London — Andrew Connelly
In late 2018, small flimsy boats carrying mainly Iranian migrants began to arrive on English beaches from France, navigating the world's busiest shipping lane. Such voyages are not unprecedented, but in Britain's current political climate, as Brexit looms, they provided for a sense of heightened panic.
According to Home Office figures, 312 migrants entered Britain by crossing the Channel in 2018. In the same timespan, Europe received more than 116,000 sea arrivals, with 2,242 migrants known to have drowned in the Mediterranean. Yet by the end of December, weeks before Tuesday's vote on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal, the British government had declared the crossings a "major incident" and deployed navy warships to the waters.
Migrants' rights organisations cried foul.
"It's a manufactured crisis," said Bridget Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network, a charity that works with unaccompanied asylum seekers. "The government is using it to harden attitudes to Brexit, playing into ideas of an invading army trying to get to our shores when what we're talking about is a few bedraggled people in boats with hypothermia."
Author Gulwali Passarlay, who fled Taliban-run Afghanistan as a teenager in 2006 - arriving in the UK from Calais hidden in a truck full of bananas - said the UK was overreacting to the migrant boats but blamed harsh deterrence policies for encouraging the phenomenon in the first place.
"Eleven years ago [in Calais] there was no discussion about crossing by small boats; I don't think people thought it was possible. But the British government has done everything they can to prevent people from coming here. Smugglers always find riskier routes, and they wouldn't exist if there were legal and safe ways for them to travel. The 'serious incident' is [not the crossings but] the reasons those people had to flee their homes in the first place."
Beyond the Channel arrivals, migration experts warn that post-Brexit Britain may encounter an asylum upheaval as it leaves EU mechanisms, and that a hidden crisis requiring the attention of British politicians is the risk of large numbers of EU nationals becoming undocumented due to registration complications. They suggest that Brexit has exposed sharp divides over immigration and that uncertainty is growing for migrants and refugees looking for a future in Britain.
On 2 January, Home Secretary (interior minister) Sajid Javid, one of several potential successors to May as prime minister, prejudged the migrants' asylum validity, saying: "You are coming from France, which is a safe country... but if you were a real, genuine asylum seeker then you could have [claimed asylum] in another safe country. If you do somehow make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure you are ultimately not successful."
Aid groups working around the ports of Calais and Dunkirk suggest that after the French government dismantled the tented 'Jungle' camp in October 2016, the population became much more vulnerable. Maya Konforti from L'Auberge des Migrants said treatment by French authorities does not encourage migrants to claim asylum in France and most are motivated to continue due to connections in the UK.
"They live in horrible conditions, are chased by the police every other day, and their tents and sleeping bags are taken," she said. "If someone offers them an opportunity to cross [to the UK], they will take it. And often they have family there, they speak good English, and they heard UK is the best place to go."
Konforti's organisation noted that during a November census, 38 percent of the 493 people counted in Calais were Iranian.
Political repression and depressed economic conditions in Iran are regularly stated reasons for leaving, but a visa-free travel agreement between Tehran and Belgrade may have facilitated the exodus. Signed in August 2017, it allowed Iranians to fly legally to Serbia and thus skip much of the treacherous clandestine route to Europe. More than 15,000 Iranians visited Serbia since the agreement, which was abolished in October 2018 under EU pressure as it became obvious that planes were arriving full of passengers and departing nearly empty.
Speaking by phone from Belgrade, Miodrag Cakic from Refugee Aid Serbia said: "Initially they were here legally as tourists and so able to go to hotels and had no need to approach NGOs. Only later we started to see the unsuccessful ones coming back from the borders, having run out of money over their legal stay and needing our help."
Despite his doubts over the Channel migrants' validity, Javid's own department's statistics for the year ending September 2018 reveal that Iranians had a 47 percent success rate in gaining asylum in the UK (not including figures after appeals).
In the year up to the referendum in June 2016, a record 284,000 EU citizens arrived in the UK, whereas 289,000 came to Britain from outside Europe.
For years, Conservative Party policy has been to reduce immigration to the 'tens of thousands', a target apparently unachievable even if EU migration was reduced to zero. Nevertheless, ending freedom of movement from Europe was a key priority for Brexit's 'Leave' voters, and press coverage of refugees trekking through the Balkans only reinforced this position.
Despite Britain being largely insulated from the European refugee crisis, it was a trope used by pro-Leave campaigners during the 2016 referendum. Brexit, voters were told, would enable Britain to regain control of its borders. Paradoxically, the opposite may be true.
As an EU member, the UK is signed up to the Dublin regulation, which states that asylum seekers can be returned to the country where they were first registered on the Eurodac fingerprint database. The law is tailored to enable wealthy northern European states like the UK to outsource asylum responsibilities to poorer southern members such as Italy and Greece where most migrants enter.
Steve Peers, professor of EU and human rights law at the University of Essex, said Brexit could obstruct Britain's ability to bounce back migrants to Europe.
"Without the deterrence of Dublin returns there could possibly be more people coming that would be harder to send back," he said. "The UK could try to agree bilateral agreements with individual countries, but it would be on the back foot having to negotiate that from scratch. If there's no [Brexit] deal, the Dublin system will stop immediately, and pending cases could stop too."
The UK's privileged class of EU membership includes opt-outs on many asylum and immigration matters, such as the borderless Schengen area - the EU's troubled relocation mechanism designed in 2015 to redistribute migrants around the bloc.
Instead, in 2015, the British government announced an expansion of a scheme to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees from the Middle East by 2020. So far, 12,851 have come by this method - a total over more than three years that approximates to the average daily arrival on the Greek islands at the height of Europe's refugee influx.
In the middle of the migrant boat furore, Javid - the son of a Pakistani bus driver who arrived in 1960s Britain with £1 in his pocket - outlined new plans for a post-Brexit 'skills-based' immigration system, including limiting low-skilled migrants to short-term visas and a minimum salary threshold for the highly skilled (originally mooted as £30,000). Some observers noted that Javid's proposals would have prevented his own father from building a life in Britain.
From March, Britain's 3.7 million EU citizens will need to begin applying for 'settled status' to remain in the country after Brexit. This process, which costs £65, will be managed by the Home Office, a department that is habitually plagued by immigration scandals.
One of 2018's biggest political stories in Britain revealed that the Home Office had wrongly deported, detained, and denied services to hundreds of Commonwealth citizens after accusing them of not possessing documentation they never knew they needed. The plight of the 'Windrush generation' - named after the ship that brought the first passengers across from the Caribbean to fill post-World War II labour shortages - engulfed May's government for months.
The University of Oxford's Migration Observatory has suggested that potentially tens of thousands of vulnerable EU citizens, without help, may risk not securing their status. The risk for these people is that they become ensnared in the UK's 'hostile environment' immigration policies.
Pierre Makhlouf from the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees said Javid's new measures could sow the seeds for a future Windrush-style scandal as EU nationals who failed to register encounter problems later on: "We are talking about more than three million people now having to regularise themselves in a way that has never been required before. I have no doubt that we will see an increase in undocumented people in the UK."
Most political observers predict parliament will vote down May's Brexit deal on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the government has begun preparing for food and medicine shortages, transport chaos, and civil disorder in case Britain leaves the EU on 29 March without a deal.
In May, a UN special rapporteur said the referendum had contributed to an environment of increased intolerance and racial discrimination. Whatever the Brexit outcome, the changes coming, against a backdrop of polarised views over immigration, present new challenges for vulnerable migrants.