Following last Wednesday’s tragic loss of life in the Channel when 27 people drowned in the deadliest crossing on record, Action Foundation’s CEO, Duncan McAuley, calls for a more humanitarian approach to people seeking sanctuary in the UK


The tragedy of migrants dying in the Channel continues to highlight the humanitarian issue which should be front and centre of our thoughts and actions as a nation as we approach Christmas. In October I wrote about Reza, and as I think about him and my other friends who made this dangerous crossing in years gone by, I am reminded that it could easily have been one of them I was reading about in the news. 

The Home Office repeatedly claims that creating a harder border will solve the problem despite no evidence that this is the case. In fact, the rate of crossing attempts continues to rise despite millions of pounds of UK taxpayers’ money being invested in both our own and France’s security infrastructure. The Home Office has continued its narrative that those attempting the crossing in small boats are ‘not genuine’ or that the numbers are ‘spiralling out of control’. On October 27, as part of oral evidence, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said: “…in the last 12 months alone 70% of the individuals who have come to our country illegally via small boats are single men, who are effectively economic migrants. They are not genuine asylum seekers.*

I want to challenge this statement with some facts. 

We do not have a migrant crisis

First of all, although it’s true that the number of people crossing in small boats has seen a sharp increase, the total figure for people claiming asylum in the UK each year has only risen slightly to 37,562 in the most recent reports. Contrary to what you will sometimes read, we do not have a migrant crisis. The number of those seeking asylum each year is approximately 0.0005% of our population. It is not a surprise then to hear we are seventeenth down the list of European countries when measured per head of population. For direct comparison, in the three months at the end of year being counted, France received 31,000 applications. 

Secondly, based on the Home Office’s own data and freedom of information requests made by the Refugee Council in producing their most recent briefing on the issue, 61% of those making the crossing in small boats are recognised by the Home Office as genuine asylum seekers and are granted status at the point of initial decision.  

That is without counting those who are then granted status following appeal and when necessary, tribunal. For some of the top ten nationalities attempting this dangerous crossing (Sudanese, Syrian & Eritrean) the grant rate for initial decision in the first half of 2021 was as high as 99%. That is effectively saying we are doing our best to keep people out, but who, once they arrive, we are going to grant status to almost every time. 

The Home Office is right on one thing however, we DO need to break the cycle of people smuggling and end the tragedy of people dying at sea attempting the crossing, I just don’t think they’ve found the answer yet. The evidence would say quite the opposite in fact, with numbers attempting the crossing continuing to rise. 

The report I mention above suggests a temporary visa system, administered in France, to enable safe crossing and another I read recently proposed exporting some of our asylum application and decision making onto French territory. Whatever is decided about a route forward, surely it is time to think differently? 

When I wrote about my friend Reza it was in the context of the Nationality and Borders Bill which is expected to have its Third Reading in Parliament on December 7 and 8.  Amongst other things, this Bill threatens to brand anyone making this journey a ‘criminal’ upon arrival, ensuring any route to permanent settlement in the UK is ruled out. To any compassionate person this surely seems totally incompatible with the moral and ethical standards which we profess as a nation. It does to me. 

I am sometimes asked why people make this treacherous journey at all, often implying that migrants should stop in the first ‘safe country’ they reach. This is a really good question and rather than answer it here in brief, I’d recommend this short piece by Care for Calais.

What can I do to help?

All of this might have left you asking a different question – ‘What can I do to help?’. Well, apart from joining one of the excellent campaigning groups, you could support our Christmas Appeal, giving the Gift of Words to people settling here in the North East. You’d be helping some who have made this dangerous journey adjust to life in the UK and be enabling them to use their voice to speak up for themselves.