This is why asylum seekers are crossing The Channel in high numbers in 2020, as government looks to make journey 'unviable'
Published: 06:00, 17 August 2020
Updated: 09:02, 17 August 2020
The south east coast of Kent has been under the global spotlight this year, after more than 4,000 people crossed The Channel to the UK in small boats.
Media outlets have descended on Dover, Folkestone and Hythe to capture footage of people from countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan making the perilous journey across one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
But the story, which is gobbling up headlines, is far from new – it's just the method that's changed.
For more than 20 years people have been attempting to reach the shores of Kent to claim asylum and forge a better life for themselves and their families.
The brutal reality of the attempts to make it to the UK were thrown into stark light on June 18, 2000, when freight supervisors at Dover discovered a "sea of bodies" inside a shipping container.
In total, 58 Chinese nationals had paid a snakehead gang - a catch-all term for criminal groups who smuggle poor people from the country into Western nations - £20,000 each to be loaded into the truck and transported across the world.
But after the freight driver closed the trailer's air vent before reaching the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to stop anyone getting suspicious about the nature of the cargo, the air quickly ran out.
It was a tragic situation which revealed the desperation of people from across the world who see Britain as a sanctuary, and the lengths they will go to in order to get here.
The horrific event was echoed 19 years later, after the bodies of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children were found in the back of a lorry on the other side of the Dartford Crossing.
Why are more people crossing The Channel?
The coronavirus pandemic has played a major role in the increase of boats making their way from Dover to Calais, according to one charity.
Care4Calais provide direct aid to around 700 refugees living around the French port city, and say conditions have deteriorated since the virus spread throughout mainland Europe.
David Wilson, communications director for the organisation, said: "What we saw when lockdown started was a complete collapse of support for refugees there.
"People were already living in really tough conditions, but because of lockdown a lot of charities that usually support them pulled out, because they couldn't get their volunteers there and charity donations were collapsing.
"The French government also reduced food aid, so that meant conditions got even harder, and for some people that tipped the balance for them and made getting into a boat seem like a viable alternative."
One student from Faversham told KentOnline of the harrowing situation she discovered after travelling to Calais as a volunteer, just as charities were leaving "en masse" due to the pandemic.
She said: "The French police aggressively evict the refugee camps every other day, making people move their tents, their belongings and themselves to a small roadside area.
"Within these operations the police often confiscate tents and belongings, meaning the reality is that we could give someone a tent one day and the next morning the police take it from them."
At one point during the crisis, Care4Calais was the only non-governmental organisation (NGO) helping people seeking asylum in the French port city, with less than 10 volunteers available to them.
The charity also say that tactics of brutality enacted by the French government could be influencing how desperate asylum seekers are to traverse the choppy waters of the Strait of Dover.
Mr Wilson said: "They're using tear gas and creating this hostile environment which pushes people there to think 'I've got no choice but to make the crossing'."
The charity is calling for easier methods of seeking asylum in the UK, which could in turn reduce the number of people risking their lives crossing The Channel to Kent.
But a legal framework which would let people claim asylum status before arriving would be difficult, according to one immigration lawyer.
Shabana Shahab, based in Chatham, said it would cause great strain on the UK's immigration system.
She said: "The viability of such a process depends upon whether the Home Office Minister Priti Patel’s decision will work to give police power to stop human traffickers and smugglers at UK ports.
"I think the government ought to fund charities such as Care4Calais to set up Education and Welfare Programmes to protect asylum seekers, from paying in excessive of £10,000 to human traffickers, that have absolutely no intention of ensuring safe passage to asylum seekers.
"Otherwise, any platform or legal framework which would allow people seeking asylum in the UK to make a claim before they reached the country offered to asylum seekers is unlikely to work."
The truth behind the numbers
More than 4,000 people have crossed the Channel in 2020 so far, which marks a definite increase in the number of people attempting to make it to the UK by water.
But a total running number for the purposes of comparison is not made available by the Home Office, so it makes it more difficult to study the exact nature of the increase.
Furthermore, a closer look at the overall asylum statistics do not necessarily suggest a crisis, according to one organisation.
Figures published by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) show that in 2019 France received 123,900 applications for asylum, and Germany 142,500.
By comparison, the UK received just 35,566.
For greater comparison, in 2009 the UK was home to 238,000 refugees but in 2019 the figure was almost half that, at 133,000.
It makes the UK only the 26th largest refugee host in the world.
Laura Padoan, spokesperson for UNHCR, said: "For a country like the UK, the numbers are manageable. Still the vast majority of refugees are not coming to the UK or Europe – 85% of them are living in low income countries near their own because they want to go home as soon as it’s safe to do so.
"People make desperate journeys when they feel they have no other choice and when safe legal routes like family reunion are limited.
"The UK is only the 26th largest refugee host in the world..."
"The priority should be saving lives and we can do this through international co-operation on search and rescue at sea, combatting smuggling rings and offering alternative legal routes."
She added: "I’ve seen so many examples of communities in this country welcoming refugees; we can meet this challenge with humanity as well."
It is also true, however, that whilst refugee charities and NGOs say the UK can cope with the numbers, some services are hard-pressed.
Kent County Council leader Roger Gough last week announced that the authority could be just “days away” from being unable to look after more asylum seeking children arriving on its shores.
Cllr Gough previously called on the government to reinstate the National Transfer Scheme (NTS) to fairly redistribute unaccompanied asylum seeking children throughout England.
Why do they pick the UK?
A cursory glance at social media will reveal the furious debates on why people think those who seek asylum choose the UK.
Some, like Twitter user Nigel76949900, from Herne Bay, are under the impression that the benefits system richly awards asylum seekers.
Responding to a tweet by MP Zarah Sultana, they wrote: "Asylum seekers get more than pensioners. This has to stop."
But the UNHCR states that the prospective £170 a month of benefits is less than that of France and Germany, where they could receive €190 and €344 respectively.
The Refugee Council also points out that people seeking asylum are often living on Home Office support equivalent to just over £5 per day.
The UNHCR has also cited the UK as having a far-from 'soft' immigration system, being the only western European country with no statutory immigration detention limit.
Some people who seek asylum are forced to wait for years as their application is considered, resorting to help from charities to survive.
One man who fled Iraq arrived in the UK by lorry in 2014 but to date has been waiting six years for his claim for asylum to be approved.
Leaving his home country for fear of persecution by ISIS, he wants to work and pay taxes but must continue to wait for the Home Office to approve his claim, whilst relying on government-mandated accommodation and charities like Refugees at Home.
Shirley Patch, who gave the man a room in her home for three years, said the UK is often picked because they already have a grasp of the English language.
She said: "We asked him why he didn't go somewhere like Germany, but he told us the best chance he would have at going to college or doing anything is where he could speak some of the language - it's another thing I think people don't always understand."
Why are the media being criticised?
The nation's media have been heavily criticised in the past week for their method of reporting the boat crossings.
Sky News and the BBC chartered vessels in order to ride alongside the flimsy craft making their way to the Kent coast.
A Twitter video showing BBC journalist Simon Jones trying to talk to them as one man used a bucket to remove water from the boat racked up more than 7,000 retweets and comments.
One user called Louise wrote: "This is bizarre - you do realise they are human beings and not some sort of attraction?"
In a statement, the BBC maintained the report was a "stark illustration of the significant risks some people are prepared to take to reach the UK".
They added: "Channel crossings is a topic of huge importance and we always endeavour to cover the story sensitively."
The publicly-funded news corporation also said the coastguard had been made aware of the boat before the piece was filmed.
Despite their defence of criticisms in their coverage, some still argue that the humanitarian element of the situation is being lost for the sake of explosive visual TV content.
Ian Reeves, head of the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent and former Press Gazette editor, said: "At what point does that become voyeuristic? At what point does it dehumanise those people?
"Watching them trying to bail out their boat with a plastic bottle doesn't tell you a huge amount of detail about their story and that's where the problem is - how easy it is to look a bit tone deaf in the way you put that story on air."
Criticism of the government
Some argue that issues with media coverage pale in comparison to the language pushed by the UK government.
Clare Moseley, founder for Care4Calais, said: "Our government has been throwing the word 'illegal immigrant' in the public's faces for the last year and that's even more inaccurate.
"Refugee law recognises that if you want to enter into the UK to claim asylum you have to do so by irregular means, and if you do it doesn't jeopardise your asylum case.
"I think it's highly irresponsible because that suggests that these people are criminals - Boris Johnson even called them criminals the other day.
"That is even worse than anything the media can do and to be perfectly honest I'm horrified by it."
What happens next?
As the crossings continue, the UK and French government have entered talks to find a way of stopping people making the journey across The Channel.
A newly-appointed clandestine channel threat commander Dan O’Mahoney travelled to Paris last week to seek stronger enforcement measures as Border Force continues to deal with crossings along the south coast of Kent.
In a statement on Thursday, he said: "We continue to work with France to make the small boats route unviable, and I’m pleased to see that the French have prevented a significant number of people crossing the Channel today and yesterday.
"But we know more must be done to cut off this route and relentlessly pursue the criminals and organised crime networks putting people’s lives at risk.
"Twenty-three people smugglers have been jailed this year and two more were charged recently."
Boris Johnson has also pledged to change a "panoply of laws that an illegal immigrant has at his or her disposal that allows them to stay here" once the Brexit transition period comes to an end.
But neither statements speak to how those who have fled war-torn countries might reasonably seek asylum in the UK - a right enshrined under international law.
More by this authorOliver Kemp