2022 has been a good year for the organised criminal gangs who traffic migrants across the Strait of Dover. Not only should they be congratulated on their exceptional productivity –44,000 have made the crossing to date, smashing previous records out of the park– but the transit, by the general standards of cramming people onto tiny inflatable boats and taking them across the world’s busiest sea lane, has been pretty safe.
Around 1500 die on Britain’s roads every year. By contrast, until this week UK authorities were only aware of one person in 2022 who died crossing the channel in a small boat; a Somali man who carelessly fell overboard on 14 January. This proud record of maritime safety was slightly marred by Wednesday’s news that a fifteen-foot rib carrying around forty-five migrants capsized, but anyone contemplating the voyage could still be excused for accepting the gangs’ reassurances that the risks of getting to Britain this way are overstated, and your overall odds of getting there alive pretty good.
It’s true that these reassurances may in retrospect ring slightly hollow to the men and women whose boat started taking on freezing-cold water at three o’clock on Wednesday morning. By sheer luck, the crew of a passing trawler heard them screaming, hove to, and evacuated thirty-nine passengers from the stricken rib. Four more are confirmed dead; an uncertain number lost with no expectation of survival.
As entering the English Channel in the middle of the night in the middle of winter is in most cases certain death, you may wonder what goes through the mind of anyone who pays a gangster a substantial wodge of money to afford them the opportunity to die in this unpleasant manner.
The left’s preferred explanation –desperation– can’t be right. It isn’t that bad in France, where the greatest risk to your safety is getting caught up in a World Cup celebration that gets out of hand. No democratically elected government in Western Europe –through most of which you will pass on your way from Afghanistan, Iran or Albania– will arbitrarily persecute you. You are safe the moment you set foot on EU soil. People crossing the channel in little boats want to come to Britain not because they are still desperate to escape places they already escaped from, but because they think Britain is best.
Even during galloping inflation and a cost-of-living crisis, even after the tumult of Boris and Truss, even after six years of Brexity collective national self-harm, the UK remains a nice place to settle. We have a functioning state, adequate-by-Albanian-standards health, education and welfare, easily available work and existing diaspora communities from almost every nation on the planet. Anyone who comes here willing to work hard is likely to prosper.
This means that the decision to pay a lot of money to subject yourself to a few hours of discomfort and risk isn’t one borne out of desperation, but a perfectly rational choice. Everyone boarding one of those little boats will know of someone who made it to Dover and is doing fine. They also know (because the people smugglers tell them this and it is true) that the UK asylum and immigration system is a shambolic mess, and that even if they have no valid claim to political asylum, the chance of this being swiftly identified and dealt with is next to nil.
People and other Twitter users professing compassion on the site say the only way to stop this route of illegal immigration is to make it easier for those facing persecution abroad to apply for asylum in the UK.
They’re correct that we should. Dropping into the British Embassy in Tehran or Kabul for a chat has a way of attracting hostile attention from the regime’s goons; expecting the persecuted to apply for asylum in their country of origin is often unrealistic. They are, however, naïve to assume that this will deter anyone who isn’t fleeing persecution from hopping onto a boat at Sangatte, Wissant or Escalles.
No particularly compelling means of deterrence has yet emerged. David Blunkett –who may not be the intellectual strength which in old days moved earth and heaven– helpfully suggested that the whole problem could be addressed by the French government introducing a system of licensing for every rowing boat, rubber dinghy and inflatable canoe. It is not wholly apparent why organised migration mafias, who already run the risk of long sentences under articles L 622-1, 3, 5, 6 and 7 of the French penal code, would be effectively deterred by the prospect of being fined for possession of an unlicensed rib. Particularly in circumstances where French efforts to prevent embarkation from Northern France to the UK typically involve a well-practiced shrug and the words ‘bon voyage’.The UK Government aspires to make the channel route unattractive and unviable. This was the purpose behind the embarrassing, and not yet quite abandoned, Rwanda folly. It’s part of the ghastly Dominic Raab’s motivation in plotting the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Convention might be a useful scapegoat but it isn’t the problem. As long as migrants can enter the EU illegally, many of them will find the UK the most appealing end destination. Unless we co-operate with our former partners to address migration on an EU-wide basis, and process asylum claims fairly and fast, the people-smuggling gangs will be quids in.