In the Calais museum to the second world war, housed in a former Nazi bunker in one of the town’s parks, there is a room dedicated to people smugglers. A giant map shows the routes by which members of the French resistance spirited Jews, stranded British soldiers and others out of German-controlled territory. The paths stretch from France into southern Europe and out over the Mediterranean – an echo of the dangerous journeys taken by many who seek to reach the UK without permission today.
Smuggling people across borders is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. Those who do it can show a callous disregard for human life. Or they can be motivated by a desire to protect and nurture, like when Rob Lawrie, an army veteran who volunteered in the Calais refugee camp in 2015, hid a four-year-old Afghan girl in his van and tried to board a ferry to the UK. (Lawrie narrowly escaped a prison sentence but was found guilty in France of the lesser offence of endangering a child.) Very often, the “smugglers” are the people on the move themselves, helping one another out as they travel.
What such efforts have in common – from wartime heroics, to profit-making gangs, to acts of charity – is that they are responses to needs. When people feel compelled to move, they will look for ways to do so. If obstacles are placed in their way, the chances that they will turn to the services of smugglers, or attempt dangerous journeys under their own volition, will increase.
After last week’s disaster – the deadliest at the UK’s border with mainland Europe since 39 people were found dead in a lorry in Essex in October 2019 – the British government is under pressure to put an end to the Channel crossings. Its instinct is to reach for yet more border security: on 26 November, Boris Johnson proposed more patrols at sea, more electronic surveillance, more spying and harsher treatment of migrants who reach the UK. But the situation in the Channel is the clearest evidence we have of where an unrelenting focus on security leads us.
For more than two decades, successive governments have sought to discourage unwanted migrants, mostly people seeking asylum, from crossing the Channel. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Britain and France set up “juxtaposed” border controls, placing officials at transport hubs in each other’s countries, to stop people taking ferries and trains. When people stowed away on vehicles instead, Britain prevailed on France and its neighbours to increase security at ports and entry points. In 2014, for instance, the UK pledged £12m to help France build fences around the port of Calais to stop people breaking in. As these journeys became more difficult, the use of small boats became increasingly common from 2018, accelerating in 2020 as the pandemic shut down other travel options.
We have known for years that border security has deadly consequences. Between 1999 and 2020, according to a report published by the Institute for Race Relations, just under 300 people lost their lives trying to cross to the UK. People have been hit by cars on the motorways of northern France, they have suffocated inside lorries or been electrocuted in the Channel tunnel, and they have drowned. But the shift to small boats is potentially far more dangerous: while market dynamics create an incentive for smugglers to cram people into unsafe boats, many more migrants are simply clubbing together to buy their own, as the UK’s National Crime Agency admits.
From the British government, you couldn’t find a response more likely to make the situation worse. Not only does it follow the security-focused trajectory of its predecessors, but this now comes wrapped up in Johnson’s toxic post-Brexit mode of engagement. Its diplomatic posturing has soured relations with France, which makes international cooperation more difficult. Some have noted the irony that Brexit actually seems to have given the UK less control of its borders – by leaving the EU’s common agreement on asylum at the end of 2020, for instance, the UK has lost the ability to return asylum seekers to other European countries they may have passed through. But by far the greater problem is the nationality and borders bill currently making its way through parliament.
The bill is an attempt to reshape policy around the Faragist lie that the country is at “breaking point” from unwanted immigration, by introducing a system that punishes asylum seekers who arrive in the UK of their own accord. This, Priti Patel has said, will encourage refugees to use official routes, ensuring that asylum is “based on need, not the ability to pay people smugglers”. Yet the government’s own assessment of the legislation accepts there is “a risk that increased security and deterrence could encourage [asylum seekers] to attempt riskier means of entering the UK” and that “evidence supporting the effectiveness of this approach is limited”.
Opponents of the bill argue – correctly – that the UK should instead expand safe routes to asylum, through official refugee resettlement schemes. Even where the government claims to want this, its efforts are sorely lacking: the much-vaunted Afghan citizens resettlement scheme has still not opened, more than three months after the Taliban seized Kabul. (On Thursday, just a day after the disaster in the Channel, a former Afghan soldier was among the passengers of a boat that arrived at Dungeness beach in Kent.) A concerted effort to encourage people to claim asylum by other means could undermine demand for smuggling routes. Safe facilities in northern France where people could stay and claim asylum in either country – or humanitarian visas that allow people to travel to the UK to make their claims – would reduce the need for people to attempt crossings.
Yet whether the response is authoritarian or liberal, a common mistake would be to think that there will be a “solution” to Channel crossings in the sense that one or other approach will make this issue disappear entirely. For as long as the UK wishes to maintain border controls there will be people who want to evade them. We can choose to mitigate the damage these controls cause or to ignore it. To go further than that, however, would require a more profound rethinking of our attitudes towards migration, and the way that the UK relates to the rest of the world.
Precious little is known so far about the 27 people who died on Wednesday. Yet what we do know already suggests they were not complete strangers to Britain. Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin, a 24-year-old Kurdish student from northern Iraq, was trying to join her fiance here. Harem Pirot, 25 and from the same part of the world as Maryam, was trying to join his brother in Cambridge. Why did both see a deadly boat journey as their only option to follow these everyday family relationships? And what would it take for our society to see such international connections as these as a strength, rather than a threat?
After tragedies like the one last week, our political leaders say they want to stop smuggling. What they really mean is that they want to stop migrants. Those two things are not the same – and the gap between them is a matter of life and death.
Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe and Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right