It’s a moral imperative that we deal with illegal channel crossings



Over the last few days Twitter has been awash with those wanting to point out what they see as hypocrisy of the ‘all lives matter’ crowd. #AllLivesMatter except for those crossing the channel in rubber dinghies, right? 

Unfortunately, with this kind of shallow point scoring rhetoric, what goes around comes around – Why on earth would any person who cares about the lives of migrants incentivise human trafficking, exploitation and modern slavery?  By defending the current state of affairs, they are inadvertently allowing human traffickers to profit from their naïve pursuit of the moral high ground. 

As early as 2016 it was reported that traffickers were demanding ‘entry fees’ from child refugees wanting to come to the UK, who were sexually exploited or forced to commit crimes. Migrants hand over anywhere between £3,000-6,000 to human traffickers to get in a boat bound for the UK. Around 4,267 have entered the country illegally this way since the beginning of the year in over 300 boats, with 3,865 arriving since the start of lockdown. Around 150 arrived yesterday alone, and these numbers are only accelerating. This means that human traffickers, since the start of coronavirus measures, have made almost £20 million from these illegal migrant crossings. 

When discussing these crossings, it easy to forget that it isn’t just about those making the journey. The reality is that the millions being made by these traffickers will be funding other criminal activity, like modern slavery and sex trafficking. What’s worse is that the profits are being raked in on this side of the channel too. 

Far from disincentivising the journeys, in 2019 the government handed multibillion-pound contracts to companies like Serco, Mears and Clear Springs to house these migrants. Clearly the government had the foresight to make these contracts cover a ten-year period, presumably having no intention to seriously deal with the problem in the coming decade. The contracts are worth £4 billion, with the Mears group winning three ten year asylum accommodation contracts from the Home Office worth £1.15 billion. When Serco’s contract was signed, alone worth almost £2 billion, the company’s share price rose by 6.5%. Mears’ rose by 6.2%. 

Illegal crossings are a big money-maker. As long as illegal crossings continue, and the UK ensures they are housed, fed, clothed and paid an allowance at the tax-payers expense, there are incentives all round; not just for traffickers but for the companies that provide these services and whose shareholders profit from an industry could not exist without the success of criminals across the Channel. 

If migrants on the other side of the channel go by what they see on the internet and in our news, of course they will think that putting themselves in the hands of traffickers is a chance worth taking — what awaits is a whole host of attractive benefits, like being put up in a four-star hotel. Those migrants who manage to cover the fee might have their dinghies safely ferried by French boats into our waters, or even get a friendly wave from a Good Morning Britain reporter asking if they’re alright. 

Some young journalist could make their career in finding out how migrants acquire such large sums of money to pay the traffickers, and in uncovering the stories of those who can’t, but journalists had to be pressured into reporting on the basics in the first place. Their attention is elsewhere.

Since the death of George Floyd in the US in May and the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue on Bristol, all eyes have been on the historical profits of slavery – buildings, statues, places, cities. But what about today? 

Perhaps it is easier to pull down a statue. There is no reason to dis-incentivise these journeys when they are hugely profitable. While Black Lives Matter graffitied the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, the man who defeated fascism in Europe, his grandson, Rupert Soames, is – wait for it – CEO of Serco. 

Priti Patel has announced the government will be taking more measures to deal with this problem, but it has to be more than tough talk. While there are such huge government mandated financial incentives that send a message to those on the other side of the Channel, everything else looks a bit cosmetic. 

Our hands are tied by the Dublin Regulation – an EU regulation that means once illegal immigrants are in our waters, we have to process them as asylum seekers. This is what the Home Secretary meant when she said that there are ‘legislative, legal & operational barriers to stopping small boats’ and that the system is ‘not fit for purpose’. 

On Twitter, Priti Patel said she knows that when the British people said they wanted to take back control of their borders ‘this is exactly what they mean’. Fortunate, you might say, that we have a conservative government. ‘Furious’, Patel says she is sending in the Royal Navy, but if the barriers are legal, then the government need to lead the way in beefing up our domestic legislation – namely the soft Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 –, patching up the holes and removing the stumbling blocks to ensure that illegal migrants can be more easily dealt with and send a message that will disincentivise human trafficking. 

It is not always easy to guess how history will judge you – but it is a safe bet to assume that it will not judge you as you might expect. 

Emma Webb is a writer and commentator, and the Director of the Forum of Integration, Democracy and Extremism at CIVITAS. Follow her on twitter: @Emma_A_Webb