Thousands of refugees have been denied access to the UK throughout the course of the coronavirus crisis, with the Home Office providing no concrete date for when its flagship resettlement programme will resume.
It was reported on Friday morning that home secretary Priti Patel had ordered officials to draw up plans for Royal Navy patrols to be deployed in the English Channel, after a record-breaking 235 migrant crossings took place on Thursday. On Friday, the Home Office said a further 130 migrants arrived in the UK.
But as the government allegedly begins preparations to make it even harder for migrants to cross the Channel, refugee groups are raising awareness of the fact that the official resettlement scheme has been closed since March 30 – giving refugees no safe or legal route into the UK.
Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, told HuffPost UK: “The UK’s refugee resettlement scheme has been frozen since March 2020, and there have been no arrivals through that scheme as a result since.
“At the moment nobody is making a safe or legal journey through refugee resettlement, and the government needs to get the programme up and running as soon as possible.
“We want to find ways for people to make safe, legal journeys and settle, which was previously a primary means of enabling people who are refugees to come to the UK and rebuild their lives.”
The resettlement scheme was announced in September 2015 by then-prime minister David Cameron, in response to a national and international outcry over the global refugee crisis.
The government pledged to welcome a total of 20,000 people who had escaped the war in Syria over a period of five years, with around 5,000 people arriving into the UK and settling into some 200 local authority areas each year since.
With the scheme having been paused since March, and close to six months of inaction, it is thought that close to 2,500 people who would have been granted refugee status have been left in precarious living situations.
There is a second system of arrival into the UK for refugees, of family reunion, but Hale described the process as “highly dysfunctional” and explained that many people who would have a reasonable claim to this method of claiming refugee status have still been forced to attempt their own dangerous route into the country. Difficult to navigate in normal times, Covid-19 has also further disrupted this alternative system.
Furthermore, Cameron’s five-year commitment is soon set to come to an end – and there has thus far been no assurances that it will continue from 2021 onwards, even as the refugee crisis continues to escalate.
That risks plunging local authorities – who typically sign up for long-term commitments to housing refugees – into significant uncertainty, and could prevent them from being able to welcome new families in the years to come.
Hale added: “If the UK wants to hold its head up and say that it is contributing to responding to a global refugee crisis, if the government wants to say ‘we don’t want people to make dangerous journeys’, they then have to explain how the UK is enabling refugees to come safely and legally to the country.
“Essentially, because that’s not happening, the government’s only policy and only message is ‘people shouldn’t be coming’.
“There’s no earthly reason why those programmes can’t be restarted. We totally understand why they were suspended in March, but the absolutely could and should be restarted by the home secretary in September 2020.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK resettles more refugees than any other country in Europe and are in the top five countries worldwide.
“Since 2015, we have resettled more than 25,000 refugees and are proud of our ambitious commitments and achievements.
“Due to the unprecedented pandemic, the UK along with many other countries are currently unable to resettle any refugees but we expect arrivals to resume as soon as conditions allow.”
The number of refugees arriving into the UK via small boat crossings has increased in recent weeks – boosted by a lack of opportunities on freight lorries as a result of Covid-19.
Dr Scott Edwards, a research fellow at the University of Bristol with a focus on transnational organised crime at sea, explained: “Recently because of the Covid situation we have seen this shift to the small boat crossings being chosen more than the road freight routes.
“You had this massive downturn in global trade where lots of businesses weren’t ordering new products and because of that we started to see a downturn in freight and shipping more generally. It’s had a huge impact on the Dover-Calais route, in April they reduced the sailing schedule as there was an unprecedented freight volume reduction.
“And then what is moving along the more traditional routes, with people getting into lorries and that sort of thing, there is a lot more restriction – less lorries are allowed to congregate in a certain area and can’t wait in their usual zones any more.
“There’s also been a tightening of port security, which has come about because of Covid but was already kind of in motion as a result of Brexit. Essentially, over the past few months, there have been a lot fewer opportunities on the more established routes.”
There is also a possibility that crossing the Channel in a small vessel has become easier as huge shipping containers travel less often – leaving the passage slightly clearer.
A drop in road freight and an emptier shipping route is an opportunity that has been exploited by criminal smuggling gangs, Edwards explained.
“If we look at these criminal gangs as well organised operations, as I think we should, you see this massive adaptability,” he said. “Those criminal organisations that have the resources to adapt are able to move away from lorry freight routes and offer small boats instead.”
But even if the rates of freight pick up as lockdown restrictions continue to ease, Brexit is still likely to impact the tradition lorry routes – with more people forced to resort to dangerous sea crossings.
Edwards said: “A kind of uncertainty about how accessible those freight routes will be is still something that will overhang even post-Covid because of more stringent controls at ports.
“People still don’t know what form Brexit is going to take, which creates uncertainty that could make small boats seem like the preferable choice.
“At least there’s a degree of certainty there. In the past they’ve kind of been perceived as more successful, even though they have that extra element of risk or danger to them.”
Meanwhile refugees in Calais and Dunkirk face increasingly dangerous and overcrowded conditions in the camps, a situation exacerbated by the sudden drop in aid sparked by the Covid-19 crisis.
David Wilson, a spokesperson for Care4Calais, explained that at the start of the crisis many of the aid organisations who usually provide relief to refugees living in the camps left the area – placing an intense pressure on the remaining volunteers.
He said: “The situation is the worst it’s been since the Calais ‘jungle’ was demolished in 2016. The people living there are refugees fleeing some of the most dangerous, violent places in the world.
“They’re facing violent evictions, where the police are using tear gas and taking all of their possessions. They are left with nothing, no change of clothes, no tent to sleep in.
“All the harassment they face does is make their already really tough lives a little bit worse. For a lot of them, that [forced evictions] is the fact that tips the balance that makes them think ‘well I’m going to take on the dangerous crossing of the Channel.’
“And then into that mix are the smuggling gangs who, as a result of UK and French government tactics, and because of Covid-19, have stepped up their activities as well.”
Amid reports of the Navy being sent into the Channel to turn boats around and the ongoing practice of camps being broken up, Wilson explained that the authorities appeared to be going round in circles when it comes to effective policy-making.
He continued: “The Home Office don’t seem to have any clue of how to deal with this. They’re just trying the same things they’ve been trying for years, and they don’t work. It doesn’t fundamentally change the situation.
“What we need in terms of policy is a safe and legal process by which refugees in Calais can make an asylum claim.
“If they had that it would mean that they wouldn’t risk getting on a boat or a lorry because they don’t need to, they could have their case fairly heard.
“And and that would obliterate the market for people smugglers, as well as it give the UK control of our borders because we would know exactly who was in the country where they were and what the status and merits of their claim are.
“It would allow us to make a decision in a controlled way, not the chaotic way we have now.”