The Fate Of Small Boat Migrants In The U.K.

In efforts to deter asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel via small boats, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is the leader of the Conservative Party, has put forth an immigration policy to “stop small boats” through processes of criminalization, detainment, and deportation.

The new policies would reject asylum seekers’ attempts for resettlement in the U.K., placing them in detainment centers for deportation to a “third country.” Thus far, Rwanda has been identified as one of the “third countries” despite only being able to resettle 200 asylum seekers. Last year, the U.K. paid the Rwandan government £140m for a proposed scheme to export asylum seekers there. 

“Treating people who are in search of safety like human cargo and shipping them off to another country is a cruel policy that will cause great human suffering,” Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said in a statement to CNN. “The scheme is wrong in principle and unworkable in practice,” Solomon continued.

In response to Sunak’s policies, the UNHCR and United Nations Refugee Agency expressed concern about the “asylum ban that brands refugees as undeserving based on the mode of arrival.”

In their released statement, both parties reiterate that the proposed bill violates the Refugee Convention and further neglects to acknowledge the conditions that force people to seek asylum by “irregular means.” The statement said that “there are no safe and ‘legal’ routes[…] and the Convention explicitly recognizes that refugees may be compelled to enter a country of asylum irregularly.”

Peter William Walsh, a researcher at The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, problematized the proposed policy’s attempt to employ detainment as a migration deterrent. Mr. Walsh emphasized the U.K.’s insufficient capacity to house asylum seekers, as detention facilities “were estimated to have a total capacity of no more than 2,500, while in August last year, small boat arrivals exceeded 8,000.” Thus, while the bill is inhumane, it is also unfeasible; the proposed legislation inherently stands on an infrastructure that negates its utility. 

Critics are further concerned about how existing asylum applicants will manage. According to FactCheck Analysis of Home Office Data, in 2022, the U.K.’s asylum backlog exceeded 166,000. 

The Guardian reports that 45,755 migrants arrived in the U.K. crossing the English Channel in 2022. More than 3,000 have crossed the Channel since the beginning of this year. U.K. Government statistics report that the make-up of people on small boats from January 2018 to June 2022 primarily includes Iranian (28%) and Iraqi (20%) nationals. Compared to other years, in 2022, the demographic had a higher percentage of Afghan (18%) nationals. It is important to note that asylum seekers derive from nations that are a by-product of war and political turmoil, producing unsafe and inhospitable living conditions. “The government’s new legislation ignores the fundamental point that most people in small boats are men, women, and children escaping terror and bloodshed from countries including Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria,” Enver Solomon, CEO of the charity Refugee Council, said to CNN in a statement.

According to Refugee Action, as per UNHCR November 2022 statistics U.K., refugees only account for 0.54 percent of the total population. 

Matthieu Tardis, an expert on migration policy at the French Institute of International Relations, in an interview with The Local, encouraged France to mobilize further “legal ways for migrants to get to the United Kingdom” as he re-asserted the UNHCR and United Nations Refugee Agency sentiments that migration via small boats is not an issue of securitization or criminalization, but one of existing policy failures.

Incidentally, despite humanitarian agencies and professional warnings, Mr. Sunak has pledged £500m to French President Emmanuel Macron for producing detention centers and increasing security personnel. 

Prime Minister Sunak claims his Illegal Migration Bill is “designed to break the business model of the criminal gangs and remove the pull factors, bringing them to the Channel coasts,” The Guardian states.

When discussing the relationship between the U.K. and asylum seekers, Mr. Sunak chooses language that depicts criminality. The lack of humanity in Mr.Sunak’s linguistic choices reflects a deeper, more imminent dehumanization of asylum seekers. 

The choice to criminalize and detain asylum seekers reflects the reductive deterrent theory. The forced migration of asylum seekers derives from an existential need for safety and community. The Xenophobic undertones expressed by Mr. Sunak and his counterparts fail to acknowledge the universal rights of asylum seekers and the global condition which catalyzes their migration.