Two decades of deals and hundreds of millions of pounds, but the UK hasn’t ever stopped crossings – or deaths

UK politicians have been promising to crack down on irregular migration for decades. In recent years, that has largely meant trying to stop the "small boats crisis" in the English Channel. They've thrown millions of pounds at the problem and made deal after deal with France, but people keep coming.

Some get caught, some get across, and some die in the process. According to the investigation we are now releasing in collaboration with the French outlet Les Jours, some 391 migrants have died on this border region in the past 25 years. It's clear that no matter what the government does, people keep trying to get across.

So what's going wrong? The answer lies in the deadly relationship between borders, irregular migration, and smuggling.

Modern states have border controls to stop movement, but people continue to move anyway. The borders just make that movement harder than it otherwise would be. And when the controls become strong enough that people can't bypass them on their own, smugglers enter the picture to facilitate their passage.

In response, states tend to introduce even stricter border controls. This makes the journey more difficult and more dangerous, so smugglers' services become more necessary. They get more business and can charge more money. States respond by further fortifying the borders, and the spiral continues.

Nowhere are these dynamics more evident than in the English Channel.

The creation of a crisis

People have crossed the Channel without permission for centuries, with thousands of exiles arriving daily in some periods. But it was the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act that sowed the seeds of our current predicament.

Prior to this, all British subjects, including those residing in the Commonwealth or Crown Colonies, had freedom of movement into the UK. The 1962 act took away that right, primarily to stop non-white immigration. Overnight, people who had been moving to the UK freely from India or Pakistan, for example, found a border in the way.

This didn't deter everybody though. People continued to try to make it to the UK, and in 1968 officials responded by establishing the Cross-Channel Intelligence Conference (CCIC) to foster cross-border policing. Now that they had made this movement illegal, they wanted police forces on both sides of the Channel to prevent it from happening.

The journeys people took back then weren't all that different to the journeys they take today. Records of the CCIC meetings show people from Pakistan, for example, taking an overland route through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Austria, West Germany, and Belgium or France before finally trying to reach the UK. A multinational network of people in the smuggling chain facilitated their movement, and the journey cost them around £600 (£3000 in today's money).

Then came the creation of the Channel tunnel. This was set in motion by the 1986 Treaty of Canterbury, which, along with the follow-up Sangatte Protocol in 1991, allowed for UK border controls in France (and French controls in the UK) following the opening of the tunnel in 1994.

Shortly after that, in 1995, the Schengen free movement space was created in Europe. The UK opted out, which transformed the English Channel from a maritime border with France and Belgium to an external border with a large chunk of Europe.

The first walls go up

The Schengen zone allowed more people from more countries to reach the French and Belgian coast unimpeded, where they ran up against the hard UK-Europe border that was now in place. As night follows day, this led to increased irregular migration, which led to increased border fortification, which led to the increased involvement of human smugglers.

By 1998 there were increasing numbers of homeless migrants living in the Calais area hoping to cross to the UK. Many were fleeing the war in Yugoslavia. The Red Cross opened a support centre for them at Sangatte, an area on the outskirts of Calais, but it was quickly overwhelmed. By 2001 the centre was at double capacity and conditions had become squalid.

The Sangatte centre was near the Eurotunnel entrance on the French side, and more and more people were attempting to walk or ride through it to get to England. In September 2001 the UK government imposed a penalty of £2,000 per head on the Eurotunnel operator every time someone made it through the Tunnel into the UK, but neither law enforcement nor private security personnel were effectively able to stop people trying (See Part 3).

On Christmas that same year, more than 500 refugees stormed the Eurotunnel in a bid to get to England.

In response, Eurotunnel spent £3 million enhancing security and launched legal proceedings for the closure of the Sangatte refugee camp - as if the camp, and not the border, had created the clandestine crossing problem.

By 2002 the UK was seeing a significant increase in asylum applications, and stories about 'bogus asylum seekers' were all over the tabloid newspapers. David Blunkett, who was home secretary at the time, did a deal with the French minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, to close the Sangatte centre.

As part of the deal, the UK took in 1,200 refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan and France took responsibility for the remaining 3,600. Represented as a resolution to the migrant problem, this was just the first of many such deals.

Securitisation without end

The UK Labour government under first Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown spent the next eight years enhancing border controls and stripping people seeking asylum of many basic rights and entitlements. Yet the crossings continued.

In 2003, France and the UK signed another agreement committing to intensified border controls. This effectively moved the UK border fully into France. A similar deal was made with Belgium in 2004.

By this point, security investments had made crossing via the tunnel all but impossible, and the closure of Sangatte had scattered people across the landscape.

But this just shifted the goalposts. People found new ways to try to get across, like stowing away in haulage vehicles parked around the Calais area, and regrouped into an increasing number of makeshift camps (See Part 4). In 2009, one informal camp in Calais was bulldozed and 190 people were arrested.

Five years later, things were about to get much worse. In September 2014, the mayor of Calais threatened to block the port unless the UK "helped to deal" with the hundreds of migrants trying to cross. The UK subsequently committed £12 million over three years for border security in northern France.

This plan paved the way for increasing surveillance and fortification of the border, just as thousands of people fleeing wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq began making their way to Europe. Calais quickly became a deadly bottleneck.

By 2015, 'the Jungle' had sprung up, a sprawling informal camp in Calais with 10,000 inhabitants at its peak. David Cameron, prime minister at the time, said these migrants were part of a "swarm" trying to reach the UK.

Between 2014 and 2016, the UK committed over £40 million for border security in northern France, with a further £48 million for securing the port of Calais and Eurotunnel. This paid for extra fencing and infrastructure, security guards, search dogs and detection technology. The French authorities deployed more than 1,300 police officers. And every day, British media reported on the escalating "refugee crisis", and racist and xenophobic Brexit campaigns warned of an impending "invasion" of refugees.

As the UK grappled with the seismic shock of Brexit in 2016, construction work (started in 2015) continued on the "Great Wall of Calais". A four-metre-high, one-kilometre long barrier, paid for by the UK, sprang up along both sides of the main road to the Calais port. Informal camps were regularly demolished by police and then reassembled again by homeless migrants.

By now, it was extremely difficult to stow away in a ferry (See Part 2), a train (See Part 3) or a lorry (See Part 6). In the way were fences, dogs, infra-red detectors, secure lorry parks, lorry-sized x-ray machines and man-made lakes.

But, just as before, this didn't stop people from trying - or dying.

The start of the small boats

In 2018, the UK committed to spending £45.5 million to reduce 'illegal' migration from northern France. But migrants and smugglers had already started to adapt and the first small boat crossings had begun. Just under 300 people crossed in small boats that year, which Sajid Javid, then home secretary, declared a "major incident'.

In January 2019, the UK committed £3.2 million for security measures such as CCTV, night goggles and number plate recognition technology. Later that same year, then home secretary Priti Patel agreed with her French counterpart to "intensify joint action to tackle small boat crossings in the Channel". An extra £2.25 million was committed by the UK, but crossings continued to increase rather than decrease.

By 2020 the government was on a war footing. Priti Patel appointed Royal Marine Dan O'Mahoney to a new position of 'Clandestine Channel Threat Commander', who was tasked with making small boat crossings "unviable". But they weren't made unviable - they were made more deadly.

On 27 October 2020, seven people died in the English Channel when their boat sank. This disaster did not prompt any investigations or rethinking from the UK government. Instead, they said the solution was to "break the business model of smugglers". The UK and France agreed to send even more police to Calais, and to introduce new surveillance and detection technology. All with a price tag of £28.1 million.

The following year, over 28,000 people crossed the English Channel in small boats. The year after that, over 45,000. Last year saw a drop from this high, but nearly 30,000 still attempted to cross (See Part 7).

Post-Brexit: a new agenda unleashed

Brexit has had little effect on irregular crossings. But it has opened up a space for a radical, right wing agenda to be realised. In March 2021, that agenda found its way into the government's first post-Brexit immigration policy.

The New Plan for Immigration outlined a plan to make all 'irregular' arrivals (including small boat arrivals) inadmissible for asylum in the UK and introduced life sentences for those who facilitate irregular travel. It also promised to expand immigration detention and set up deportations to a 'safe third country', which was later announced to be Rwanda.

Later that year, the UK pledged to pay France £54 million for more border security measures. In November 2021, at least 31 people drowned in a single accident.

In April 2022, the governments of UK and Rwanda agreed to relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda. The Illegal Migration Act came the following year, excluding all Channel crossers from the right to apply for asylum. This was in spite of the fact that the vast majority of Channel crossers were making asylum applications, the majority of them successfully.

"92% of small boat arrivals from 2018 to March 2023 claimed asylum; of the small share who had received a decision by March 2023, 86% received a grant of protection," according to The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

That same year, then home secretary Suella Braverman told the Conservative party conference: "I would love to have a front page of The Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda, that's my dream, it's my obsession."

Where to from here?

Little more can be done to fortify the border. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent over 30 years on bordering and deterrence, and it has never created a lasting or comprehensive solution. The UK government has never - not once - been able to stop the flow of people across the border. It has only ever been able to reduce it, at immense human and financial cost.

This is a large reason why the Rwanda plan now appears so attractive to the current government. Although it won't stop trying, it is aware that it cannot stop people from coming. The only cards it has left to play are reducing incentives to come.

This is why attention has turned to closing down routes to asylum in the UK while also increasing deportations. The hope is that this will finally be enough to put people off, while also providing a legal avenue for getting rid of them if it's not.

In November 2023, the UK Supreme Court found the Rwanda Plan to be in breach of international and national law. Later the same day, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that he will send more money to Rwanda and pass an emergency law within weeks that declares Rwanda safe. His draft bill has since passed the House of Commons and is now being debated in the House of Lords. He appears ready to "die on his immigration hill", and it will likely be for naught.

There is no good evidence demonstrating that deterrence measures work, from either the English Channel or globally. But because Sunak and his ministers, like their predecessors, are unwilling to admit that the border controls themselves are manufacturing this crisis, they are unable to entertain other options.

The deadly relationship between borders, irregular migration and smuggling continues, intensifying every year. The movement of people has still not been stopped - those people have simply been pushed to take ever more dangerous and expensive means of travel.

And hundreds of people have lost their lives for it. The series we have published on openDemocracy records 391 deaths in this border zone since 1999, but the real figures are likely to be much higher.

There will always be movement of people across borders. And the facts tell us that more security, walls and police is never a solution to smuggling or deaths at borders. On the contrary, as this series argues, the border itself is a serial killer. And it must be stopped.

From openDemocracy

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