“I was reading about the Windrush generation and tears came into my eyes, because when you know the truth, and you see it happening to someone else, you get really upset, really emotional,” says Nas, who fled Afghanistan for the UK aged 13 after his father, brother and sister were killed by the Taliban.
In many ways, his story encapsulates Britain’s broken asylum system – perilously smuggled overland from his home country across Asia and Europe to the UK, finally arriving in the back of a refrigerated lorry he was forced into by people smugglers in Calais.
After turning 18, Nas spent six years battling through the byzantine and hostile British asylum system, which at one point left him so low that he was losing his hair and contemplating suicide.
It is a story of desperation and a system which fails people fleeing war and persecution before they even reach the UK, and then grinds them down when they are here, only making it harder for them to integrate and undermining public confidence.
Home secretary Priti Patel has responded to this summer’s upsurge in Channel boat crossings by suggesting the Navy should be sent in and reportedly promising an overhaul of the system which will “send the left into meltdown”.
Here’s everything we know.
Why are people coming across the Channel?
It’s important to distinguish here between asylum seekers, like Nas, who are fleeing war or persecution, and economic migrants who are simply seeking a better life.
According to the UNHCR’s Laura Padoan, most of the people arriving on boats are from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea or other countries in conflict or where there are human rights abuses “so they are likely to be granted refugee status”.
How many people are making the journey?
Many people still question why these people are coming to Britain instead of claiming asylum in other safe countries, such as France, where many spend time in camps.
But as an island nation isolated from the mass migration flows into eastern and southern Europe, the UK takes in far fewer asylum seekers than the likes of France or Germany.
There were 35,000 or so in the UK last year, and with about five applications for every 10,000 people compared to 14 across the EU.
Padoan says the Channel crossings are a “relatively new” phenomenon partly driven by the coronavirus-enforced reduction in lorry traffic, which offers a far less visible but still dangerous route for those seeking sanctuary in the UK.
More than 4,000 have arrived by boat this year, but Padoan says: “Essentially people aren’t really coming to the UK in big numbers.”
Jeff Crisp, of the Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre, adds: “The numbers might look big on the front page of the Daily Mail but in a global perspective they are tiny.”
Why the UK?
Experts almost unanimously stress that asylum seekers often pick the UK because of cultural, family and language ties.
Some, especially unaccompanied children, some of whom are currently being held by Border Force in Kent as the council has reached its capacity for proper care, may simply be brought here without having a say.
But Crisp warns that the UK is seen as a “relatively easy place to live in the shadows” even if your asylum claim is refused.
“You can find work in the informal sector, in ethnic minority economies, we don’t have an ID card system,” he says.
“In a country like Sweden it’s virtually impossible to live as an irregular migrant because your documentation and ID is demanded at every step of the way.
“The UK has moved to some extent in that direction but there still seems to be a sense that it’s a country in which you can just about survive without having documented status, more so than in other countries.”
For Nas, he spoke no English and had no idea where he was going when his mother told him to follow a people smuggler away from his village in Afghanistan following deadly night raids by the Taliban which claimed his families’ lives.
He was simply passed from smuggler to smuggler until he reached Calais, and then forced into a refrigerated lorry bound for Dover.
“I didn’t want to go in but this guy just grabbed me and took me in by force, hit me over the head,” he says.
So has the UK got its response right this summer?
Many experts are scathing of Patel and the Home Office’s suggestion that the Navy could be sent into the Channel.
“That was deeply concerning,” says Padoan. “Because first of all the suggestions were [to use] these 42m long cutters to meet a small dinghy in rough water, that could result in further loss of life, you are making a situation more dangerous.”
Colin Yeo, a leading immigration barrister and author of Welcome to Britain: Fixing Our Broken Immigration System, says it does not even make sense.
“People just aren’t thinking this through,” he says.
“Is the Navy going to tow a dinghy into French waters and effectively invade France and take these people back without French agreement?
“Are they going to barricade so people can’t get through and then they just drown?
“Some people who are advocating this are just not thinking at all about this, it’s just soundbites and jingoistic nonsense really.”
The Home Office, however, stresses that the UK’s armed forces have good experience of dealing with humanitarian situations, and have previously worked to save migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
“Are they going to barricade so people can’t get through and then they just drown?”
The wider response by politicians and the public has also drawn criticism.
Tory MP Sarah Atherton was singled out for describing those travelling across the Channel as “economic migrants” who should stay in France and seek asylum there.
Crisp described Atherton’s claims as “ridiculous”.
“On the one hand the idea there’s a queue that people can join is a fallacious one in the first place and secondly there are good reasons why people would prefer to come to the UK rather than remain in France,” he says.
Nas, who now earns £900 a month working for KFC, describes the political response as “absolutely unacceptable”.
“People are commenting saying they are only coming here for benefits,” he says.
“Let me tell you about myself – since I got status I haven’t taken a single benefit, I haven’t taken anything, I am working hard here – I pay £400 for my flat, I pay £70 for my council tax.
“I work hard, I come home, I rest, then I go back to work.
“What those people are saying is absolutely shocking.
“They are not coming for benefits, they are coming for safety here.”
So what needs to be done?
Momentum is growing behind demands for more safe and legal routes for genuine refugees as a way of helping to reduce the number of dangerous journeys.
Padoan stresses that the Syrian vulnerable person relocation scheme which brought in around 25,000 refugees directly from their home region between 2014 and 2019 was a success, and the Home Office is planning to expand it to other nations from next year, while keeping numbers capped at around 5,000 a year.
But despite that scheme running, dangerous crossings have still been made and there are calls for the establishment of new routes.
“It is certainly one way of addressing the problem of people having to resort to smuggling networks and paying huge amounts of money and making very dangerous journeys,” says Padoan.
Isabella Mosselmans, a lawyer for the charity Safe Passage, meanwhile warns that existing safe routes will be closed down once the Brexit transition period ends on December 31.
The UK has been trying to negotiate an agreement with Brussels for a mutual system of returns of asylum seekers but is struggling to get anywhere amid faltering negotiations.
A failure to reach a deal would see another existing safe route – under so-called Dublin regulations – closed down.
“They are criticising people and attacking people for using unsafe routes to cross to the UK while they are simultaneously closing down one of the only safe and legal routes at the end of this year,” Mosselmans says.
“It’s disgraceful and hypocritical.”
But safe routes may not be the answer
The logic behind the drive for safe and legal routes is clear to see – it essentially disrupts smugglers’ business model.
But some experts do not believe it is a silver bullet.
Yeo warns that “the reality is we are never going to take all the people who do want to come”.
He suggests the creation of safe routes, for example allowing asylum seekers to apply while in France, could encourage dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean and continental Europe.
“I haven’t seen research and evidence it would really put people off risking their lives unless you are talking about taking a very substantial number of people by those safe and legal routes, but I don’t think that’s really on the cards,” he says.
Crisp also has reservations and says there must still be a decent and humane way of dealing with people who arrive in the UK spontaneously and claim asylum.
“There’s also a risk that you go down the Australian line,” he says. “That you set up a very small programme for safe and legal routes and then you demonise anyone who arrives spontaneously by saying they should have joined the queue.”
Ultimately, Yeo says Patel is right “in some ways” to make it “undesirable” for people to make dangerous journeys across the Channel.
He suggests that safe and legal routes could be combined with an agreement with France to return people crossing in boats.
“All this stuff about ‘take back control’, ‘strengthen our borders’ – our borders are much more complicated than that in the modern world and it requires cooperation with other countries to enforce it,” he says.
What about when people get here?
Patel is also looking to make substantial changes to the way asylum seekers are treated once they reach the UK as part of what Home Office sources are calling a “reset moment” on immigration when the Brexit transition period ends on December 31.
The home secretary is understood to be frustrated with the growing delays and backlogs in the system, with more than 43,000 cases outstanding at the end of 2018, the highest number since 2010.
Home Office sources blame “activist lawyers” and “economic migrants” for trying to game the system, causing delays and undermining confidence in the system.
And HuffPost UK understands that Patel will look to ensure asylum seekers cannot enter new claims for protection on different grounds to their first attempt, if that has failed.
But last year the department dropped its own target for making decisions on asylum claims within the first months.
Padoan, of the UNHCR, blamed the Home Office for making poor initial decisions, which appear to be backed by statistics which show around a third of appeals were successful in cases resolved in 2018.
She says the asylum system is not “fair and efficient” as people are “left in limbo for years and years waiting on a decision”.
“If that improved people wouldn’t need to resort to the appeals system and judicial review,” she says.
“It’s about investment in Home Office decision-making.”
Either way, delays can undermine confidence in the system as asylum seekers are largely unable to work and often rely on state handouts while their claims are dealt with.
It can also drive them into exploitation and the shadow economy, and the situation may be partly to blame for polls which suggest nearly half the British public has little or no sympathy with asylum seekers who cross the Channel.
A more hostile environment is not the answer
While all sides agree reform is needed, many experts believe the hostile approach taken towards asylum seekers creates a “toxic” atmosphere that harms both them and the country as a whole.
Yeo says: “Asylum seekers in the UK get treated really very badly, they get put through this demanding, hostile asylum process, in the meantime they get very limited support – £39 a week now, a fraction of income support.
“They get put in squalid accommodation, they are not allowed to study, they get fractured around the country away from their communities and it’s pretty traumatic for them.
“That’s kind of okayish if you decide their claims really quickly but if you spend ages deciding their claims it just becomes completely unacceptable and they get really badly traumatised by what goes on.
“And then actually they get allowed to stay at which point they are expected to successfully integrate.
“But their lives have already been ruined by the experience of what they have been put through and they are permanently handicapped by the way they got treated when they first arrived.”
Nas was forced to wait six years before eventually being given his status, eating up Home Office time and taxpayer money in interviews, claims and appeals.
He found court hearings he had been waiting months for adjourned on the day for another few months, and said the questions he was asked in some of his interviews with officials were “unbelievable” – such as being asked to recall specific events from nearly a decade prior.
At one interview, he remembers having to correct an official’s report on his answers because it was “completely wrong”. Fortunately he had a recording of the interview to prove his point of view.
And he felt judges were biased towards Home Office lawyers.
He says of his battle for legal status: “What they put me through affected me in various ways and I didn’t know what to do.
“Even if they get here it’s not going to be easy for some of them, it’s going to be years and years.
“It makes people mentally and physically tired, they can’t even support themselves financially because they can’t get a job, they won’t be able to pay tax to contribute to the country, so they won’t be part of the community.
“I felt I wasn’t part of the community because the Home Office treated me very badly.”
“It makes people mentally and physically tired, they can’t even support themselves financially because they can’t get a job, they won’t be able to pay tax to contribute to the country”
What about those who aren’t genuine asylum seekers?
Patel is also keen to speed up and increase the number of deportations of people who are not genuine asylum seekers.
Crisp agrees that the government’s failure to remove people is “quite a big issue”, while Yeo says the 6,500 or so deported last year is a “tiny number compared to an overall unauthorised population that is estimated to lie somewhere between about 600,000 and 1.2m”.
“The fact that you claim asylum and even if you lose your case you are not removed, that’s not helpful for public confidence,” Yeo says.
The government should look at periodic amnesties for illegal immigrants, as happened periodically under New Labour, as a way of at least bringing these people into the system, Yeo says.
At the moment, the hostile environment, with lawyers, banks and others being asked to check immigration status, is in fact “a tacit admission people aren’t being removed and they are actually being allowed to stay in the UK but with no status and no access to services”.
“There’s no evidence it actually drives people out, it’s a way of tolerating their presence in the country, which is not a very desirable public policy,” he says.
“Having a lot of people with no status – they are very vulnerable to exploitation and modern slavery and it is just not good for society.”
Ultimately, Patel needs to show leadership.
“Part of the toxic political culture is a lack of political leadership,” Crisp says.
“It’s far easier for politicians to come out with outrageous statements about how these people are really economic migrants and exploiting the system, rather than taking a lead and trying to offer constructive alternatives.
“Because it’s toxic it’s very difficult for any politician to step outside that framework and say: let’s take a rational look at this and come up with some constructive proposals.
“There’s been a kind of race to the bottom.”