Some have unhesitantly demanded the intervention of the Royal Navy, and some—like the Times—have accused Theresa May’s government of being too preoccupied with Brexit and leaving the borders of the UK unprotected, while the Sunday edition of the Telegraph had no qualms about devoting the front page to this situation of “chaos.” The media frenzy was such that the Interior Secretary, Sajid Javid, had to suddenly cut short his vacation at the luxurious African resort where he was spending the Christmas holidays with his family in order to return to Britain, “take control of the situation,” and trumpet a rushed-through agreement with his French counterpart, Christophe Castaner, to step up border patrols in the English Channel.
What has been happening recently in Britain may not exactly fit the definition of a mass psychosis, but it certainly looks like one. The cause of this “deeply concerning” situation, in the words of the Undersecretary for Immigration, Caroline Nokes, is the fact that a few dozen migrants, mostly from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, have landed on the coast of Kent in the southeast of England, after crossing the English Channel aboard makeshift vessels.
How many? Around 82 migrants between Dec. 25 and 27, with 40 on Christmas Day alone, including children. The numbers add up to 220 landings in the UK since November—a number that seems ridiculous if one thinks about what has been the new normal in Spain for a long time now (253 migrants rescued between Dec. 24 and 25 alone, more than 9,000 landings in November, and 63,085 from Jan. 1 to Dec. 19 of last year), or in Italy (23,370 arrivals in the past year).
And although no one has yet brought up the specter of an alleged “invasion,” in London there are many who are talking about a “crisis” of illegal immigration: “It’s time to stop the rot by sending in the Royal Navy. […] If the civilian forces can’t cope, the Navy must stop this crisis becoming a catastrophe,” said John Woodcock, a member of the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons.
Admittedly, the surge in arrivals to the UK is a real phenomenon, but we should keep the numbers we are talking about in perspective. While it is true that 500 migrant vessels were intercepted in 2018, while just 13 had been found in 2017, we must also consider that in total, only 1,832 immigrants entered Britain illegally between 2017 and 2018, 23 percent less than the 2,366 who did so in 2016. There has been a similar drop in requests for asylum, which went from 84,132 in 2002 to 32,733 in 2015, to reach 7,444 asylum requests in the third quarter of 2018.
Those who are risking everything to get into the UK are mainly Syrian and Afghan refugees, but also young Iranians pushed to leave their country because of the sanctions imposed by the United States. They are leaving the French coast by any means they can find: inflatable crafts, small wooden boats, and even canoes (the British and French Coast Guard intercepted 40 migrants in five canoes).
There is, indeed, the question of why there has been a rapid rise in the number of attempts to reach Britain from France. One possibility is that the increasingly heavy pressure by the French police on the migrant camps is ultimately behind the increase in the number of departures. However, across the English Channel, some are convinced that criminal organizations of traffickers are taking advantage of the holiday period to set sail, when the border police have less staff on hand.
In addition, one cannot rule out the possibility that the traffickers are using the specter of Brexit to persuade migrants to take advantage of the last available opportunities before the border of the United Kingdom becomes even more unsurpassable. They are made to pay a high price for this opportunity, if the reports are true that a place on the boats is going for £2,000.
Meanwhile, the larger number of departures has also triggered alarm among the humanitarian agencies that deal with migrants and refugees, who are worried by the possibility of a shipwreck in the waters of the English Channel.