What makes the United Kingdom such an important destination for migrants?

16 February 2022 /

5 min

For a few months, the tension between France and the United Kingdom has been increasing due to divergent opinions on the question of the securitization of the Channel. These tensions are caused by the rise in the number of migrants illegally entering the UK by boat from Calais (France). Indeed, between the 1st of January and the 31st of August 2021, 15,400 migrants attempted to cross the Channel, compared to 9,500 people for all of 2020. However, this crossing is not without risk. Each month, several people die or go missing. So why is the UK such an attractive destination?

‘Illegal’ migrants

These migrants who arrived in the UK by small boats are labeled as ‘illegal’ by the British government. This irregular immigration can be defined by the unauthorized entry, stay or work in absence of the legally required formalities. In this case, the irregularity occurs when the person crosses an international border without travel documents or without fulfilling the administrative expectations that are needed to leave the country. People travel illegally due to the lack of investment and resources put in place to ensure a safe and legal migration journey. Boat arrivals are increasing due to the intensification of customs, administrative and health controls linked to Brexit, which make it difficult to enter the country by other means. The British government is doing everything on its hand to stop this illegal migration, but its plans to prevent people from entering the country have been criticized by NGOs for being extreme and dangerous. NGOs fear that migrants in need of help from the UK may not be able to get it if the country’s laws become stricter.

Why not stay in France?

It is legitimate to wonder why migrants risk their lives to enter the UK when France is a safe country as well. A survey found that most British are in favour of tougher measures against people entering the country illegally. According to the BBC, 61% believed that a migrant who comes to the UK from a safe country such as France should not be allowed to stay in the UK as an asylum seeker. Yet even if the collective imagination thinks otherwise, only a very small proportion of asylum seekers who enter France actually try to go to the UK. In fact, in 2019, France received 143,000 asylum applications compared to 35,000 for the United Kingdom. As the figures show, the UK is far from receiving a disproportionate number of migrants.

Despite the fact that France hosts most of these migrants, it was found that even when asylum seekers had formally applied to the French authorities, they were in many cases left without resources, shelter, food or protection. In addition, several times the French authorities have been accused of failing to provide adequate shelter and support to asylum seekers. The same condemnations were made in relation to extreme police brutalities against migrants sleeping on the streets or in makeshift camps.

Why the United Kingdom?

There are several reasons for choosing the UK as a destination. The main cause is the presence of family members and / or friends who already live there. Likewise, a large diaspora in the migrants’ host countries can also motivate migration, which is particularly the case for Iraqis, Iranians and Eritreans in the United Kingdom. The existence of a community is an important factor for migrants to choose where they can settle. This is a natural factor reflected in all global migration patterns.

But other explanations exist. For example, the fact that English is the national language encourages many migrants to choose the UK because it is an international tongue and easy to learn. Moreover, most of them already speak it, which is more convenient than learning a new language because it makes it easier to find work, to make new friends and therefore to integrate into society. Another reason is the fact that the UK is seen as a safe, democratic and tolerant country. Its multicultural and open-minded aspect attracts many people. In addition, we must not forget also that the United Kingdom was a great colonial power. And it has been shown that the link between the choice of the host country, the country of origin and the latter’s colonial past is very important. We can conclude by saying that, unlike in France, more quality of life for migrants is offered in the UK.

The arrival in the UK: from dream to nightmare

However, once in the UK, these migrants are arrested, photographed and questioned. The authorities take their fingerprints and they have to take a Covid test. After that, they are sent to hotels to do a compulsory quarantine. Normally after that they have to be sent to refugee centres. Unfortunately, because of the lack of resources put in place and the slowness of the system, some people stay several months in these hotels. In addition, in normal circumstances a response to their asylum application must be given within six months. Yet the number of asylum seekers who have been waiting for a response for more than a year has only increased.

These asylum seekers are then often stuck in hotels in the suburbs where hygiene and security measures are not respected. Few activities, such as sports or language sessions, and medical care are available to them. They are desperately waiting for an answer that allows them to work and to build a new life, but unfortunately this can take months or even years. The fact of being stuck in these hotels and that this wait becomes unbearable makes many asylum seekers fall into depression. The dream then becomes the start of a nightmare.

We can therefore conclude that the reasons why migrants want to go to the United Kingdom are numerous: the colonial past, the language or even the role of the diasporas are important. They are then ready to do anything to get there, even risking their lives on the Channel. Unfortunately, once there, they are often disillusioned. The wait, the loneliness and the lack of means put in place by the host country plunge these men, women and children in deep distress. To change the pace, it would first be necessary to better inform migrants of the real conditions they will be exposed to. In addition, the UK should be obliged to put in place secure routes that help these people arrive safely to the country. Blocking legal channels will not stop migration.

[This article was first published in the issue 35 of the magazine]

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