LONDON - Britain’s heated debate over migration as it leaves the European Union has been fueled by a spike in the number of asylum seekers arriving on the south coast from France in small boats.
A small number of migrants usually attempt the crossing each year, but the government says over 400 people have tried to cross the 30-kilometer English Channel in the last four months. It has declared a ‘major incident’ and has pulled back patrol vessels from a joint European Union mission in the Mediterranean Sea.
Visiting the port of Dover recently, Home Secretary Sajid Javid questioned the motivation of those seeking asylum in Britain.
“If you are a genuine asylum seeker then why have you not sought asylum in the first safe country that you arrived in? France is not a country that anyone would argue is not safe,” Javid told reporters.
Most of the recent arrivals appear to be from Iran. They are attempting the crossing in inflatable dinghies in the middle of winter. It is a journey fraught with danger across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, with strong tides and currents.
Critics say the numbers are still relatively low and accuse the government of manufacturing a crisis to suit a political narrative, a charge it strongly denies.
While the political focus has been on the migrants coming across by boat, most asylum seekers arrive by air. Others try to hide underneath or inside trucks heading to Britain. Experts say increased security in French ferry ports could be driving migrants to attempt the sea crossing.
Noorulhadi Oryakheil fled the Taliban in his native Afghanistan and came to Britain hidden inside a refrigerated truck three years ago, aged just sixteen.
“When it [the truck] starts, and he starts the fridge, that was too cold, right. We were just hugging each other and sitting in the middle of the lorry [truck]. When he opened the door we just ran away and jumped off the lorry. So after we were walking on the motorway, like finally we were on the motorway and the police catch us,” he told VOA.
Oryakheil gained asylum in Britain, aided by the charity Kent Refugee Action Network. The organization’s Bridget Chapman says the government’s reaction to the influx is driven by politics.
“It’s a crisis in that people are being forced to put their lives at risk to make a claim for asylum, that’s completely unacceptable. But I think we’re talking about roughly 250 people over two-and-a-half months. That isn’t a crisis," Chapman said.
"Amongst certain people in power there’s a lot of juggling to see who can be the toughest on migration, because I think they see there may be a chance for a leadership bid. And that to me is playing politics with people’s lives,” Chapman added.
The government says the deployment of naval vessels is needed to deter people smugglers and migrants from making such a dangerous journey.
Others warn the naval ships could persuade more migrants to attempt the journey in the hope they will be rescued.