Why are migrants in small boats a heated issue in the UK?

Migration Britain
Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaks with members of the media after a press conference following the launch of new legislation on migrant channel crossings at Downing Street, London, Tuesday, March 7, 2023. The U.K. government says it's ready for legal challenges to a tough new law intended to stop tens of thousands of migrants a year reaching the country in small boats across the English Channel. (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP)

The message to asylum-seekers from British Home Secretary Suella Braverman was stark. “If you enter Britain illegally, you will be detained and swiftly removed.”

The government hopes that decisive — and divisive — measure will stop tens of thousands of migrants reaching Britain in boats across the English Channel.

Behind the tough talk, however, lie a host of legal, practical and ethical questions. Condemned by rights groups and queried by legal experts, the Illegal Migration Bill is the latest in a long line of British government efforts to control unauthorized migration.


The issue is neither new nor unique to the UK. War, famine, poverty and political repression have put millions on the move around the globe. Britain receives fewer asylum-seekers than European nations including Italy, Germany and France.

But for decades, thousands of migrants have traveled to northern France each year in hopes of reaching the UK. Many are drawn by family ties, the English language or the belief it’s easy to find work in the UK.

After the Eurotunnel connecting France and England under the Channel opened in 1994, refugees and migrants congregated near the French end in hopes of stowing away on vehicles. They gathered in crowded makeshift camps, including a sprawling, violent settlement dubbed “The Jungle.”

Neither repeated sweeps to shut down the camps nor increased security patrols stopped the flow of people.


When the COVID-19 pandemic all but halted rail, air and ship travel and disrupted freight transport in 2020, people-smugglers began to put migrants into inflatable dinghies and other small boats.

In 2018, only 300 people reached Britain that way. The number rose to 8,500 in 2020, 28,000 in 2021 and 45,000 in 2022.

Dozens have died in the frigid channel, including 27 people in a single sinking in November 2021.

Groups of migrants arrive almost daily on beaches or in lifeboats along England’s southern coast, sending the asylum issue up the news and political agenda.


The British government says many of those making the journey are economic migrants rather than refugees, and points to an upswing last year in arrivals from Albania, a European country that the UK considers safe.

The other main countries of origin last year were Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Of those whose applications have been processed, a large majority were granted asylum in the UK.


Britain’s Conservative Party, in power since 2010, has brought in a series of measures aimed at deterring the channel crossings.

The U.K. has struck a series of deals with France to increase patrols of beaches and share intelligence in an attempt to disrupt smuggling gangs — all of which have had only a limited impact.

Last year Britain announced a deal with Rwanda to send migrants arriving by boat on a one-way trip to the East African country, where their asylum claims would be heard and, if successful, they would stay. The policy was condemned by human rights groups an is mired in legal challenges. No one has yet been sent to Rwanda.

The 2022 Nationality and Borders Act barred people from claiming asylum in Britain if they had passed through a safe country such as France. But in practice, people fleeing war and persecution can’t be sent home, and no countries — other than Rwanda and Albania — have agreed to take deportees.

Last week Britain unveiled the Illegal Migration Bill, its toughest measure yet, which calls for people arriving by unauthorized routes to be detained, deported to their homeland or “a safe third country” and banned from ever reentering the UK.


The United Nations refugee agency says the bill amounts to an “asylum ban” and is a clear breach of the U.N. refugee convention. The UK government acknowledges the bill may break Britain’s international human rights commitments, and says it expects legal challenges.

Sunder Katwala, head of the identity and immigration think-tank British Future, said in a blog post that “the pledge to detain and remove all people who cross the Channel has no prospect of being honored in the next two years.”

The British government says the country’s asylum system has been “overwhelmed” by the small-boat arrivals. Braverman, who has called the arrivals an “invasion,” said Tuesday that “the law-abiding patriotic majority have said: Enough is enough.”

Her words have been criticized as inflammatory. BBC soccer pundit Gary Lineker drew a mix of praise and criticism for saying some of the government’s language was “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”

Critics say the asylum system is creaking because cumbersome bureaucracy, exacerbated by the pandemic, has created a big backlog in applications.


The government has vowed to push the bill into law, saying the British public wants to see tough action. “Stopping the boats is not just my priority, it is the people’s priority,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said.

Evidence suggests the public’s view is mixed. A desire to control immigration was a huge factor behind the UK’s 2016 vote to pull out of the European Union. But overall immigration rose, rather than fell, after Brexit, hitting a record high of more than 500,000 in the year to June 2022. Britain also took in a record number of refugees last year, including 160,000 from Ukraine and 150,000 from Hong Kong.

At the same time, polls suggest immigration is no longer a top issue for many voters. Jonathan Portes, senior fellow at the think-tank UK in a Changing Europe, said there has been a “sustained shift towards more positive attitudes towards migration” since Brexit.

As for asylum-seekers, he said Britons want the country to be “relatively generous towards genuine refugees. But how that is defined is highly contested.”

© Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

©2023 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Why is it an issue? Because the nasty party thinks it can win back a few votes from from the mean-spirited and diminished people who have otherwise been turned off from them due to their utter incompetence and corruption.

-1 ( +5 / -6 )

The Illegal Migration Bill is well named. It is illegal and it will be stuck in due process until the Tories are out of office.

You hardly hear about immigration from HK here, despite the numbers. Maybe they want to keep that quiet as they can't squeeze any votes out of it. In contrast, the BBC have been highlighting attempts to place migrants from France in hotels around the country. They have to stay somewhere as the processing of their cases is hopelessly slow. Media attention and Cruella's demonising of them has inflamed the situation initiating demos. Some of the migrants are scared to leave their rooms. There will be the inevitable bump in hate crime that often comes with Tory pre-electioneering.

Maybe the government wanted to justify the £500m 'Brexit bonanza' they are giving to France to slack a bit less. Given the artificial increase in gas and electricity bills and rising food and mortgage costs, you can imagine how popular that is. Nobody expects the French to lift a finger, however much they get. The government have just made themselves look like complete mugs.

The migrants want to work. They aren't stealing anyone's jobs - the UK needs more labour. We need more reservoirs, solar farms, farm workers, child care, taxi, bus and train drivers, and hospital staff. Yet the government lock these people up in hotel rooms or immigration centres, in some cases for years, and ban them from working.

This is a government that is incompetent on a good day. Brexit broke the economy and damaged supply chains, sanctions saw UK energy bills shoot up, and everyone that can afford to stay in business is short of staff. And then the government's least popular minister gets into a spat with one of the country's most popular TV presenters. It's like the plot of an episode of the TV series 'The New Statesman'.

Expect more of this farce until 2024 when the Tories should simply vanish. They have failed so badly, so often, that they may not even manage third at the next election. Plenty of time to save up for the champagne. I get regular missives from the local Tories - their software has determined that I must be a sure fire Tory voter. I have a low opinion of the opposition, but I do so want the Tories to be wiped off the political map after the last few years.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

They - some might say 'cleverly' - jumble together two separate arguments, and try to claim they are the same thing.

The first argument is 'Stop the Boats'. A praiseworthy notion, given the fact that so many people are dying trying to cross the Channel in flimsy, overcrowded craft organised by people smugglers and traffickers who are in it for the money. Of course something needs to be done to stop the loss of life.

The second argument is 'Stop the furrinners'. A not-so-praiseworthy notion, rooted in not so much racism as xenophobia. A view Braverman, a daughter of immigrants, shamefully calls 'patriotic'.

The nasty party is using the first argument as a means of achieving the second, and I can't see that it is going to work.

People do not allow themselves to be loaded onto flimsy overcrowded boats in rough seas unless they are desperate. Why are they desperate? Because the UK has more or less shut down legal means of seeking asylum. Offer people safer, legitimate, sensible means of applying for asylum in the UK, and the number of people setting out in tiny boats will plummet.

The reason this has not been suggested by the nasty party, of course, is that it does not address the second nasty little argument, which is at odds with the “sustained shift towards more positive attitudes towards migration” among the UK population at large.

-2 ( +4 / -6 )

The Tories are panicking about the polls and desperate to make sure they retain the rightwing vote. They fear it might splinter with some of it going to the likes of Reform. If they do get a hiding in the next election, they’ll need to at least retain something to build on. Some believe the Tories are desperate and already resigned to losing and are now just looking at damage limitation. If this is the case, what GBR48 mentioned about stirring up ugly sentiments could get very extreme.

The Illegal Migration Bill is well named. It is illegal and it will be stuck in due process until the Tories are out of office

If they don’t get this through it will be interesting how they spin it.

Who can they blame?

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

After the failed leadership and PMs. Is it five 5 PMs? Lost count. More like a footie score. Failed NHS. Failed Brexit exit. Failed defense in more ships in ports than out protecting the country.

Tory Party. Failed, failed, and failed.

2 ( +5 / -3 )



-1 ( +4 / -5 )

Its a distraction from other government failures, namely a collapsing health system, the highest energy prices in Europe, very high levels of government sleaze/corruption, widespread strikes in key sectors, overpriced housing/homelessness, self-created trade problems post-Brexit, police corruption, .... The list goes on and on.

The government's only hope is to keep blaming the Ukraine war, keep blaming Covid, and the oldie but goodie of blaming foreigners. This immigration bill is probably illegal, like the imaginary but highly publicized flights to Rwanda, but that means they can blame do-gooders at the EU, the UN, etc. for not allowing the plucky Brits to do what it necessary. It's the equivalent of some loudmouth in the pub threatening to fight people with no intention of actually doing it. All that matters is the government appearing to be tough on migrants. If there was any scrutiny, it would find that the UK government has shoveled a ton of money, hundreds of millions of pounds, to Rwanda and France for measures that will be completely ineffective, flying drones over beaches or theorectically accepting people who have not come so far and are unlikely to do so in the future.

The Conservative Party deputy leader said their electoral strategy is about culture wars about immigration and trans people. Expect trans people, in school textbooks or something, to be the next target.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

The Conservative Party deputy leader said their electoral strategy is about culture wars about immigration and trans people. Expect trans people, in school textbooks or something, to be the next target

Hope they don’t try the cry of the moron - ‘Go woke, go broke’.

We are already broke.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

According to international law, refugees must seek asylum in the first safe country they enter. These people want to live in the UK, because we are a soft touch. They are illegals, nothing more, nothing less.

Why are these migrants a heated issue? Because we are crammed with people to the rafters. We import a city the size of Cambridge into our small country EVERY YEAR. We can't assimilate them; we can't find housing for them, and the NHS can't provide healthcare for them. We certainly cannot afford illegal immigrants on top of all that!

-1 ( +5 / -6 )

Immigration policy in UK and across Europe has descended into toxic party politics followed by chaos.

Agreement between, even the definition status of asylum seeker, refugee, etc requires a common policy of partnerships with countries of origin, missing in every member state including the UK.

However in numerous case the boats occupants have zero paperwork. Or else why would they risk their lives climbing into a dingy.

One common theme across all EU member states/UK is a defined co-responsibility sought in relations with with migrants’ countries of origin and an agreed transit procedure.

The UK EU will have to accept that their has been a lack of communication regarding shared objectives, creating a wrap around action plan for areas affecting European/UK immigration and asylum policy,

The task at hand is the House of Commons ceases to score party political points and agrees that these people smugglers/boats have to cease.

Identification of who qualifies as a genuine asylum seeker is the number one priority.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Why a heated issue?

45,000 in a year! An unknown number of terrorists, rapists, criminals, all know to throw away passports and claim to be from a different country to their real origin. Lastly many claiming to be under 18 years old. They have been well educated to beat the system.

Not wanted or needed in the UK.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

There is no way UK can absorb 45,000 of these so called asylum seekers arriving in dingys.

The British government says many of those making the journey are economic migrants rather than refugees, and points to an upswing last year in arrivals from Albania, a European country that the UK considers safe.

The other main countries of origin last year were Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Of those whose applications have been processed, a large majority were granted asylum in the UK.

So if the genuine people at risk are to be granted asylum, a system free from party political grandstanding points scoring, must be in place to weed out the illegal undocumented immigrants.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I'd rather live next door to a migrant who risked their life for a better future than a Daily Mail reader.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

How about taking some in to stay in your own home, and pay all their living expenses so other taxpayers don't have to.

Weak logic. Do you pay for accommodation for every anti-vaxxer, climate change denier, disinformation youtuber and flat earther that you come across? Do you fight in every war that you oppose?

1 ( +4 / -3 )

If Cruella is found guilty of breaking international law, I hope the next government ship her off (in a boat of any size), to the Hague, to be prosecuted and imprisoned.

Most of the Tories deserve to be behind bars for what they have done to the UK, starting with the liar-in-chief of the Brexit campaign.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Not wanted or needed in the UK.

330.000 vacant jobs in the UK mainly in vital public services. And mainly because the 'great British' would rather claim benefits than clean toilets or serve in cafes for a living like many immigrants can do without a problem.

45,000 in a year! An unknown number of terrorists, rapists, criminals

How many incidents of terrorism in the last 12 years? And all I currently read about are rape crimes from white Brits including the police. Terrorism has nothing to do with immigration. If the west stop dropping bombs in the Middle East then terrorism will go away.

Mr Kipling your outright racism is not wanted nor needed in the UK. A new future is coming without the likes of you and your right wing scaremongering. Look at the current mess created by Farage, Johnson and the like. This white entitlement is finished and an abject failure. The young generation will create a successful future and they won't be so scared of immigration,

1 ( +3 / -2 )


If the west stop dropping bombs in the Middle East then terrorism will go away.

Good point, US led wars but it's Europe who has to deal with the fallout.

How many incidents of terrorism in the last 12 years?.

Well, for the tip of the iceberg....

If you want to go to offspring of so called asylum seekers, add the Manchester bomber and his brother.

Mr Kipling your outright racism.

Wanting to keep rapists, murderers and terrorists out makes you racist?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Literally the whole world is in the UK right now and having recently lived there for a year I can attest that it is easier to meet non native Brits than native ones.

It is not that immigration is a bad thing but it is out of hand in the UK.

Also, unless UK house planning and developing laws are changed to benefit the increasing population and not the greedy developers then attitudes towards foreigners will only become more negative.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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