million refugees and migrants fled to Europe and enabled those on the leave side of the argument to capitalise on this issue and exploit the further failures of the EU in being able to sufficiently deal with and control immigration. The controversial ‘Breaking Point’ poster, depicting a large group of Middle Eastern refugees with the caption ‘the EU has failed us all’, demonstrated UKIP’s agenda. Nigel Farage, who commissioned and starred on the poster, claimed he wanted to raise the question as to whether these individuals were legitimate ‘refugees’ escaping conflict and danger back home, or whether, as he put it, they were simply economic migrants who were using this crisis to be able to move into Europe to seek the ideal/good life, despite their countries of origin being allegedly safe to live. Whilst this notion is seen as controversial and inaccurate to many, it is a narrative that was heavily pushed by the Leave campaign and garnered many supporters in the process.
The Calais border is the result of a deal made between Britain and France and includes an annual payment of £61 million to France to prevent undocumented migrants entering Britain, utilising increased surveillance, fencing, and border guards. The deal also keeps the French border on UK soil too. Under the recent Treaty of Sandhurst in January 2018, there has been greater French patrol at ports and greater English patrol in the English Channel, with the role of rescuing stranded migrants and returning them to an area of safety. However, with the Brexit transition period fast approaching, the UK will be able to make up its own rules on the matter and thus would no longer be bound by EU rules or treaties with neighbouring European countries.
Migrant crossings: a brief history and what the statistics tell us
These crossings are not a new occurrence and in fact have long been an issue for the UK government. Government reports are very limited on stating the true extent of illegal migration, as according the Migration Watch UK, the definition of an undocumented immigrant includes someone who entered the UK legally, but failed to leave when they were supposed to (e.g. overstaying the length of their visa), as well as those who simply entered the UK illegally in general. However, there is some data focussing on illegal channel crossings from the year 2018 to early May 2020, of which 3,226 people in total have made attempts to reach the UK. More than a hundred people were intercepted in one day alone in March of this year, and in early May, 130 people made the attempt to cross into Britain. This is compared to 86 a day back in September 2019. Despite these figures seeming rather insignificant to a nation of around 67 million, far-right politicians and media sources have claimed it represents the governments inability to control immigration.
The number of crossings towards Britain has noticeably increased since the summer of last year, and good weather this summer will make crossings easier. Migrant camps are cramped, and the spread of Coronavirus would be increasingly rife with a lack of social distancing and adequate sanitary conditions raising health problems for the residents. If the UK does not allow refugees to enter legally there is also a risk that Covid-19 will spread, although no actual figures have been predicted. Crossing for refugees is already dangerous, if they can’t find access through boats or via the Eurotunnel, trafficking gangs charge vast sums of money to take them across the channel. Sadly, a large number of migrants who accept this, despite the substantial fees, are forced to pay off the costs through working within a modern slave economy in Britain.
So, what does this mean for the future of UK politics? Migration may have declined in media attention in the past year, but still represents a contentious cultural battleground in the UK, often being utilised as a tool by populist politicians. Previous literature on populism tells us that the rhetoric is focused on the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narratives, and thus the issue of immigration is frequently used to stir up nationalistic sentiments. This enables the issue to be replicated into the populist sphere and become a crucial issue at future UK elections. This therefore creates a political problem for the government, who may face pressure from those on the right to take more drastic action on this issue. Alternatively, as the pandemic has arguably altered the way in which the UK views foreign workers, there may be a greater sense of sympathy amongst the British public to be more tolerant. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to dominate the current narrative, migration could be seen less as issue for the government to deal with and more of a humanitarian issue for the country to address.
However, if the government is truly serious about redeeming itself over its initial failures during the pandemic, the health and safety of its own citizens must be an upmost priority from now on. In addition, if the Conservatives want to keep their new support base in the former ‘Red Wall’ that lent them their vote for the first time, arguably as a response to a greater nationalist rhetoric of ‘taking back control’, then it must also take a much tougher stance on this matter and ensure they are fulfilling their full objectives based on the manifesto that they stood on back in December. In this sense therefore, and with the formal break from the EU within sight, the government needs to do a lot more on this issue and repeat the tactics of Australia, when they received a vast quantity of boats from Indonesia. Failure to act would result in their ability to hold power falling to a mere thread.
BBC. (1999). Is the UK a soft touch for asylum seekers?. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/talking_point/428820.stm.
Abul Taher and Peter Allen. (2019). Proof Britain IS a soft touch for migrants: We let 63 per cent of asylum seekers from Iran IN…while France keeps 69 per cent OUT. Available: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6585561/Proof-Britain-soft-touch-migrants.html.
Castaner and Javid. (2019). Joint action plan by the UK and France on combating illegal migration involving small boats in the English Channel. Available: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/773403/UK_France_declaration_24_Jan_13.00.pdf.
Migration Watch UK. (2020). Unauthorised Channel crossings. Available: https://www.migrationwatchuk.org/briefing-paper/474/unauthorised-channel-crossings.
LBC . (2020). Nigel Farage witnesses illegal migrants entering British waters. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEW-nd2OsAo.