Migrant crossings: What happens to migrants who reach the UK?

By Dominic Casciani
Home and legal correspondent

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Image source, Getty Images

Migrant boats could be pushed back into French waters under plans being considered by Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Rising numbers of migrants have been crossing the English Channel in recent months - with a record number in August.

What happens to migrants in the English Channel?

If migrants are found in UK national waters, it is likely they will be brought to a British port.

If they are in international waters, the UK will work with French authorities to decide where to take them. Each country has search-and-rescue zones.

The distance between Dover and Calais, where many migrants cross, is little more than 20 miles - and so there are no international waters at that end of the English Channel.

Once migrants are in the UK, they are usually taken to short-term holding centres.

Could migrants in the Channel be pushed back?

Push back at sea is a tactic allowed in certain circumstances. It's something Australia, for example, has already used.

However, it does require the other side to cooperate - something France has so far refused to do.

As soon as the boats leave French waters - which the UK authorities cannot enter without France's consent - and enter the UK's, they are subject to the protection of UK law, says Prof Andrew Serdy, a maritime law expert.

"If France doesn't want to take them back once they have left, it cannot be forced to do so and a stand-off ensues."

Also, a boat can be only be pushed back if it is clear that doing so won't endanger lives. Such a tactic could be difficult to justify if it involves intercepting a small dinghy.

How many migrants are crossing the Channel?

The numbers change with the seasons - but in August 2021, there were a record 828 arrivals in a day.

About 12,500 people have crossed the Channel so far this year - but it's important to consider that figure as part of a bigger picture.

In 2019, some 45,000 people sought asylum in the UK. So, the dinghies are only part of the total.

The UK receives about a third of the asylum applications of France and 1% of all the 4,000,000 refugees in Turkey.

At current rates, cross-Channel arrivals will remain nowhere near the numbers seen elsewhere in Europe.

They will also be below the record 100,000 applicants seen during Tony Blair's government.

Can migrants be sent back to France?

Under international law, people have the right to seek asylum in any country they arrive in. There's nothing to say they must seek asylum in the first safe country reached.

An EU law, called Dublin III, allows asylum seekers to be transferred back to the first member state they were proven to have entered.

However, the UK is no longer part of this arrangement as it has now left the European Union.

The UK has not agreed a scheme to replace Dublin III, meaning transferring migrants who make the channel crossing would be difficult.

Between 1 January 2019 and 1 October 2020, 231 migrants who crossed the English Channel were returned to mainland Europe using Dublin III.

What are the current rules for claiming asylum in the UK?

Many of the migrants crossing the English Channel claim asylum once they arrive in the UK. Asylum seekers hope to receive refugee status, meaning they can stay.

They must prove they cannot return to their home country because they fear persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, gender identity or sexual orientation.

They can include their partner and any children under 18 in the application if they are also in the UK.

Decisions are made by a caseworker. They look at things such as the country of origin of the asylum seeker, or evidence of discrimination.

This is supposed to be done within six months, although most wait longer.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption, A Border Force vessel brings a group of men into Dover

What happens if an application is successful?

If someone gets refugee status, they and their dependants can remain in the country for five years. After five years, they can apply to settle in the UK.

Alternatively, they may get permission to stay for other humanitarian reasons. This means they do not qualify for refugee status but are nevertheless at risk of serious harm on return to the country they came from. This could arise from:

  • the death penalty
  • unlawful killing
  • torture or inhumane or degrading treatment
  • threat to civilian life from armed conflict

Family members not already in the UK can apply to join those with refugee status or humanitarian protection.

They may also be given permission to stay for other reasons - for example, if they are an unaccompanied minor or a victim of trafficking. How long they can stay will depend on their situation.

In 2020, more than 36,000 people, including dependents, applied for asylum in the UK.

About 10,000 were offered refugee status or other protections.

Both of these figures were down on the previous year, likely due to the impact of coronavirus.

What could change?

Under government proposals, those who arrive in the UK in ways it considers illegal would find it far more difficult to receive permanent residency, even if their asylum claims are successful.

The new system would not give them the same settlement entitlements and those who arrived "illegally" would constantly have their status evaluated.

The current system would stay in place for those who arrive through the government's preferred means, such as the resettlement scheme which ran during the peak of the Syria crisis. That scheme brought in approximately 20,000 from camps near the Syrian border.

Follow-on schemes are promised, including an evolving plan to bring people from Afghanistan, following the country's fall to the Taliban. Although several MPs have expressed frustration with the government at the lack of detail - saying they've been contacted by constituents who know of people stuck in Afghanistan.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Syrian refugees arrive on the Isle of Bute

The government argues these official resettlement schemes tackle people smugglers and deter people from making dangerous trips to the UK.

But critics have said they take far too long to settle people.

What financial support do asylum seekers receive?

Once an asylum application is under way, help with housing and money to live on is provided while the claim is processed and the individual has no means to support themselves.

Asylum seekers in the UK are not allowed to work - including voluntary work - unless they have waited more than a year for a decision and can fill a role in a limited number of skilled occupations where there is a shortage. This hugely controversial rule is aimed at preventing people applying for asylum as a route to work in the UK. Critics say it prevents refugees integrating into communities and wastes the skills they have brought with them,

Asylum seekers get no choice in where they live. Most are initially placed in hostel-type accommodation before longer-term housing is arranged.

Much of this accommodation has previously been criticised by the immigration watchdog.

Asylum seekers can get a cash allowance of £39.63 per week for each household member, with extra support available for vulnerable groups such as children or pregnant women.

Asylum seekers with an active application are entitled to free healthcare and children must attend school.

What happens when an asylum claim is rejected?

If asylum is not offered and no other reason to stay in the UK is accepted, the person will be asked to leave the UK, either voluntarily or by force.

They can appeal against the decision, with just over a third of these 5,000 appeals accepted. This is an indicator these individuals are genuine refugees.

Migrants can receive legal aid for these appeals, which can sometimes take years, as well as continued financial and housing support.