Post by Marta Welander, Elizabeth Hobbs and Grainne Farrell. Marta is a doctoral researcher and visiting lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster and executive director of Refugee Rights Europe. Elizabeth is a desk researcher with Refugee Rights Europe. Grainne is a former coordinator for the Refugee Info Bus in Calais and currently advocacy officer for the Mobile Info Team in Thessaloniki. In this blog, the authors reflect on the human consequences of the juxtaposed border arrangements between the UK and France, with a particular emphasis on their effects on human rights amongst prospective asylum seekers.
In the context of the recent UK-French ministerial ‘refugee crisis’ talks regarding attempts by asylum-seekers to cross the English Channel, it could be argued that the real crisis at hand relates to the alarming array of human rights violations facing prospective asylum seekers at the British border. The UK has established juxtaposed border arrangements with both France and Belgium meaning that UK border officials check freight and passengers before they cross the Channel. Yet the true juxtaposition is that these controls – which were established to ensure the safety and security of the border – are actually the very source of insecurity and lack of safety for hundreds of displaced people in the Northern France area. The arrangements, which are operational at the Eurotunnel terminal at Coquelles, Calais and Dunkirk ports and several Eurostar stations, narrow the legal channels available for individuals who wish to seek asylum in the UK. This has contributed to the development of a bottle-neck scenario in Northern France whereby refugees have very few alternatives available to a current reality characterised by precarity, insecurity, violence and rough sleeping.
In the vast majority of cases – with the exception of the narrow criteria for family reunification or the Dubs Amendment – an individual has to be on UK soil in order to file an asylum claim in accordance with the 1951 Geneva Convention. Yet due to the UK border force operating the controls in France and Belgium, an individual has to bypass these controls in order to reach UK territory. This causes the criminalisation of individuals seeking to reach the UK and has caused an escalation in the risks taken in order to cross the Channel. This was visibly exemplified at the start of 2019 when the Home Secretary declared a ‘major incident’ due to a number of prospective asylum seekers resorting to unconventional methods - the use of small dinghies in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Although the numbers resorting to this extreme method are small, the crossings were enough to spark public and political pandemonium. Yet this is just one - albeit visible - method deployed as displaced individuals are forced into increasingly treacherous methods in response to the ‘externalisation’ and increasing securitisation of the UK border.
Prior to the closure of the Calais camp in 2016, the UK pledged £36 million to clear the camp and bolster security provisions at the border. This has led to increased investment in border technologies such as motion detection and infra-red technologies, and new high-security fencing, CCTV, and lighting. The process of securitisation has continued throughout 2018 and the first part of 2019, as exemplified by the increased fencing surrounding petrol stations near the ferry ports and the mounting of razor wire and new walls. As tightened security makes crossing the channel more difficult, actors on the ground have reported an increased empowerment and availability of smuggling networks. If the push factors in France remain the same – police brutality, insecure living conditions and interminably long asylum processing times – increased securitisation may not deter individuals from embarking on the journey to the UK; rather it just multiplies the high risks they face during the process.
The investment in border security has been accompanied with an increasingly securitised rhetoric which designates displaced people as threats. Within Home Office documents, heightened investment in border security is outlined to ‘keep communities in the UK safe’ and the policies are justified as essential to prevent both criminal activity and ‘people looking to enter the UK illegally.’ This rhetoric is likely to increase the public perception that displaced people can be directly equated with criminality, when it is in fact the border arrangements – and the lack of legal pathways – which tend to push individuals towards illegality. This designation of refugees as ‘threats,’ can then be used to legitimise even greater securitisation, which has direct consequences for displaced communities.
The increase in UK border security has also been accompanied by increased hostility by the French authorities, characterised by high levels of police harassment, intimidation, violence and frequent evictions from living spaces. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), police in Calais regularly use pepper spray on children and adult refugees whilst they are sleeping, spray or confiscate sleeping bags, clothing and blankets and have even on some occasions used pepper spray on food and water sources. The police have also actively disrupted the work of humanitarians providing essential aid. Lone men are particularly at risk of police brutality. According to written evidence submitted to the Home Affairs Committee by Help Refugees in January 2019, there is a causal connection between increased securitisation and greater risk taking. They note that a, ‘recent increase in arrests and detention has prompted greater fears of deportation among the community, prompting people to take greater risks.’ Shelter and accommodation provision are also severely lacking, leaving individuals no alternatives to makeshift and informal camps, or rough sleeping in streets and woodlands.
The situation is particularly concerning for unaccompanied minors. Members across the humanitarian community have voiced fears that minors are increasingly at risk of trafficking and exploitation. In 2018 NSPCC noted that ‘children were sleeping in unsafe environments, taking significant risks to get onto lorries, and spending time with concerning adults.’ The waiting times for legal mechanisms for children to enter the UK also remain interminably long. For example, in oral evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, Help Refugees highlighted that there are currently 30 children in the reception centre in Northern France who have passed the Dubs criteria for transfer. Yet all these children are still waiting to be relocated to the UK, with one child waiting over a year. These long waiting times can in themselves push minors towards situations with an increased likelihood of exploitation. For example, Help Refugees highlighted that one child, who saw friends wait months within the child protection system, decided he had better chances of getting to the UK by lorry. Therefore, at the age of 12, he was living amongst adults in a makeshift tent, acutely vulnerable to exploitation. Similar findings were reported by Refugee Rights Europe already in April 2017, six months after the clearance of the Calais camp. When asking minors why they had left the French accommodation centres to which they had been transferred, many reported that nothing was done by the French authorities to process their cases, so they had decided to leave and ‘take matters into own hands.’ One 16-year-old Eritrean minor explained: ‘They didn’t do anything for us, they didn’t tell us anything. I spent four months [in the accommodation centre] and I didn’t see any hope.’
The situation of precarity also poses specific risks for women. For example, in an independent research study, conducted with women in Northern France, all the women interviewed acknowledged that they felt unable to negotiate with smugglers or climb onto the back of lorries alone without risk. In this environment, it has become common practice for solo women to be paired with a single man, for ‘protection.’ Staff working for Gynécologie Sans Frontières (GSF), who operate a safe house for women refugees, also noted this practice in Calais. For example, one humanitarian spoke of women being paired with ‘brothers,’ to “keep them ‘safe’, usually in exchange for sexual favours.” GSF outline that the majority of women, in the makeshift camps and forests, survive by forming friendship groups, often based around shared language or nationality. This leaves solo women particularly at risk. Even for women travelling as part of family units, challenges remain. A 2016 research study carried out by Refugee Rights Europe particularly highlighted the risks women in the Calais Camp were exposed to, yet three years on, many of these same concerns remain. A lack of security, permanent shelter, the presence of smugglers and traffickers, as well as the pervasiveness of police violence still remain long after the closure of the Calais Camp. The brutal suppression of any form of makeshift settlements and the consequential situation of precarity, has pushed women further into the margins, making them harder to identify and harder to support.
Overall, the juxtaposed border arrangements have created a ‘bottle-neck’ scenario whereby the hostile climate appears to deter individuals from wanting to stay in France, yet at the same time their ability to reach the UK safely is further diminished. This has severe and specific consequences for all groups of refugees – from women to unaccompanied minors to solo men. Living in liminal and precarious conditions in Northern France can act as a strong impetus to try and get to the UK by any means possible. Unless structural reform occurs, where legal pathways are opened up to allow individuals to apply to the UK asylum system, individuals will continue to take life-threatening risks in order to cross the channel. No building of walls and erection of fences is going to stop displaced people from trying the journey when they feel they have no other option – we therefore have an obligation to offer safe and legal alternatives.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Welander, M. (2019) Britain’s Juxtaposed borders: The Human Consequences. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/09/britains (Accessed [date])