As Record Number of Refugees Cross Channel, Britain Seeks to Criminalize Irregular Migration

A record number of migrants has crossed the English Channel from France to the United Kingdom this year in small boats. The British government is seeking to deter the migrants by making irregular migration a criminal offense.The migrants come from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Most are fleeing conflict or poverty.At its narrowest point, the English Channel is 30 kilometers wide. The migrants usually travel in overloaded inflatable dinghies across the busiest shipping lane in the world. British and French intelligence services say the crossings are coordinated by networks of people smugglers, who charge about $3,000 per person.French police patrol the coastline to intercept migrants, but say the coastline is too vast to prevent all departures. Once inside British waters, the migrants must be taken ashore under international law.A man thought to be a migrant who made the crossing from France is escorted along a walkway past dinghies after disembarking from a British border force vessel in Dover, south east England, July 22, 2021.A record 430 people made the crossing in a single day last month. The total for 2021 so far stands at around 8,500, according to data from PA Media, formerly the Press Association, that was collated from government statistics. That number is higher than all of 2020, when 8,461 people made the crossing.Speaking in parliament last month, Home Secretary Priti Patel said the government would take action to stop the migration.“We’re seeing right now is effectively people trafficking, smugglers, criminal gangs exploiting our asylum system to bring in economic migrants and people that, quite frankly, are circumventing our legal migration routes, coming to our country illegally,” she told lawmakers last month.“This is an evolving situation. The numbers of migrants attempting these crossings from France have increased considerably,” she said.The spike in arrivals has embroiled Britain’s revered sea rescue charity, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), into the controversy. Critics accuse the charity of providing a “taxi service” to Britain. The RNLI has defended its actions.“When our lifeboats launch, we operate under international maritime law, which states we are permitted, and indeed obligated, to enter all waters regardless of territories for search and rescue purposes. And when it comes to rescuing those people attempting to cross the channel, we do not question why they got into trouble, who they are or where they come from. All we need to know is that they need our help,” RNLI chief executive Mark Dowie said in a statement last month.A group of people thought to be migrants crossing from France, come ashore aboard the local lifeboat at Dungeness, southern England, July 20, 2021.The government argues that the migrants should seek asylum in the first safe country in which they arrive, rather than traveling to Britain. Its proposed legislation would sentence migrants who enter Britain without permission up to four years in prison.Bridget Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network, a charity that supports migrants arriving across the English Channel, said retribution won’t deter the migrants.“It flies in the face of international law, you know. The Geneva Convention states that people have a right to seek asylum, and it can be in a country of their choosing. It feels very deliberately punitive. It feels like saber rattling. It feels like a lot of tough talk to make people feel that the U.K. is not a welcoming place. The fact is that that’s not going to stop people from coming,” she told VOA.A committee of British lawmakers last week condemned the living conditions for newly arrived migrants in the port of Dover. During a visit to a migrant reception center, women with babies and very young children were seen sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor.Meanwhile, Britain has given France $75 million to beef up policing of the northern French coastline to try to intercept migrants, on top of the $39 million it gave last year.France has called for the European Union to conduct reconnaissance flights over the English Channel.

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