UK: Government takes a hard line on 'small boat' arrivals

The number of people arriving irregularly on British shores has increased in recent weeks, bringing the total for the year to around 4,000. With a number of media outlets treating the issue as an emergency, the government has decided to follow suit and has nown appointed a former marine and senior Home Official official to "a new role leading the UK’s response to tackling illegal attempts to reach the UK."


The Home Office announced Sunday 9 August that Dan Mahoney had been appointed as "small boat commander", although his official title is "Clandestine Channel Threat Commander".

Mahoney has previously worked for the UK's Joint Maritime Security Centre, the National Crime Agency and "Border Crime Command at Border Force Heathrow", and his appointment underlines the UK government's determination to further militarise the border in response to the supposed emergency in the Channel.

The Home Office has hopes of using the military to try to control the sea border between Britain and France, although the Ministry of Defence has itself dismissed the idea as "potty", lawyers have condemned the initiative and the "French government has already told Britain it believes the move to be illegal," according to a report in The Guardian. Nevertheless, the Royal Air Force is assisting the Border force with aerial surveillance and talks are ongoing, according to a separate Guardian article.

The appointment of Mahoney as small boat commander follows the announcement last month of a refreshed commitment to UK-French cooperation on addressing migrant smuggling across the Channel.

It is not yet entirely clear what new activities will come from the July agreement. The UK and France initially agreed to establish a joint operational unit in 2011, although there is no reference to this in the most recent announcement. In fact, this appears to be the third time in the last decade that the Home Office has trumpeted a new cross-border operational outfit.

Despite claims by the government and certain sections of the media that the UK is facing something amounting to a national crisis, putting the number of irregular arrivals by the Channel in context immediately dispels this idea. As an article on Free Movement has highlighted:

"The numbers are small: around 100 a month for the last two or three months. 585 are reported to have arrived in the UK in this way in the whole of 2018. The most recent arrivals have attracted a disproportionate amount of media attention and the Home Secretary declared the arrival of these refugees to be a “major incident.”

As context, there were over 30,000 asylum claims made in the UK in the year 2017, the last year for which data are available. That represents a slight fall on previous years. Meanwhile, in Europe Germany there were 222,560 asylum claims, in Italy 128,850 and in France 99,330."

Steve Peers has also explained in detail the legal issues surrounding the arrival of people on British shores: Updated Qs and As on the legal issues of asylum-seekers crossing the Channel (EU Law Analysis, link)

Steve Valdez-Symonds, the UK director for Amnesty International’s refugee and migrant rights programme, told The Irish Times that using the navy to try to prevent people arriving on British shores and seeking asylum would be:

"...unlawful, reckless and dangerous.

What is needed is co-operation with France to share responsibility for providing a place of safety, including the UK government reuniting families and enabling more people to travel safely to make asylum claims in this country...

But while ministers beat their chests, the real and immediate needs of women, men and children fleeing war and persecution are being ignored. Tragically the only people benefiting from the UK government’s increasing determination to shirk responsibility are smugglers and hate mongers.

It is wholly legitimate for people to seek asylum in this country – even though relatively few people do – and sadly for some these dangerous journeys are the only means available."

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