The government repeatedly insists that sophisticated criminal networks are driving the Channel crossings by people seeking asylum in Britain. Of all the contested claims advanced by the home secretary on the issue, it remains among the most pervasive.
True to form, in the aftermath of Wednesday’s drownings, Priti Patel wasted little time reiterating her determination to “smash the criminal gangs” behind such crossings.
Talk to those working on the frontline, or to asylum seekers themselves, and a far more nuanced picture emerges, one that challenges attempts to blame the crossings on an ill-defined and homogenous “evil” criminal underworld.
Many crossings – some argue it is the vast majority – are facilitated by families clubbing together to buy dinghies from stores in France, a straightforward and legal thing to do in pursuit of a legitimate objective, namely to claim asylum in the UK.
Families may have met on the long journey from, say, Syria or Iran; friends and relatives swap tips and receive advice from those who have previously made the crossing. Women and children are said to have been given free berths by compassionate fellow asylum seekers.
Corroboration for this alternative reality comes from none other than the National Crime Agency, tasked directly by Patel to lead the UK’s investigations into the Channel smugglers and whose insight into the issue is crucial.
Hours after news of the tragedy, the NCA confirmed it was witnessing “self-facilitation” by asylum seekers, in other words those buying boats to make the crossing. To underline the lack of criminality, it added they were seeing “migrants working informally together without OCG [organised criminal group] involvement”.
Patel treats such evidence as an inconvenient truth. Instead her statement following the tragedy only cited the “criminals behind journeys who threaten, intimidate, bully and assault the people who get into these boats”.
Clearly some smugglers are unscrupulous, but those that end up relying on them often view them as components of a service industry. They want to reach the UK and smugglers provide the means.
Patel has various motives for wanting to create the impression that the migrants are being ruthlessly exploited. First, her rhetoric against the “evil” business model of criminal gangs allows the government to present itself as the good guy. It is a particularly disingenuous position. After all, it is argued, by denying safe asylum routes, the Home Office has created the very business model it demonises.
Second, by focusing on a criminal element it can be argued that she hopes to plant the narrative that there is something illegal about people trying to claim their right to asylum.
Finally, the focus on criminality allows the Home Office to promote greater securitisation of the Channel border, the very process that saw increased checks on lorries and led directly to small boat crossings.
Ironically, some analysts believe that the government’s preoccupation with asylum seekers in northern France (historically numbers are low) may have encouraged some criminals to get involved, largely low-level opportunists who could never meet the criteria of “organised criminal groups”.
Again, the NCA offers more helpful corroboration, stating that the boat crossings require a “relatively low level of sophistication”.
An organised criminal network is not required – unlike, for instance, the narcotics trade, where large amounts of money, the contacts to acquire high purity product at wholesale prices and discreet, trusted distribution systems are required just to stay in the ring.
How many smugglers are involved is a matter of conjecture. So far, despite deploying huge resources, Patel admits having “dismantled” only 17 OCGs – that works out at one for every 4,500 migrants who have attempted the crossing this year.
Beyond the political noise lies an immutable truth. And that is the futility of trying to halt what humans have always done: migrate.