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Following last week’s tragic events in the English Channel when 27 people died trying to cross from France to the UK, Professor Alexander Betts has been speaking to CNN and the BBC. 

On Friday, he spoke with Christiane Amanpour on CNN, commenting that “this was a predictable and entirely avoidable tragedy”, stemming from “a failure of political leadership, by governments on both sides of the English Channel”. He also highlighted that “we do need a sense of perspective, that there is very far from being a refugee or a so-called migrant crisis”. In relation to the number of people seeking asylum in the UK, he said while we have seen “the highest level in the year ending September 2021 since 2004 [with 37,000 applications] … and the proportion of asylum seekers coming across the English Channel has grown … we need to recognise that against the backdrop of 82 million displaced people around the world, 26 million of whom are refugees, countries like Turkey hosting something like 3.7 million refugees, countries like Colombia hosting 1.7 million refugees, that the numbers we are talking about in Europe as a whole and in the UK should be seen in perspective. They are relatively small.” 

He further commented on the reasons why the numbers are increasing, with people fleeing conflict, violence and authoritarian governments, in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Iran. Further, he highlighted that “there really is no other way to seek asylum in the UK. It’s been made so difficult by the British government and other European countries that the only way to seek asylum in the UK is by using smuggling networks to cross illegally.”

He also spoke on BBC World News about the need for “a serious level of cooperation between the UK and France, and between the UK and its European partners, despite the Brexit related challenges.” He commented that, “the UK needs to be serious about its commitment to provide asylum to desperate vulnerable people. We know that the people crossing the English Channel are for the most part in need of international protection, most are refugees... People have a right under international law to seek asylum so we have to make that possible. One way for instance of doing that, amongst others, would be for the UK to say let's provide safe passage to a certain quota of refugees recognised in France or Europe to come to the UK. We have to share that responsibility in a way that's serious and cooperative." He also spoke of the need for politicians to move beyond 'pandering to nationalist sentiment' to instead provide 'moral leadership'.

Watch on CNN Amanpour

Watch on BBC World News

Q&A

Professor Betts has also provided the following useful Q&A on this subject:

Why are more asylum-seekers crossing the English Channel than previously? There are broadly two main reasons why overall asylum numbers are slightly higher and a greater proportion of the overall number are arriving on boats: 1) more people are fleeing desperate circumstances around the world; 2) government policy has meant it is practically impossible to claim asylum in the UK without using smuggling networks.

Who is coming? The people coming are highly likely to be in need of international protection – because of where they are coming from (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia) and because even in the UK refugee (and humanitarian protection) recognition rates for asylum seekers are very high (around two-thirds after appeal).

Why is the UK making is so hard to cross? The Home Secretary’s argument – and a major premise behind the new Nationality and Borders Bill – is that nobody who has been through France (a safe country) ‘should’ need to come to the UK (the so-called ‘Safe Third Country’ principle). The Home Secretary is arguably pushing this because of the government’s post-Brexit commitment to sovereign control over borders, and exaggerated media concerns about asylum seekers. The UK’s implicit assumption is that post-Brexit, asylum should be a predominantly EU responsibility, given that people will have travelled through the EU to reach the UK.

Does the UK government have a point? Not really. International law allows people to seek asylum in a country regardless of their route, whether or not the Government thinks it should. Refugees have no obligation in international law to seek asylum in France. The entire refugee system is premised upon sharing responsibility for refugee protection, and retaining the right to seek asylum. Numbers in the UK remain relatively small even now (around 37,000 over the last year, which is lower than Germany, France, or Spain, for example). It is possible that creating ‘safe routes’ from Northern France to the UK becomes a ‘pull factor’ for more people to try to cross the English Channel, but surely that is a price worth paying in comparison to the alternative, unnecessary loss of life?

What is the solution? The UK needs to cooperate much better with France. The two countries need to stop blaming one another (or ‘the smugglers’) and work collaboratively, as they arguably did over the Sangatte camps nearly 20 years ago. The UK needs to work with the EU as a whole on asylum and immigration, irrespective of Brexit, including by creating mechanisms by which refugees – recognised within the EU – can apply for safe relocation to the UK. It’s worth noting that France, for instance, supports access to asylum but having its Interior Ministry officials in countries like Italy and Malta to enable safe movement of refugees destined for the country. A viable national refugee policy has to include humanitarian and development aid to support refugees in regions of origin, resettlement and complementary pathways, and the right to seek asylum.