Downing Street is exaggerating the risk of thousands of migrants crossing the Channel in the event that Britain left the EU.
David Cameron this week said France could “tear up” a treaty keeping migrants in Calais if we quit the bloc.
His spokesperson went further, saying: “You would move the camp — and the people in it — overnight to the south-east of England… A potential departure from the EU would throw the whole relationship [with France] into question.There could be literally thousands of people coming to the UK to claim asylum at Folkestone or other entry points on the south coast.”
Cameron was referring to the Le Touquet Treaty, which allows UK immigration officers to enforce British border controls in Calais. Although the French government doesn’t want to scrap the treaty, the prime minister is right that some opposition politicians have said it should go if Britain quits the EU. With French presidential elections next year, it’s not fanciful to suggest that Le Touquet might be torn up post Brexit.
But, even if it was, thousands of asylum-seekers aren’t likely to reach the UK. What is stopping them coming is less the Le Touquet system than the presence of high fences, flooded wasteland and razor wire – towards which the UK contributed £7 million last summer. Reeve Fabienne Buccio, prefect of Calais, told the BBC last month that this is the reason nobody has been caught getting to the UK through the Calais border since 22 Oct.
The population of the Jungle, the big camp in Calais, has fallen from 6,000 to 4,000 since October. As interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve has argued, making the border seem more open again may encourage migrants and smugglers to return.
But even if the French removed the fences as well as tearing up Le Touquet, it wouldn’t be easy for asylum-seekers to sneak into the UK by sea. Ferry and haulier companies would have an incentive to stop migrants as they can be fined £2,000 for each passenger who arrives in the UK without proper documents.
In theory, people traffickers could find their own boats to ferry asylum-seekers across the Channel as they do from Turkey to Greece or Libya to Italy. But as soon as people started dying in the straits of Dover, there would be pressure on both Britain and France to put a stop to the smuggling even if they’d fallen out over Brexit.
Even if some asylum-seekers still managed to make the crossing, they wouldn’t congregate in camps in the south-east of England. Many would claim asylum, in which case they would enter the British asylum system and end up in asylum accommodation or be detained. Those that didn’t qualify for asylum could be deported to their country of origin. Those not apprehended would simply melt into British society. But they have to make the crossing first, and there are more obstacles than Le Touquet in their path.
Edited by Hugo Dixon