Migrant crossings are at record levels, with thousands of vulnerable people falling prey to organised crime gangs. Susannah Butter reports on the government’s next crisis
very time Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi and his family approached a border on their long journey fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan to the UK, the smugglers gave his children a spoonful of liquid from a glass bottle. “It sent them to sleep so they didn’t make a sound,” he says. “The smugglers didn’t ask us for permission, they just did it.” Nasimi, 54, his wife and three children encountered many smugglers on their way here; as they hid in fridges in the back of various lorries (a common way that people come into this country; when it happened to Nasimi the fridge was on and he passed out), walked through corn fields for hours in the night with no food or water when the smugglers didn’t drop them off where they said they would; and took their lives into their own hands on small inflatable boats, overflowing with other refugees.
Nasimi came over to the UK in 1999 and founded the Afghanistan and Central Asian association to support people as they come to live in the UK. He is watching the news now with concern. “The number of displaced people is increasing dramatically and human rights organisations have expressed worries about the way the UK is approaching the people seeking asylum,” he says.
The number of migrants who have come to the UK so far this year is 8,452 — already more than 2020’s total of 8,410, and they are from all over the world. On July 19, 50 refugees landed in Dungeness on one boat — this amount of people on a tiny dinghy is not unusual, as smugglers try to make as much money as possible from desperate people. It costs around £6,000 for a place on these boats, with reports that some smugglers advertise places for up to £20,000 on TikTok. This has raised concerns that only wealthy migrants are able to come seek asylum. It is the number of people on boats, not the number of boats which is increasing. Covid is a factor — restrictions mean that traditional routes on lorries or planes are not possible and reductions in ferry crossings mean gangs are relying on small boats. There is a lesson here for policy-makers — closing down some routes shows that if people are desperate enough, they will find other means.
Set in a global and historical context, however, the numbers are less alarming. In 2019, 45,000 people sought asylum here — a third of the number that went to France. While arrivals by boat area up on last year, they are down overall and seven times lower than the records set when Tony Blair was prime minister. But for a government that has set an ambitious target to “take back control” of people coming here, the boats are a strikingly visible form of immigration.
These numbers are powerfully divisive and are set to mark political debate for the next few months as calmer weather means that more people will attempt the dangerous journey. One cabinet minister predicts that over the summer, records for the most people coming over in a day will be broken repeatedly and Nigel Farage has set up camp in Kent to report on the boats for GB News.
We were put in the back of a lorry, inside a fridge, with no idea where we were or what was going on. The smugglers gave my children a liquid that sent them to sleep so they didn’t make a sound. They didn’t ask us for permission.
Number 10 is taking a hard line on this. The Prime Minister is working more closely with the Home Office than previously, while the Home Secretary Priti Patel is furious. She has called the surge in refugees coming over an “unacceptable problem”. Insiders say that she is furious at the rising numbers. She has told Dan O’Mahoney, the clandestine threat commander who is responsible for stopping small boat crossings, that they must come down as a matter of urgency. Boris Johnson is trying to collaborate with French President Emmanuel Macron, paying more than £54 million to France in a deal whereby French police patrol beaches to stem the number of migrants crossing the Channel.
There is also a new piece of proposed legislation, the Nationality and Borders Bill, which passed its second reading last week, which makes it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK without permission, introduces longer maximum sentences for those coming over here without a legal reason and sends asylum seekers overseas for processing (even if no country has agreed to accept them).
In her speech announcing the bill, Patel said she wants to stop people from drowning on journeys directed by organised gangs (at least seven people are known to have died last year these boats) and to stop people who have come here illegally getting ahead of those who “play by the rules” and have organised safe resettlement schemes.
The problem is that there has never been a legal way to claim asylum, says Jonathan Portes, senior fellow for the UK in a Changing Europe initiative. “The right to come here through irregular means and claim asylum was established after the Second World War and was thought up by politicians and lawyers. It is in the 1951 Refugee Convention, [which has its 70th anniversary this week], so the idea promulgated by ministers that people who come to claim asylum are jumping the queue is false. Whether or not they are legitimate, they have a right to have their claims investigated. Under the new bill, Nicholas Winton, who arranged for thousands of Jewish children to come to safety here on the Kindertransport would have been a criminal.”
Hanan Alshami, 32, who came here five years ago from Syria on a government scheme and now volunteers helping refugees highlights how vulnerable these people are. “They have risked their lives on these journeys, they don’t know their rights, they come from places where the governments are [corrupt] so anyone can ask for money and they will not know that is not normal. While they wait for settled status they are so worried. Many do not speak English; when I got here I didn’t understand anything and cried for a week. No one has a plan or choice. I left Syria because I was scared but I didn’t know where to go. I only had two blankets and some clothes; I thought we’d go home eventually. Instead we were living in a makeshift place in Lebanon with 25 other people. My mother-in-law asked why? We had a good life in Syria but it was too dangerous. Then my husband was asked by the UN if he wanted to come to London. My family are still in Syria and people are eating from the rubbish, they can’t get food any other way. And my sister is in Lebanon being told to go back to Sy”
The UN has described the proposals in the Bill as an “almost neo-colonial approach” designed to shift the responsibility for protecting refugees away from Britain. Labour Leader Keir Starmer said: “The Conservatives just voted to make it harder to give a safe haven to children fleeing violence and war. They should be ashamed.”
Priti Patel is furious at the rising numbers.
But this latest crackdown is not unprecedented, says Portes. “It is a particularly nasty set of proposals but this is not something Patel thought up. It is the reheating of a bad idea. Processing migrants offshore rather than in the UK was floated under the Blair government and was rejected for legal, moral, political and practical reasons and hopefully will be again.”
Insiders also say that the Home Office is “chaotic”. “It is in many ways a dysfunctional department,” says Portes. Judith Dennis, policy manager at the Refugee Council, says that rather than focus on people coming, the Government should look at how it is processing applications for asylum, in a system that is slow and overly bureaucratic. The total number of asylum seekers waiting to see if they have the right to remain has doubled since 2014, and many of them are kept in detention centres where Covid is spreading.
The longer it takes to settle refugees, the harder it is for them to integrate, say Amreen Qureshi and Lucy Mort, who have studied this as part of their work at the Institute for Public Policy Research. “Not knowing whether they will be allowed to stay in the UK in the long term, being unable to apply for their family to join them, and not having access to the safety net of a number of welfare benefits, makes is unlikely that asylum seekers and refugees will feel ‘integrated’ into their new home, which is one of the aspirations.”
Many arrive traumatised. On the boats, people, mostly men, fill the decks or spill over the sides of inflatable dinghies and sometimes you can hear a child crying or the boat’s motor running out of steam. Some men wear masks to protect themselves from Covid, hardly anyone has luggage and they know this is a risk – at least seven people are known to have died last year crossing the Channel on these boats. Few know where they are going; the smugglers who give them little information and sometimes don’t allow phones on board for fear that officials will be able to track them. They have not heard of Dover or Dungeness and for many of them this is not their first time attempting the crossing.
When Nasimi eventually made it to the UK after multiple failed attempts, it was in a freezer full of sausages and cheese that was switched on just after they left Calais. He can no longer eat those foods. “The smugglers shouted in Kosovan and I didn’t know what they were saying but luckily there were some Kosovan people in the freezer with us who understood; we had to bang loudly so the UK Border Agency would hear and come take us out. When they opened the freezer we had all passed out.”
The UK Border Agency were kind. “They gave me chocolate and tea. I didn’t speak English but they handed me a piece of paper directing me to the Refugee Council’s office.” His family have made a home here, in West London. His eldest daughter Shabnam, now 30, founded the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan, which provides a political, business, and diplomatic forum aimed at building a more meaningful and stronger relationship between the UK and Afghanistan. Rabia, 27, works at the department of Health and Social Care, Darius, 24, has a philosophy degree from King’s. Sheekeba, who was born here, is studying law. He is sharing his story to mark the anniversary of the Refugee Convention.
As debate rages on, Dennis says we can’t forget the nuance. “Some refugees are skilled, some will contribute to society, some are not. But they are just people in extraordinary circumstances who deserve to be treated fairly.”