SUNTIL, SUN the weather in the south of England brings the scent of sausage barbecues, the quirky tinkle of ice cream vans and inflatable boats filled with asylum seekers. According to BBC, more people have already crossed the Channel this year than during the whole of 2019 or 2020. A new one-day record was set on July 19, with 430 arrivals.
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According to some criteria, it is insignificant. Britain received 32,411 asylum applications in the year through March. This is a third of the peak of the early 2000s and low by global standards. Britain ranked fifth among European countries for asylum claims in 2020, and 17th after adjusting for population. Many poor countries are receiving many more refugees.
But the impact on domestic policy is out of proportion with the number. As Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford show in their book “Brexitland”, the British voted for Brexit in large part because they wanted more control over immigration. The sight of asylum seekers floating across the Channel is a very visible indication that the government may not be doing what many Britons want it to do, says Will Tanner of Onward, a group of right reflection.
The government therefore uses various political levers to try to prevent asylum seekers from entering. But his proposals are largely wrong. Some will harm them; some, although they seem tough, will not reduce their numbers. A few are even likely to encourage more economic migrants – the kind of people for whom natives feel least sympathetic.
One approach is to make it more difficult to leave for Great Britain. On July 20, Priti Patel, the Minister of the Interior, agreed to pay the French government 62.7 million euros ($ 75 million) for more patrols on the north coast of France. Another is to try to deter asylum seekers by passing tough laws. A bill currently before Parliament would criminalize those who arrive illegally, as most do. It would also make it easier to detain and deport asylum seekers, and give those who will ultimately be allowed to stay – around half of the total, once appeals have been heard – a shorter stay. People resettled directly from refugee camps would be treated more generously. But there have never been many, and since the onset of covid-19, there are hardly any.
Making it more difficult for France to leave will probably have an effect. Asylum seekers initially took boats in large numbers as it became difficult to reach Britain by boarding trucks. This, in turn, was in part due to the fact that Britain agreed in 2018 to pay for more fences and cameras around the port of Calais. Crossings will likely continue despite additional patrols, but from quieter sections of the coast and further out of Britain. The cost, in cash to smugglers and dead at sea, may well increase.
Harsh laws, on the other hand, can make little difference even if judges don’t eviscerate them, as they can very well. Some asylum seekers are drawn to Britain because they have relatives there, an attraction that no law can change. This includes almost anyone camping in northern France before trying to get to Britain, says Frances Timberlake of Refugee Rights Europe, a charity.
More broadly, behind the proposals lies the idea that, as Mrs Patel says, Great Britain is “a destination of choice”. It flatters the country. Heaven Crawley of Coventry University, who has interviewed many asylum seekers, says they are generally misinformed. Many express a vague desire to go to “Europe”. Others base their preference for Great Britain on surprisingly naive reasons, such as familiarity with English football. “It’s not like people are going to read in a newspaper that British politics are horrible and decide not to come,” she said.
Tim Hatton of the University of Essex studied why asylum seekers choose the countries they choose. Distance matters: the longer the journey, the less. Stricter border control or refusal to issue visas also reduces asylum claims. People are drawn to countries where many compatriots live. On the other hand, attempts to impoverish asylum seekers by detaining them, reducing their meager benefits or restricting their ability to work have no effect.
Asylum seekers have endured so much by the time they reach Britain that a little more is hardly a deterrent. Last September, inspectors noted deplorable conditions in several detention and treatment centers. One was littered with rubble and looked like a construction site. The detainees had to wear wet clothes because there were too few dry ones. Medical treatment was carried out in the open. However, asylum seekers said they were treated very well.
The UK asylum system has changed in one way in recent years: case processing has slowed down considerably (see graph). Less than 30% are heard within six months, compared to more than 70% in 2015. The bill risks slowing things down even further. Immigration officials have started to postpone hearing the cases as they engage in largely futile attempts to return asylum seekers to transit countries, and the law would allow this to continue.
Simone Bertoli of the University of Clermont Auvergne and others have studied the effect of processing speed on asylum claims. Countries that hear applications quickly tend to receive more applications from those who are likely to be granted asylum, such as Syrians, and fewer from those who are not. Conversely, migrants using the asylum system as a back door to the labor market seem attracted to sluggish countries. By slowing down, Britain could end up attracting more of the kind of asylum seekers most likely to anger the public. ■
This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Return to where you belonged”