Dear Home Secretary: Channel crossings are already inviable for asylum-seekers and human rights

PI responds to the plans announced by UK Home Office to make Channel crossings "inviable" for asylum seekers and joins efforts by migrant organisations to call for the UK government to introduce safe and legal routes to the UK.

Key points
  • There is a need to challenge the securitisation of borders and instead prioritise ensuring the safety of people.
  • There is a concerning rise in the use of drones and other technologies in border management and immigration control which impacts the rights of those migrating by choice or necessity.
  • PI joins 100 civil society organisations and individuals to demand government to end dangerous crossings for good, by introducing safe and legal routes to the UK.
News & Analysis

In the last few weeks, the UK government has announced various new measures to ensure that crossings across the Channel were “inviable” including by appointing a new role of “clandestine Channel threat commander" and further plans to deploy the navy to stop migrants from crossing to the UK from France across the Channel. Premature plans it seems, as not only would such measures be contrary to the UK’s international obligations to allow individuals to seek asylum in the UK, but also since such operations would be currently unlawful because the UK Navy would not be permitted to enter French waters without prior agreement with France.

A concerning rise in the use of drones and other technologies in border management and immigration control

As the above has been unfolding, further news emerged of the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) contracting Elbit Systems UK, a subsidiary of Haifa-based Elbit Systems, an Israeli defence company with a contract worth almost £1 million to explore the use and deployment of drones to be used in the Channel. Whilst the contract was awarded back in February 2020, the government only published the contract in July 2020. Based on the call for tender, the MCA seems to have contracted this company to “assess the potential use of UAV to augment current and future aerial surveillance capability by reducing, enhancing or replacing existing delivery methods”. The use of an Israeli defence company for migration control purposes is a clear expression of a growing trend in the UK: the criminalisation and heightened surveillance of asylum-seekers.

It is not the first time that such technologies and others are being used for border management and immigration control by the UK to monitor channel crossings - and certainly not the first time that border surveillance has been the object of regional cooperation. The UK has previously used drones provided for by a Portugese company as part of one of the EU Horizon Projects. Furthermore, the EU was reported last year to have invested $115 million in unmanned drones also provided by Elbit System to police the Mediterranean Sea. The models acquired are the same as the ones used by the Israeli government in combat missions in the occupied Palestinian territory of Gaza. Using foreign aid budgets, the EU has exported surveillance capabilities to the Middle East and Africa. A particularly salient example is the use of the EU Emergency Trust Fund and the EU Trust Fund for Africa to provide Niger with drone technology as part of a security project called GAR-SI(Quick Action and Surveillance Groups in the Sahel) to tackle the “root causes” of migration.

A few months ago PI made a submission outlining about the various technologies provided by private sector that were being used in immigration and border management, and the impact on the rights of migrants. It raises concerns, among others, about how digital technologies deployed in the context of border enforcement and administration reproduce, reinforce, and compound racial discrimination.

The need to challenge securitisation of borders and instead prioritise ensuring the safety of people

The increased securitisation of the UK border with the Channel comes despite a report published last year that UK migration and border management policies were pushing migrants to take this dangerous route to claim asylum in the UK.

As repeated many times before by advocates for migrants’ rights, the people that make use of what is a very dangerous route across the Channel from France are resorting to such a precarious measure because there are limited legal routes for asylum seekers to seek asylum in the UK without being in the UK territory, and so they have no other choice.

Contrary to a statement made by the UK Prime Minister himself as recently as 10 August 2020, seeking asylum is not a crime. Seeking asylum is a legitimate right as upheld by the International Convention on the rights of Refugees signed in 1951 and ratified by the UK in 1954.

The UK Home Secretary Priti Patel claims that “I know that when the British people say they want to take back control of our borders – this is exactly what they mean.” And yet a recent YouGov survey shows that nearly half of those surveyed felt “a great deal of sympathy” or “a fair amount of sympathy” for the migrants who cross the channel from France to England.

What we expect from the Home Office

Working with and supporting the efforts of organisations in the migration sector, PI demands a human approach to immigration based on the principles of fairness, accessibility, and respect for human rights. We joined a call made by over 100 organisations for the UK government to reprioritise its approach to border management and immigration control to focus and invest on providing legal, safe avenues for asylum-seekers to seek asylum in the UK instead of investing millions into securitising the border and developing laws and policies which are criminalising the act of seeking asylum and putting lives further at risk.

No human is illegal.

Asylum seekers should be free to exercise their fundamental right to seek asylum without fearing their right to privacy being violated and, in more tragic circumstances, without having to risk their lives.