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From the file

Immigration & Asylum | As the post-Brexit era begins, what does Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s vision of “global Britain” mean?

Crossing the Channel

Crossing the Channel


A former army base outside Folkestone, Kent, is now the epicentre of the migration story


Basia Cummings: So here we are, early January 2021, and a wheel has turned: the story of Brexit, a story which began with worries about immigration, about our small island nation being “overrun” has come full circle. It started with a massive clamour about a country that was “just full up”, about wages being driven down by cheap labour from abroad or public services that just couldn’t cope.

And it ended in a whisper. Remember all that agonising before Christmas about whether or not there’d be a trade deal with the EU? About what kind of relationship we’d have with our nearest neighbours? Well, don’t forget about what we weren’t agonising about as well. We weren’t agonising about immigration at that moment, because, well, that deal was done long ago.

We’ve got a points-based system now: Austrian, Australian, Angolan… it’s all the same. You need a fixed number of points to be allowed into the UK, points for the qualifications that you’ve earned or for speaking English well – things like that.

I’m Basia Cummings, and on this week’s Slow Newscast we start with a story of a man standing on a beach in the darkness.

It’s a story that tells us a lot about immigration and asylum policy and reveals to us something about how our politicians treat this issue. It also tells us about what kind of country we want to be as we start our Brexit journey for 2021. 

Ali: I’m from Iran. In Iran, really, I had a good life. I had my sport. I’m an athlete person – I’m a volleyball player. Professional volleyball player, yeah. Yeah, it’s happened. I didn’t want this, but it’s happened to me. 

This is Ali. He left Iran a few years ago when his life was put in danger by his opposition to the regime…

Ali: One time they stop me, they arrest me to the prison, and by force they said you have to sign some paper. If you continue, you sign that we will kill you because you signed it. But it was force and I did it. 

He told us how he was smuggled across the border with a consignment of sheep…

Ali: Yeah they give me like, skin, and they said okay you must sleep. Actually that place under the car – you have to sleep there, and you have to put this, uh, skin on yourself, to don’t find you. 

Jack Shenker: Like wool, like sheep’s wool? 

Ali: Yes, yes. 

And about his sea crossing to Europe…

Ali: He moved me with the boat in Turkey to Greece. 

Jack: Yeah? 

Ali: And after I understand, oh my God, I am in the hell, believe me because I was in the island and it was a real hell for me.

But for Ali, this was really only the beginning.

Ali: This is my life. I am in the streets. I don’t know, one day, one fascist want to come and kill me one day. Because in Athens, especially they have, uh, so many addictive people and when you go to a stay somewhere, they will come to you with the strange, with the pipe, because they smoke, and it’s really, really dangerous.

By now it was two years on, he was homeless and in a foreign city. He’d been released from  Greek immigration camp because of a medical condition. And with nowhere to turn, he was becoming desperate.

Ali: Sometimes I was thinking, okay, so let’s back to Iran. At least if I, if they want kill me, I am in my country. I had money in Iran, but, uh, they block all my account, government, and I couldn’t take money. And someone helped me, one relative really helped me, and paid that money to that person. And he tried to move me by truck. And I said, okay, to where? I don’t want to go somewhere like here, if it’s like this I want to back to Iran right now.

Ali was in the hands of traffickers now. He spent several days in the back of a musty truck – with hardly any food and just a bottle of water to keep him going. 

Ali: And just a box of date, and one bottle of water if I remember. 

Jack: For three days?

Ali: Yes. And I had like two or three small cakes because they said you can’t take anything inside because they pass from the x-ray like that. And you need to just take something to don’t die.

He had no idea where he was when the truck stopped. It was dark, he was tired, and disoriented. Days earlier, he had been in Athens…

Ali: And after two, three hours driving, we went to the like… a beach. I saw the sea and it was night about, I think, 2 or 3 AM. And I said where we are? He told me, okay, don’t worry, just stay here until I tell you what. I said where I am? He said don’t worry, why you want to know where you are? 

So he’s on this beach… in the darkness. And then things get really terrifying…

Ali: About 5, like these 5 or 6am, I saw a group of people about 14, 15 people comes with the one boat. I said, what is this? Because I had the experience with the boat from Turkey to Greece. And it was really scary for me. What is this? He said don’t worry, stay here. And they put the boat in the water and the sea. And I said, I don’t go. I don’t want to go. And he said, you don’t have any choice to back, you have to go. I said, oh, I don’t want to go. You can take the money, but I don’t want to go. And he said, no, you are here and you know now about this place, you saw this place and you, you need to pass. I said, I will die. They said no, don’t worry, you won’t die. I said where I want to go? Everything is dark here and when you open your eyes, you can see just black sea. Everywhere is black and that’s sounds from the wave is really scary for me. I afraid really. I have a phobia I think, and I just closed my eyes. And when I wanted go and the boat, I have to go in the sea until here – until the chest. Yeah, because they said it’s impossible to go exactly here. You have to go into the sea, you have to go in water. And when I go inside, it’s so cold. 

So Ali had waded out, in the dark, up to his chest in the freezing water and was loaded into the boat – it was a RIB – one of those quite small rigid inflatable boats you might see used as a rescue boat or by divers. And it was really crowded.

Ali: We were in the water in the boat and yeah, we were 15 person and two kids. Somebody’s driving. And some person helped to them. And they said: you. I said, I don’t know really, how should they drive? And it’s not like, joke here if I want to drive this because 14, 15 people is inside. Maybe if I do some mistake, I will kill everyone.

And here, I want to bring in another man. Samyar spent eight or nine days in what’s become known as the Jungle, the place in Calais where asylum seekers gather. His backstory is similar to Ali’s. Both men are from Iran, both travelled via Turkey and through Greece. Both experienced the terror of that wait for a boat…

Samyar: It’s so difficult. That feeling like… terrible to wait and, uh, yeah, when the time is to get ready to go to the sea, with the water on the boat. and the stress of, uh, are you going to make it or not? There’s too many things. Yeah. You’re just not, uh, you don’t feel in your own skin. Half of you is up to the mafia, half up to the border force of France or, the situation in the sea, the weather… You are not sure for more than 90 per cent or something. It’s risk, is 90 per cent risk. 

Samyar, unlike Ali, was unable to call on his relatives from home to help out. He couldn’t pay the Calais mafia…

Samyar: The mafia, they asked me for £3500 and they say, uh, because you are here and, uh, uh, you’re a good guy and this and that… with the discount is £3500. Uh, to me, for me was so much because all I had was £2000 at the time, so no, I couldn’t make it.

And so, instead, he worked for cash, saved up, bought his own boat, and, remarkably, sailed from the Netherlands to Harwich, in Essex…

Samyar: When I was in the sea, I felt like I’m going to die. So, uh, turn on your cigarette then, uh, just enjoy the view and the freedom and the sea, and let’s see what’s going to happen. Fortunately, I have made it after nine hours.

Here are two men, with similar stories, making terrifying journeys across the sea. And what awaits them if they reach dry land? It’s a country in the middle of an argument with itself…

Jack: I’m standing out on the harbour walkway with my back to the English channel, looking out at Dover’s shoreline. To my right there’s a huge P&O ferry, just filling up with cars and passengers en route to the continental mainland reaction, to my left… 

Basia: Jack Shenker, the investigative reporter who spent months working on this story, joined me in our studio in London. Welcome Jack, hi, nice to see you.  

Jack: Hi Basia. 

Basia: So you’ve spent a long time looking at what’s been happening in the Channel with the increase in the number of migrants trying to get to Britain by boat. It was one of the running stories of 2020 – even with everything that’s been happening with the pandemic. The thing about this issue, isn’t it, is that everything seems to get tangled up together. It’s so complicated. 

Jack: Absolutely. I mean, we’re obviously speaking at the start of 2021 when Britain is forging a new identity for itself outside of the European Union. And even though the refugees arriving on small boats are not implicated by our exit from the European Union, at a time in which Britain is talking so much about migration, about identity and about borders. These people have washed up in the middle of what feels like an epic national debate about who we are and what we stand for. For some people it’s evidence that immigration, the UK is out of control. And for others, the way in which asylum seekers are being treated on arrival to Britain, particularly the small boats, uh, arrivals is proof that we have a broken system, proof of political and moral failure. 

Basia: It’s so interesting… Let’s talk about the, sort of the specific experiences of some of the people that you’ve been speaking to, because we hear a lot about how asylum seekers might spend weeks and months in Calais trying to get to Britain, but that’s actually not Ali’s story, is it?

Jack: Unusual thing about Ali is that when he first borded it a truck in Athens, after some of his relatives paid people smugglers to convey him out of Greece, where he’d been having a really, really tough experience, he had no idea where he was going to end up and told to keep quiet until he was let out the other side.

Basia: So he had no idea where he was going. 

Jack: He had no idea where he was going and no idea where he was traveling through. He remained in the back of the truck for three days before emerging on the other side and being taken to a darkened beach. 

Basia: It’s kind of unimaginable. So what, what happened after he reached UK waters?

Jack: The sun was just coming up when a larger vessel approached Ali’s dinghy. And a man in a high-vis jacket hauled him on shore. And Ali actually said to this gentlemen, where am I? 

Ali: They come one by one to take a guys. And when they speak with me, they said, I said, where I am exactly? They said, oh, you’re in UK.

Jack: And the man said you’re in British waters, welcome to Britain. And that was the start of a whole new journey for Ali into the incredibly complex and fractious issue of how asylum seekers are treated once they set foot on dry land. 

Basia: Jack, the other Iranian man that we heard from during your reporting, a man called Samyar, he had a different story of how he got here, right?

Jack: Samyar’s story is remarkable. He made his way to Calais, like most people who want to come across the seas of Britain, but couldn’t afford the prices of the people smugglers. So instead went back to Holland, worked cash-in-hand to save up enough money to buy his own speedboat and then piloted it by himself across the Channel. And you can just imagine this guy who’s completely inexperienced at any kind of sailing, in a boat that he barely knows how to control, coming into a huge port and navigating his way past these giant ships, desperately afraid that he was going to get knocked over and thrown into the waves. 

Samyar: Then my, my boat wasn’t big enough, so it was dangerous. I didn’t go to, and because of this experience, I didn’t have… I didn’t trust that I have enough experience to go in the port between the ships. So I went next to the port on the beach, but the border force, they chased me already…

Basia: It’s really remarkable. And so both, both these men made it to the UK in pretty hair-raising and difficult ways. 

Jack: They did, and in that respect, they were among the lucky ones. There’ve been almost 300 deaths in the last 20 years when people have come into contact with British borders in the sea. Last year alone we know that at least 13 people died in the Channel.

Basia: Partly because the Channel plays into this sort of national mythology, it’s actually hard to figure out the reality of it. So I suppose one of my first questions is how significant is traffic across the Channel really? 

Jack: So there’s no doubt that last year it increased significantly. In 2018, there were less than 300 people seeking asylum in Britain who traveled by a small boat across the Channel. In 2019, that went up to 2,000 and in 2020, more than 8,000 crossings were recorded. So that’s a four-fold increase on the last year alone. However, to put that in some perspective, the number of boat journeys being made to Britain is really small compared to many of its European neighbours. You know, Italy and Spain last year were each on the receiving end of well over 30,000 similar journeys. And more importantly, it should be noted that the reason people are getting small boats is that the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted traditional forms of clandestine migration from Calais. So there was less freight traffic – that meant less lorries to hide in. And so rather than representing an overall rise in the number of asylum seekers coming to Britain, last summer there was actually a fall on the overall numbers compared to the previous quarter. So what we’re not seeing is a huge rise in the number of people coming here. What we are seeing is a shift in the way they arrive here from a relatively invisible method to a very, very visible method. 

Basia: That’s really interesting. And so you’ve mentioned Covid. Do you think that was the main driver for that increase or do you think it’s other things too?

Jack: It was. As migrant rights experts and policy experts in this, in this area have made clear time and again, the kind of decisions Britain makes about how to “defend its borders” really make very little difference to the number of people coming. We know that the forces propelling people to migrate to other countries have not shifted. There is a huge amount of turmoil in parts of Africa and the Middle East. People are heading to Europe, and in some cases to Britain, no matter what. It costs a people smuggler about €3000 to purchase an inflatable dinghy with an engine, and each of the migrants that then board that dinghy then pay about €3000. And often you get, you know, 16, 17, 18 people. So you can see what a lucrative business it is for those in charge of it. 

Basia: So you mentioned comparatively with Italy and Spain we actually don’t get that many people arriving by boat, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you were listening to some of the politicians who have made a real career out of the issue of migration and the channel. So how do we compare in terms of how many people we receive? 

Jack: Well, the number of asylum occasions that Britain gets, sort of per capita, is actually a third of the EU average. I mean, just to put that in perspective, Britain received 36,000 asylum applications in 2019; Germany received 142,000. So the answer to the question “why do so many people come to Britain”, first and foremost is actually that most people don’t.

Basia: So what happens after people arrive in the UK by small boat? 

Jack: On the Kent coast, where most of these small boats are arriving, it’s not an abstract issue. It’s a tangible one, one that plays out on the ground. 

[Clip montage]

Jack: And on the outskirts of Folkestone, high up on a hill overlooking the English channel, I found a new unlikely epicentre of the migrant story…

Napier resident 1: This is like animal. Animal place, animal place better than us. 

Napier resident 2: And really we don’t believe this is the UK. Really until now we don’t believe is UK. 

Napier resident 1: We are not in Guantanamo. We are in the UK. We come, we need our freedom.

Napier resident 2: I’m so sorry. Because I came in your country.

Basia: So this place is called Napier Barracks and Jack you’ve, you’ve said that it’s the new epicentre of the immigration issue. So where is it? What’s it like? 

Jack: The setting for Napier feels incredibly incongruous. It’s basically at the western fringes of Folkestone and it’s a series of military barracks that surround a public park. There’s a cricket pavilion in one corner. There’s a pre-school in the other. There’s even a local theatre and operatic society. And in the middle of all of this you have a series of low-slung red brick buildings behind a 10ft screened off barbed wire fence. And on the other side of that fence is more than 400 people who have arrived by small boats to Britain.

Napier is quite a fascinating place. Uh, you can almost tell the story of Britain’s modern military history, you know, through the story of that camp. It was built just before the Napoleonic Wars. It has been the home at different times to Field Marshal Montgomery and Winston Churchill. It was the staging post for troops heading out to the continent during both World War One and World War Two.

Basia: And so it’s been repurposed and quite recently commandeered by the home secretary, Priti Patel, to hold the asylum seekers that you’ve been meeting and speaking to. So who runs it now, and how many people does it hold?

Jack: So it’s one of two camps that the Home Office has commandeered from the Ministry of Defence to cope with what it describes as a straightforward capacity issue. The government has a legal obligation to house anybody applying for refugee status in this country that would otherwise be destitute. And the Home Office said, with Covid-19 social distancing restrictions, we simply don’t have enough space in our existing facilities, so we needed more. Its critics say that it went for this kind of accommodation because it wants to project an image of fences, watch towers, guards when it comes to asylum seekers. 

And the barracks that it’s chosen here at Napier were actually scheduled for demolition in 2021. For now, though, it’s been saved from that fate and the Home Office has contracted a company called Clearsprings Ready Homes, which is actually an Essex-based property company. They are responsible for providing the Home Office with asylum accommodation and for running that accommodation on a day-to-day basis. 

Basia: And what kind of record have they got? 

Jack: A chequered one, would be the kind way of putting it. In the past there have been controversies over rats and mouldy walls and broken fittings… cockroach infestations, and so on. At one point, the government even had to intervene directly after images emerged of really substandard accommodation. One director has in recent years earned close to a million pounds in some years. And of course that’s money that is being paid for by us, by taxpayers, because most of Clearsprings’ business is with the government.

I should say that we made contact with Clearsprings and asked them for comment, but they declined to respond. But Napier Barracks had already started building up a reputation, partly because of the things we’ve been talking about, as a place to be feared and avoided. 

Basia: And so you went and spent some time in and around Napier Barracks. What’s the feeling like there, is it quite a tense place? 

Jack: You can go into the public park outside, you can meet asylum seekers who most of the day, in theory, are allowed to come and go. Remember: they’re not prisoners, at least they’re not supposed to be prisoners. And you can also meet some of the array of characters who are not asylum seekers, but who have set up shop outside Napier. Some of whom are pro-migrant solidarity activists who are trying to make refugees feel welcome in this country. And some of whom are members of far right political groups who are very much communicating the opposite. And there is a real feeling there that in this sort of sleepy, suburban fringe of a provincial town, something quite epic and quite important, and at times quite febrile, is building. 

[Clip montage]

Basia: Over the summer, I remember seeing things that were being shared on social media by far right groups or people who were very obviously anti-migrant. Is that who you mean when you’re talking about these people who are outside Napier, sort of setting up shop? 

Jack: Yeah, this is an issue that has really animated right-wing extremists. And what’s interesting is that there has been a new breed of sort of one-man-band, so-called citizen journalists, who are competing for social media followers for cash and clicks. And many of them have set up shop both along the shore where migrant boats are arriving, hoping to intercept them and catch them on camera…


Jack: The more outrageous the encounter, the higher the hits when the video is uploaded, and that extends right up the hill to Napier – where you have these far-right activists with video cameras or just with their mobile phones, literally camped out, outside the door of Napier.


Jack: Whenever somebody who’s seeking asylum leaves to go to the shops, to have a walk, perhaps to meet an immigration lawyer, they find an activist putting a camera in their face, sometimes shouting at them racial abuse, sometimes just demanding questions. The people on the end of this attention don’t always speak English. It’s an incredibly intimidating atmosphere, 

Basia: Jack, in fact, when you were doing reporting on this, you posted a video that you had taken and you put it on Twitter and it took on a life of its own, didn’t it? I remember seeing it going basically viral. Tell me about that video. 

Jack: Yeah, when I was researching the story for Tortoise, I spent many, many days outside Napier getting to know some of the residents inside and trying to get a sense of the scene up there. And on one of the days I was there, there was an impromptu protest at the camp fence. A manager had for reasons unknown, chosen to order the doors locked and just weeks and months of frustration just began to bubble over amongst the residents, some of whom were complaining about the cold and about the cramped conditions and the risk of coronavirus. And this just felt like the final straw. And so they marched very peacefully to the fence and just began to kind of rattle, rattle the metal and chant for freedom.

At which point, the police turned up and everything simmered down pretty quickly. And I took a clip of that on my mobile phone and posted it to Twitter, just explaining the context to it and what was behind that small demonstration. And interestingly enough, within less than 24 hours, Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party leader, I found had re-posted the footage, except in his version, he claimed that the asylum seekers were demanding, quote, five star hotels and trips to the football stadium Anfield. It was pointed out to him, by me and many others, that it was a blatant lie. Whatever one thinks about the asylum issue, I know because I was there, that this demonstration was not about migrants demanding any sort of luxury accommodation. But he didn’t take the video down. And that video that I took now is on dozens and dozens and dozens of far-right sites. And it’s just fascinating to see how certain framings of this issue and the visual imagery that goes along with it, can be repurposed and tweaked and distorted to such powerful effect so quickly.

Basia: And it feels like we have to wade through quite a few layers of distortion to actually understand what it’s really like inside Napier. Did you get a sense of that from your reporting? 

Jack: So journalists can’t go into Napier, but I’ve interviewed dozens and dozens of people who either are living there at the moment or have been living there recently. In theory, there are 14 people per room in Napier. They have their own very small sleeping area, which is separated off by a sort of plywood wall that doesn’t reach the ceiling and sometimes a bit of fabric tacked across the entranceway to give a small amount of privacy. And many, many people told me that these conditions, the lack of privacy, the institutional nature of life there, the boredom of not having anything to do – coupled with the uncertainty, the incredibly tense uncertainty about what the future holds in terms of whether or not your asylum claim is going to be accepted – really takes a toll on people’s mental health. Some people shared videos with me from inside showing the conditions in the sleeping quarters, the canteen, some of the confrontations with camp guards…


Jack: But also, most disturbingly, there have been two alleged suicide attempts and I was sent a video of the aftermath of one of those suicide attempts. 

Basia: Okay. So you can see some feet, a man is walking and you can see trails of blood. Wow. Yeah, that’s quite shocking.

And presumably he’s filming this undercover. He doesn’t want people to see. You really get a sense from watching this, how sort of thrown together the whole place looks. There’s sheets everywhere. There’s sheets covered in blood that are just lying on the floor and you can definitely get a sense of those, those plywood walls and the, and the bits of fabric hanging to separate people’s living quarters. That’s really quite disturbing stuff. 

God, it looks just apocalyptically horrible. It really does. Oof. 

Jack: Yeah, well, bearing in mind that Napier has only been open a few months it’s quite remarkable how many different bodies of experts have spoken out about this, both privately – kind of complaining to the government about the use of this kind of place as accommodation for vulnerable asylum seekers – but also publicly. And there is currently a judicial review underway, which will attempt to get Napier shut down.

Basia: So just to review, the numbers coming across the channel in small boats were significantly up in 2020, but at the moment when this was really grabbing the headlines, actually the overall number of asylum claims was down. And while on the one hand, the government has brought in new laws to significantly stop EU citizens coming to Britain, our commitment to refugees – remember the Geneva convention – is still unchanged. 

But let’s talk about politics now. Napier barracks is definitely Priti Patel’s creation. It’s her policy. How has she performed, Jack, so far as, as home secretary on immigration and asylum issues? 

Jack: Well, the story of Napier fundamentally starts with Priti Patel, who came into office with a reputation as a hardliner on immigration and was touted as possibly the most hardline Home Secretary Britain has had in modern times. And at least rhetorically she’s very much lived up to that reputation. She said at the outset that she wanted to replace Britain’s broken asylum system with something firmer and fairer. Now there were many across the political spectrum that would agree with that goal, but would take issue with the way in which she’s tried to implement it.

And the images of vulnerable people being put behind barbed wire fences under watchtowers and security cameras and guards with walkie talkies… Some people compare it to the apocalyptic film Children of Men. She certainly hasn’t being too concerned about jumbling together the issues of who gets to come to work and settle in the UK, issues of basic economic migration, our relationship with the EU and free movement on the one hand; and what our responsibilities are to refugees on the other.

And she hasn’t shied away from using antagonistic/crowd-pleasing (depending on your political persuasions) language about her critics… 

Clip Priti Patel: And for those defending the broken system – the traffickers, the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers, the Labour Party – they are defending the indefensible. And that is something I will never do.

Basia: So she’s all rabble-rousing populism. She’s not the first home secretary to perform the role like that, but she’s definitely got one eye on satisfying the tabloid newspapers. And there’s quite an interesting contrast with Boris Johnson when he made his rosiest assessment of Britain’s place in the world after Brexit.

This was in 2016 when he was foreign secretary… 

Clip Boris Johnson: Brexit emphatically does not mean a Britain that turns in on herself. Yes, a country taking back control of its democratic institutions, but not a nation hauling up the drawbridge or slamming the door. A nation that is now on its metal. A nation that refuses to be defined by this decision. A country galvanised by new possibilities and a country that is politically and economically and morally fated to be more outward looking and more engaged with the world than ever before. 

Basia: There’s another speech that I want to talk about that Johnson made last year in 2020, in February, this time when he was prime minister. He was flushed with the success of getting Brexit done and oblivious to the World Health Organization’s warning that COVID-19 had become a global health emergency.

He was in Greenwich in London at the Old Royal Naval College on the Thames, and he was telling stories about boats… 

Clip Boris Johnson: This is the moment for us to go up a gear again, and to recapture the spirit of those seafaring ancestors immortalised above us, whose exploits brought us, not just riches, not just riches, but something far more important than that. And that was a truly global perspective. So that is our ambition. So there you go. There lies the port, the vessel puffs her sail, the wind sits in the mast – to mix my poets up a bit. We’re embarked now on a great voyage. 

Basia: And that’s just the thing to really underline here, isn’t it? That while we’re having this kind of paroxysm about our relationship with the EU, actually, fundamentally, we’re talking about a different thing here. These are people who are escaping war and famine and huge, sort of, uncertainty. And that’s… And it does feel like in the national conversation those things have really been swimming together recently. That we haven’t separated those things out very successfully. 

Jack: That’s absolutely right. When Britain was a member of the European Union, it could deport asylum seekers who it claimed had already passed through a safe European country, such as Italy, Spain, or Greece. Now that we’ve left the European Union that is up in the air. And in some ways, at least in the short or medium term, Britain’s options when it comes to deporting asylum seekers that it doesn’t want to grant refugee status to, may be even further limited. 

Basia: So take your pick: hard-line rhetoric or outward facing optimism. What does this all mean for immigration and asylum, Jack? I have to ask, like, what are the actual policies and are they the right ones? 

Jack: Well, there’s a committee of MPs that’s been asking exactly those questions for the last few months. It’s called the Home Affairs Committee and they’ve been taking evidence from Home Office ministers and officials, but also from third sector experts in this field.

And one of the things they’ve been hearing time and time again, is that although the government’s stated aim at the moment is to make this “small boats route” across the Channel unviable in practice, that’s a policy aim that is doomed to failure. The point is that no matter how high you build the walls and no matter how sharp you make the barbed wire fences, people will still try to come. And so the only solution, if you want to both make the asylum system work more efficiently and smoothly, and also minimise the risks for people making these journeys, is to establish safe and legal routes to claiming asylum in this country, such as setting up an asylum processing center in somewhere like Calais, where refugees could be assessed and those whose claims were granted could come over in a regular fashion, in a safe fashion. 

Basia: So this committee has heard a ton of evidence and you’ve been following it for months now. What are the most interesting or surprising things that you’ve seen come out of? 

Jack: Well, there’s been a lot of focus on people smugglers – how Britain can clamp down on that trade and disrupt the traffickers. Convictions are up on last year but there’s a lot of concern that prosecutors are actually going after the small fry. There’s also been a lot of questions about the amount that Britain is paying to France for security cooperation. Britain is essentially subcontracting some of its sort of border protection to the French in an attempt to stop vessels ever reaching UK waters in the first place. Many people believe that hasn’t been a particular success. 

And there’s also, finally, been a lot of concern about some of the language coming out of the Home Office regarding some quite “out there” ideas as to what can be done to strengthen the border and prevent boats ever reaching the UK in the first place, and also what should be done with asylum seekers who managed to evade those obstacles and land on these shores. If you haven’t been following, I’m talking about things like deploying the Royal Navy off the coast of Kent, building floating walls and laying steel dragnets across the world’s busiest commercial shipping lane, and even sending migrants to offshore detention centres as far away as the Ascension Islands in the South Atlantic ocean.

And this is the kind of thing that Home Office minister Chris Philp has been asked about in the inquiry… 

Clip Yvette Cooper MP: Oh, seriously? You’re seriously not going to rule out sending asylum seekers to the Ascension Islands to be processed? 

Chris Philp MP: Well, we have no current plans to do that, but I’m not gonna, you know, make…

Cooper: Seriously? Well what about, can you rule out putting people on disused oil platforms?

Philp: I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna go through a whole list of hypothetical questions. We don’t have any current plans to put people on oil platforms.

Cooper: These have been reported in the paper…

Philp: I’m not gonna go through a whole list of hypotheticals.

Cooper: But you should at least be able to rule these things out, to say these are not your policies, that you’re not going to send people to a disused oil platform. 

Philp: We don’t have any current plans to do that. 

Cooper: Okay. Can you at least confirm one of the things that was reported in the papers, that you aren’t planning boats with pumps generating waves that would force boats back into French waters? 

Philp: We don’t have any current plans to do that either.

Cooper: Okay, seriously. Can you just rule out ever having giant wave machines in the Channel as part of your…

Philp: I’ve just said we don’t have any current plans to do that, and I’m not going to…

Basia: So we’ve covered a lot of ground. We’ve established that the policies are often poorly thought through and often knee-jerk reactions. We’ve seen how people are drawn to the energy of the human drama in the Channel for their own reasons: pro and anti-immigration, pro and anti-Brexit.

And we’ve learned, I think, that the personal stories are more complicated than people usually recognise. Is there a better way? It doesn’t seem right that Samyar can make an asylum claim in one country, fail, and then try again in the UK. But practically, then, what should happen? And where is the balance between firm and fair?

Jack, let’s return now to Samyar and Ali. What will happen next for them? 

Jack: Well, I left them both stuck in limbo, really. Samyar outside Napier, waiting to hear what would happen with his asylum claim, and Ali outside a small unremarkable hotel, near Heathrow airport. Both of them probably still have months ahead of them before they learn whether or not they will be allowed to remain in Britain, or deported back to a country that both of them believe wants to execute them if they’re ever returned there. It’s quite incredible that they find themselves in the middle of this national argument we’re having about identity and nationhood and what it means to be British, at the same time as trying to process themselves just these very basic facts about their own futures and whether or not they will be able to survive. 

The one thing I took away from both of them is that the thing they’re really eager to do – and remember asylum seekers whilst their claims are being processed they’re legally not allowed to work – they really, really want to get going and contribute. Ali in particular talks about wanting to be a nurse. He told me about how he wants to learn about football; he wants to explore the British way of life; he wants to build a life here. 

Despite all that they’ve been through, and all that they are still going through now, I found both of them quite stoic. And Samyar in particular went out of his way to tell me how he doesn’t blame the Home Office. He doesn’t even blame the demonstrators and far-right activists who shove a camera in his face every time he steps out of the Napier gates. He just wants to know what his own future is going to hold. And he still doesn’t know how long that’s going to take. 

Basia: Jack. Thank you so much. 

Jack: Thank you. 

Basia: At the start of this podcast, I said that I thought that by looking at what’s going on in the Channel it would tell us something about who we are and what kind of country we want to be.

And in that speech that he made about “global Britain” and the great voyage ahead, Boris Johnson summoned those powerful ideas of freedom and control. But actually, all he really spoke about that day was the freedom to trade: lamb chops to China or shower trays to the US. And it leaves you wondering, is that what we mean here? Is global Britain’s future really only about the sovereign right to trade, to make money and do deals? 

Because if you face the world with openness, as Johnson said, then you should surely also accept the powerful responsibility of joining in and taking a share of the world’s difficult problems. Because of course we do intervene: in conflict to impose sanctions, to sell arms. And these decisions in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan… all come with consequences. And migration is one of them.

And are we really honest in global Britain about the size of our burden when it comes to asylum applications? Because as we’ve discovered, it’s not that large compared to other European countries like Germany or France or Spain or Italy. And it barely registers when you compare it with the impact on countries like Turkey and Jordan, who were taking in millions of refugees from Syria. Is it that we’re being manipulated by the noise of the far right, and by the isolationist instincts of so many people at the top of the media and politics? People who portray foreign aid as a con, or inward migration as an intolerable pressure. 

I think that brings us to a central question. What kind of country do we want to be? One that opens up and is part of something bigger, or one with the sovereign right to shut the door and turn away? The question for 2021, I think, is this: are we global Britain or fortress Britain?


Reporter Jack Shenker

Producer Matt Russell

Music Tom Kinsella

Host Basia Cummings

Editor David Taylor

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Fortress Britain

Fortress Britain

What kind of country awaits asylum seekers reaching the UK?

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