Article by Thom Tyerman and Travis Van Isacker. This post was written in conjunction with activist networks working against the UK border regime in Northwest France, including Watch the Channel, Calais Migrant Solidarity and Calais Research. Thom and Travis research UK border securitisation and have written previously on the eviction of migrants’ homes and other everyday practices of segregation in Calais.
Originally published by Border Criminologies. Written by Thom Tyerman and Travis Van Isacker. Image above: Ferries not Fences (Authors’ photograph).
On 19 August Abdulfatah Hamdallah from Sudan was found dead on the beach at Sangatte near Calais. During the night he had attempted to cross the Channel to the UK using an inflatable beach toy and a shovel as an improvised oar. Home Secretary Priti Patel blamed ‘abhorrent criminal gangs and people smugglers who exploit vulnerable people’ for his death, despite no smuggler being involved. By portraying him and other boat crossers as the victims of greedy criminal smuggling networks, she hoped to justify the increased securitisation and militarisation of the Channel. These measures, described as necessary to ‘stop them’, in fact lie at the root of why so many now undertake this journey, and are the main cause of the deadly risks they face on the way.
British border securitisation: manufacturing a crisis
In December 2018 the UK government declared a ‘major incident’ when over 200 people crossed the Channel in small boats over the previous two months. So far in 2020 an estimated 6,000 illegalised travellers reached the UK this way, with 98% claiming asylum. On 7 August, the Home Secretary announced her intention to ‘make this route unviable’ by ‘stopping the boats leaving France in the first place’ and ‘intercepting boats and returning those attempting to make a crossing’.
This plan has mainly manifested as the overt militarisation of the Channel under ex-Marine Dan O’Mahoney in the new role of Clandestine Channel Threat Commander. A fleet of Border Force Coastal Patrol Vessels and Customs Cutters currently coordinate with their French law enforcement counterparts and national coastguards on both sides of the Channel to intercept migrants’ boats as soon as possible. French naval warships have been deployed while the Royal Navy and Border Force conduct joint training exercises. Drones from private defence firm Tekever (soon to be replaced by Elbit) and the Ministry of Defence provide constant aerial surveillance alongside sorties from Royal Air Force planes. In addition to locating boats in need of rescue, a Home Office publicity video shows that footage captured by these drones is used to criminalise asylum seekers and convict travellers piloting their boats for ‘facilitating illegal entry’.
The UK’s recent efforts will not end unauthorised journeys by small boat, and arrivals actually increased over August and September 2020. While a 2019 Joint Action Plan promised £3.2million for equipment and security technologies for sea patrols along the French coast, France reportedly requested an additional £30m from the UK for its police to intercept boat crossers while still on land, in closer cooperation with British aerial surveillance assets. If agreed, this would just be another development in the long history of exporting UK border enforcement to the French in return for funding, a strategy which, ironically, produced the very ‘crisis’ of small boat crossings seen today.
Throughout recent decades the externalised British border in Northern France has been increasingly securitised through expenditures of over £315.9m between 2010-16 and more than £45m since the signing of the Sandhurst Treaty in 2018. This money paid for kilometres of walls and fences around the city, motorway, ferry port and Eurotunnel, as well as new sensors and surveillance technologies to detect people hiding in trucks or aboard trains – the main ways people used to cross the border clandestinely. It also funds over one-thousand French riot police permanently stationed in Calais. In addition to patrolling the port perimeters, these police perpetrate daily acts of harassment and violence against migrants, constantly evicting and destroying their squats and makeshift camps. These overt attacks by authorities combine with the systematic denial of necessities such as accommodation, food, hygiene products, washing facilities, and even clothes to deter people from coming to, or remaining in, Calais to attempt to reach the UK.
Furthermore, to curb the number of migrants embarking on maritime journeys, Calais Migrant Solidarity and Human Rights Observers note that French police routinely confiscate or destroy boats, life jackets and other marine safety equipment from any migrants they stop in Calais. Local authorities have also severely restricted the sale of these items to anyone without valid ID, requiring purchasers’ details to be recorded. These actions do not stop boat crossings, but just make them more dangerous and contribute to deaths at the border as people leave unprepared or even try to swim. They also create a lucrative market for smugglers. Far from preventing boat crossings, saving lives, or ending exploitation, such border securitisation in Calais has had the opposite effect.
Free movement, not ‘safe and legal routes’
While, in a bid to appease the far-right and project an image of ‘taking back control of our borders’, the Home Office aims to make small boat crossings in the Channel unviable, migrant rights advocacy groups and humanitarian organisations ask we make them unnecessary. They argued Abdulfatah’s death illustrated the urgent need for ‘safe and legal routes’ for asylum seekers to reach the UK without having to risk their lives or rely on smugglers to do so. In practice, this proposal could see centres established in France for people to claim asylum and register for resettlement or family reunification in the UK. If successful, they would be allowed to enter the country. This would be an alternative to requiring someone to be present on UK territory before claiming asylum, a main reason for irregular border crossings.
While such ‘safe routes’ would certainly look different to the current situation (and are reportedly now being considered by the Home Office), they would not necessarily challenge the existing border regime and may even reinforce it. External resettlement schemes are already part of UK (and EU) border policy. Yet they usually only result in tiny numbers of successful transfers, while the majority of people are left living in dire conditions in refugee camps waiting years for decisions. Furthermore, externalised resettlement programs maintain the discretionary power of the state to decide who is worthy of protection, removing agency from refugees to seek the safety they need. Applicants for resettlement must present themselves as perfect victims, fitting pre-established narratives of personal persecution and contending with assumptions about the safety of their ‘countries of origin’. However, the central issue with resettlement schemes is that they typically accompany other border externalisation and securitisation policies, and thus contribute to delegitimising and criminalising anyone who crosses borders autonomously to seek safety as ‘bogus’ refugees out to abuse the hospitality of arrival states.
‘Safe and legal routes’ and enhanced border policing appear as opposite positions in a debate over borders and human rights, but really they are two sides of the same coin. Theresa May clearly articulated this in a 2015 speech as Home Secretary when she outlined Britain’s border policy as ‘Humane for those who need our help, tough on those who abuse it’. A different framing is urgently needed in advocacy work: one that doesn’t treat Channel crossers as either victims or criminals, but recognises how their journeys subvert and resist the increasing securitisation that has defined British border policy for decades. The challenge is to continue denouncing the violence and injustice of the UK’s externalised border without inadvertently offering opportunities for it to persist in new forms. To be in solidarity with migrants in Calais and in the Channel means demanding nothing less than the abolition of this border, and free movement for all.