Returning to closer cooperation with our European neighbours on migration and security is the only way to address the issue of irregular Channel crossings but outside the framework of the EU there are new trade-offs to negotiate.

According to Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s recent statement in the House of Commons, the UK is facing ‘an invasion’, one that the UK government has failed to prepare for. This is an extraordinary admission by a serving Cabinet Minister.

Braverman’s ‘invasion’ has nothing to do with the Russian army and ongoing war in Ukraine, although the language she uses is meant to evoke it, but definitely linked to wars and conflicts occurring elsewhere in the world. But this was not her point. The invading army is not made of soldiers but a few thousand refugees who have reached the British shores irregularly by small boat. According to the Home Office data, among top nationalities entering by boat in the first quarter of 2022 were Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Eritrean, all of whom have very high chances of being granted asylum by the Home Office. Moreover, if we look at asylum applications elsewhere in Europe, the UK received comparably fewer applications than other countries.

The Home Secretary is not alone in this approach. Her predecessor Priti Patel – the mastermind behind the ‘New Plan for Immigration’, the first post-Brexit immigration policy revamp – made fighting ‘illegal immigration’ a central priority for the UK government finally in control of its borders and ready to harness the ‘Brexit freedoms’. Before Brexit, Home Secretary Theresa May had made the ‘hostile environment for illegal immigrants’ her flagship policy. Despite rhetorical similarities, one thing is noticeably different, there were only a handful of small boat arrivals during May’s tenure as Home Secretary. This is even more striking if we consider that elsewhere in Europe, hundreds of thousands of refugees were crossing in small boats the Mediterranean to seek refuge in the EU. So what has changed? This is where the ‘B-word’ comes into play.

Central to May’s strategy to combat ‘illegal immigration’ were two pillars: co-operation with France, a fellow EU member state, and participation in EU-wide migration governance mechanisms like the Dublin Regulation.

The 2003 France-Britain Le Touquet treaty, which established “juxtaposed national control bureaus” in sea ports of both countries, is the basis of cooperation with France. The treaty meant each country would set up immigration control points at the borders of the other, in particular the French immigration checkpoint in Dover and the British checkpoint in Calais. The treaty effectively moved the UK border into French territory, contributing to the creation of shanty-camp settlements such as the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais areas. Other bilateral accords followed between 2009 and 2018 – specifying that Britain would finance and control security of the border checkpoint sites in France, including the so-called ‘Great Wall of Calais’, a 4m high wall running for 1km along both sides of the main road to Calais port. In exchange, it would be up to France to stop migrants trying to enter Britain illegally.

The core principle of the Dublin Regulations is that the responsibility for asylum applications stays with the country of first entry in the EU. The treaty was built to favour the interests of northern EU member states against southern and eastern ones, which are more likely to face inflows of asylum seekers – particularly following tightening up of visa rules and increased use of remote and externalised border controls which have made access to safer air routes for asylum seekers from war zones almost impossible.

The UK exit from the EU and, in particular, the decision to pursue what has been labelled a ‘hard Brexit’ strategy, has had an impact on both pillars of UK strategy to combat ‘illegal immigration’. While the Le Touquet treaty is still in force the breaking up in trust between the UK and France has certainly had an impact on the willingness of French authorities to cooperate.

Moreover, exiting the Dublin Regulations and other EU-wide immigration control mechanisms has renationalised the UK external border – making irregular immigration to the UK more appealing, as it is more difficult for the UK to return people, even if they are detected on UK soil, due to limited number of return agreements in place with countries of origin and transit. Current tensions with Albania regarding the repatriation of Albanian nationals crossing the English Channel irregularly is a case in point. ‘Take back control of our borders’ turned up to be more complicated than Brexiters like Suella Braverman had anticipated, and a return to closer cooperation with our European neighbours on matters of migration and security is the only pragmatic way to address the issue of irregular crossings.

Originally published as Birmingham Brief, 3 November 2022.