Regardless of whether it’s a cheap stunt or a threat to the lifeline many refugees depend on, the Government’s threat to jail alleged people smugglers for life involved in English Channel crossings have certainly not been taken lightly by campaigners, activists and much of the general public.

The plan to crack down on the number of people bringing migrants across the English Channel was announced last month, with the Prime Minister telling reporters that they plan on, “ruthlessly stiffen[ing] the sentences for anybody who is involved in this kind of people smuggling and trafficking human beings across the Channel.”

With the average sentence for the offence currently being three years in prison and the maximum sentence being 14 years, Home Secretary Priti Patel has said the maximum sentence should be increased to life.

A spokesperson for the Home Office said that “we need the starting point for all of these serious sentences to be much higher and that means the top end has to be at the very highest and that means a life sentence.”

Ministers are fearing a rise in crossings this year, as migrants are trying to reach Britain before the law is tightened. Despite the continuation of the winter cold looming ahead, this has not deterred migrants crossing the Channel. Eighty-seven migrants crossed in the last week of February, with numbers of Channel crossings ‘more than tripling’ in 2020, seeing “more than 9,500 people” make it across the sea.

With the rising number of migrants entering the UK, not only is this an issue for unsanitary conditions and housing issues, but Patel is also concerned that the current maximum sentence for people smuggling is not leading to long enough jail terms. This is not the first time that Patel’s draconian ways have come to light. 

In the past, the Home Secretary has been criticised over wishing criminals ‘to feel terror’ and for continuously preparing dangerous asylum reforms, many of which undermine Britain’s commitment to international law and altogether risk denying asylum seekers their human rights. At the present moment in time, she has also been blasted for introducing a new counter-terrorism and sentencing bill which lawyers, journalists and activists are actioning to ensure these new powers do not become law without a fight.

Campaigners will not back down regarding the Government’s new threat. The coverage director, Chai Patel of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said that “Ms Patel has left people who are desperate to reach safety in the UK with no choice, and is now proposing an extraordinary violation of the principles of refugee protection by threatening them with life sentences for trying to claim asylum.” 

In the absence of accessible legal routes for those seeking asylum in the UK, many are left with no choice but to pay traffickers and smugglers to get them across the Channel.

In turn, smugglers profit from a market that the Home Office has essentially created by closing off legal routes to help refugees claim asylum.

Lucy Morten and her team at Immigration Services Union have been long campaigning and repeatedly requesting the Government to develop protected and authorised routes for migrants wishing to claim asylum in the UK – which have decreased due to Brexit and the coronavirus.

While the coronavirus affects the whole world, it does not deter refugees from seeking a better life. In a now-deleted tweet, former Reform UK leader Nigel Farage claimed that 12 migrants arriving in Dover at the end of February tested positive for coronavirus, which he called a “Covid crisis”.

In the same tweet, Farage took a swipe at Patel by telling her to “get a grip”. The Home Office, however, acted swiftly with their response, stating his tweet was “incorrect” and that all those who arrived were tested for COVID-19. 

Misinformation about refugees and migrants entering the UK circulates the internet at large, and there is also a rise in crossings driven by fake news. Distortion of the truth pressures migrants to pay smugglers to cross the Channel, and as aforementioned, these lies are an easy way for smugglers to earn money. 

To add to this, French politician Pierre-Henri Dumont has argued that “the UK’s asylum system should be changed to allow migrants to apply at British embassies in Europe”. He adds that while controls, police forces and cameras are there for a purpose, they won’t stop determined refugees crossing. He’s therefore called for the ‘new system’ to be implemented – and soon.

With all facts in hand, it’s clear we need a reform of the system to allow refugees to enter the UK safely. The Home Office’s proposal of a life sentence for people smugglers may not be the way to go, especially considering the humanitarian issues involved.

What needs to happen is a restructuring of the system and current laws in favour of protecting refugees. Priti Patel is right in stating that the current asylum system in the UK is “fundamentally broken”, but jailing alleged people smugglers is not “firm and fair”.

Going down to the root of it all, it is not people smugglers that pose the issue, but the system which limits and thwarts refugees applying for asylum in the first place.

According to Refugee Action, 35,566 asylum applications were made in the UK in 2019 – down from a peak of 84,000 in 2002. Additionally, delays in processing UK asylum applications have increased significantly, with four out of five applicants in the final months of 2019 waiting six or more months to process their cases.

Stephen Hale from Refugee Action said that to make the system fair, Priti Patel’s “immediate priority” should be to “honour her words and commit long-term to creating safe and legal routes for refugees to reach the UK”.

Only time will tell whether any of this comes to fruition.

Cover image: Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe via Wikimedia Commons. Image was cropped. Licence here.

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