Lessons from Calais

Illegal Immigration: MW 368

Lessons from Calais


1. It is the responsibility of the French government to maintain order in the Calais district but the reason for the intense pressure on the Channel terminals is that very large numbers of migrants, already in the safety of France, are determined to get into Britain. They believe that they will be able to work here illegally and send money home. They also believe, correctly, that their chances of being sent home are extremely low. They can work until discovered, then claim asylum and even if their claim fails they are not likely to be removed. In short, the UK immigration system has lost its credibility among those who matter most – potential illegal immigrants.

2. Accordingly, radical action is now needed by the British government to change perceptions in Calais and further back down the chain. All trucks should be searched on arrival in Dover and those migrants discovered should be detained in temporary facilities where any asylum claims can be dealt with in a “one stop shop” or arrangements made for removal. This might require considerable extra manpower beyond the resources of the Border Force so contingency plans should be set in hand for military aid to the civil authorities. In the medium term we need a step change in the minimal resources now made available by the Treasury together with a significant expansion of the immigration detention estate. In the longer term ID cards are now essential.


3. Migrants in Calais are already in a safe country where they are entirely free to apply for asylum without coming to the UK to seek refuge. Indeed, most seem to be young men who have been able to pay people smugglers for various parts of their journey. It seems that they see more opportunity in the UK than elsewhere in Europe and are confident that, once across the channel they are most unlikely to be sent home. This paper examines why they believe this to be the case and what can be done to restore credibility to the UK immigration system. It does not deal with the disorder in Calais which, of course, is the responsibility of the French government.

The context; the decline in credibility of the UK immigration system

4. The problems we now face in Calais are the culmination of a 20 year process during which the credibility of the UK immigration system has been severely diminished. There have been a number of key elements;

  1. The abolition of exit checks
    These were abolished by the Conservatives for European destinations in 1994, primarily as an economy measure. Labour abolished them to the rest of the world in 1998. British citizens did not notice the change but immigrants rapidly became aware that nobody would notice if they were to overstay. The overall result is that for 20 years the British government have literally had no idea who is still in the UK and who has left.
  2. The rapid expansion of immigration
    Under Labour from 1998 there was a rapid expansion of both economic and student migration with no apparent thought as to how departures could be measured let alone enforced.
  3. Lack of enforcement
    Very few resources have been put into enforcement. The 2006 Immigration, Nationality and Asylum Act provided for civil penalties to be levied on employers of illegal immigrants. Employers could also be prosecuted and, on conviction, fined or imprisoned for up to 2 years, or both[1]. Since 2009, of the total of 1.2 million employers in the UK, only 8,750 have incurred civil penalties[2]. These totalled £78 million of which only £29 million has been collected[3]. In the same period there have been only 77 prosecutions[4].
  4. The Points Based System (PBS)
    Introduced in 2008, this new visa system was specifically intended to “remove the previous testing of intentions and credibility” and replace it with “objective criteria” together with self assessment to allow applicants to see whether they met the criteria. The naivety of this approach is breath-taking. It led within months to tens of thousands of bogus student applications from the Indian sub-continent.[5] The visa system as a whole has yet to recover.
  5. The asylum system
    Migrants will be aware that there is an asylum system in Britain that is quite well financed and supported by a powerful lobby, including a considerable number of specialist lawyers. As a result, their chance of being granted asylum is about 40% - the average of the EU but twice that in France. Recently, the government have revealed that failed asylum seekers with a dependent child continue to be supported indefinitely even after their claim has been finally determined. Some 15,000 people (including dependants) fall into this category at a cost of £73 million a year[6]. The government propose to phase this out from mid-2016.
  6. ID cards
    The decision by the Coalition government to abandon the ID card programme introduced by Labour was a major mistake. The French are right to point out that the scope for working and living illegally in Britain is greatly increased by the absence of any compulsory ID document.

5. The government have taken a number of steps already. The most recent immigration act was intended to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining access to a bank account or a driving licence. There is also legislation coming forward to tackle the provision of accommodation to illegal immigrants. However, family ties are very strong so a migrant can expect a relative to help with the use of his bank account and to do any driving that may be needed. The pilot scheme for landlords has had little effect so far[7].

Pull factors in Calais

6. The fact that we have a flexible economy and that there are a number of skill shortages in the UK is beside the point – those now seeking to break into Britain via Calais would not be able to obtain legal employment (unless eventually granted asylum). Nor is there any evidence that benefits play a significant role. The major pull factors are:

  1. Many migrants already have friends and relatives here. Given that net foreign migration over the past 18 years has reached a total of 5 million[8], there is a large and growing number of relatives who would be able to call on the assistance of those already here.
  2. There will also be a considerable number who already speak some English and would feel more at home in an Anglophone environment.
  3. Beyond that, many will believe that they can find work illegally and send home money that would be a considerable sum by local standards. Indeed the black economy has been estimated by the Migration Advisory Committee at about 10% of the UK’s GDP[9]. (This would also, of course, include British citizens evading tax).
  4. Crucially, migrants believe that they are very unlikely to be sent back. As one migrant said to a journalist “The police have to be lucky every time; we only have to succeed once and we will fulfil our dream”[10].


7. It is indeed that the case that very few immigration offenders are subject to enforced removal from the UK. Successive governments have confused the picture by lumping together different categories of removal. Indeed, at one point, people turned away at Calais were included among those removed. The picture in recent years is set out in the bar chart below which demonstrates that enforced removal of illegal immigrants has averaged only about 4,300 a year over the past 9 years[11]. (This number excludes foreign national prisoners and failed asylum seekers who are separately counted). Removals on this scale are trivial compared to an inflow of some 300,000 legal migrants and 8 million visitors last year[12]; even a very small proportion of overstayers would overwhelm the present arrangements for removing those who become illegal immigrants in this way.

Figure 1: Immigration Offenders removed from the UK

Options available

8. Seen from the point of view of a migrant in Calais, there are three clear options once they have got across the channel to the UK.

  1. To work illegally.
    This is the preferred option of many migrants since experience in their home countries makes them deeply suspicious of authority. Many will have a relative who can find them some work as well as accommodation. As outlined above, the number of employers successfully prosecuted for hiring illegal workers is very small. The workers themselves, often arrested in front of television cameras brought for the purpose, are frequently simply released a few days later.
  2. To claim asylum.
    As soon as a migrant claims asylum he or she is provided with free accommodation and utilities of £36 a head per week to live on together with free legal assistance with their claim and any subsequent appeals[13]. They and their families would also receive free health and education for as long as their cases were being considered. There is, of course, a strong humanitarian case for treating genuine asylum seekers in this generous manner but it is not hard to see why such a prospect might seem attractive to an economic migrant in a make shift tent in Calais. Even if their claims fail, after months of consideration, only about half are removed. The rest disappear into the black economy so, if they make a claim for asylum, they would have roughly a 75% chance of staying on in Britain either legally or illegally[14]. Press reports that those who have recently claimed asylum in Dover have been transported in taxis to temporary accommodation in three star hotels will do nothing to reduce the incentives to cross the Channel.
  3. To work illegally and then claim asylum on discovery.
    This is a very common occurrence. Approximately 50% of those who claim asylum only do so when their presence in the UK is discovered[15]. This puts them immediately into the free accommodation etc described above.

Changing perceptions

9. It will be apparent from the foregoing that a migrant in Calais is likely to believe that, if he (or she but most are men) can get across the channel, he is home and dry with the prospect of a much better life than in his home country and very little prospect of enforced removal. It is essential to take radical action to change this perception; government propaganda will not do it.

10. According to the French police, 70% of those they process in the Calais area are found to have “left the vicinity” in a four month period[16]. Clearly, several thousand are getting through every year, giving encouragement to many others. What is now required is a major game changer which will change the perception that just to get across the Channel is to be home and dry in a new and potentially prosperous life. This needs to be felt immediately in the camps around Calais and further back along the migrant routes. That is the purpose of the following recommendations.


11. The following steps need to be taken very soon:

  1. A full search should be conducted of all trucks as they arrive at Dover. Those arrested should be detained immediately.
  2. A substantial number of staff will be needed if unacceptable delays are to be avoided. If, as seems likely, there are insufficient Border Force staff available for a major operation of this kind, the use of military personnel should certainly be considered. Such military aid to the civil authorities does not require Parliamentary approval but it is more complex than it might seem so contingency planning should be set in hand straight away.
  3. Additional detention centres should be established, preferably in the vicinity of Dover, to ensure that migrants are unable to disappear while their cases are being considered. Other migrants subsequently found on trucks that have arrived from the continent should be detained in the same centres.
  4. A “one-stop shop” should be established in these centres bringing together the civil servants, interpreters, lawyers, immigration judges, medical staff and other professionals needed to consider asylum cases rapidly and on site. (There would, however, have to be sufficient time allowed to meet the requirements of a recent Appeal Court decision which declared that the present “Fast Track” detention system is unlawful because applicants have not been given enough time to prepare their cases).
  5. Negotiations should be set in hand for bilateral return agreements with the main countries of origin of those found to be economic migrants. Britain’s huge aid budget should be used as both a carrot and a stick. It is already government policy not to return Syrians to Syria. Others might qualify as genuine asylum seekers and would be treated like any other refugee.
  6. There must be a major increase in resources available for immigration enforcement. At present only £440 million a year is spent on enforcement[17]. This is a trivial sum given the importance of restoring control over our borders. It should be at least doubled over the next three years. (The entire immigration budget for 2014/15 is about £1.8 bn or just 0.25% of government expenditure; two thirds of this sum is raised from visa fees[18]).
  7. There are currently only about 3,500 places available for immigration detention[19]. This is one of the constraints on removal. A further 1,000 places should be provided as a first step in the necessary expansion of the immigration detention estate.
  8. In the longer term we must return to the introduction of ID cards. The French are right to point out that the absence of ID cards in the UK makes it far too easy for migrants to stay on illegally and find work in Britain.


12. The crisis in Calais is the culmination of long standing and growing weaknesses in the immigration system. It can only now be tackled by decisive action on an entirely new scale so as to make it clear to those in Calais and beyond that breaking into Britain is no longer a no-lose option.

13 August, 2015


  1. https://www.gov.uk/penalties-for-employing-illegal-workers
  2. HC Deb, 6 February 2015, cW http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-… question/Commons/2015-01-26/222054/
  3. HC Deb 29 April 2014 c662W http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm1404… 0429w0002.htm#140429w0002.htm_wqn13
  4. HC Deb, 17 November 2014, cW http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-… question/Commons/2014-11-11/214408/
  5. http://www.migrationwatchuk.org/briefing-paper/2.23
  6. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/reform-of-support-for… -seekers-and-other-illegal-migrants
  7. Show 13 more...
  1. https://www.gov.uk/penalties-for-employing-illegal-workers
  2. HC Deb, 6 February 2015, cW http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-… question/Commons/2015-01-26/222054/
  3. HC Deb 29 April 2014 c662W http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm1404… 0429w0002.htm#140429w0002.htm_wqn13
  4. HC Deb, 17 November 2014, cW http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-… question/Commons/2014-11-11/214408/
  5. http://www.migrationwatchuk.org/briefing-paper/2.23
  6. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/reform-of-support-for… -seekers-and-other-illegal-migrants
  7. http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21660589-panicky-response-r… more-harm-good-crisis-mismanagement
  8. Long Term International Migration by Citizenship, table 2.01a, Office for National Statistics
  9. Migrants in Low Skilled Work, Migration Advisory Committee, July 2014 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/migrants-in-low-skilled-work
  10. The Times, 1st March 2015, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/politics/article4369366.ece
  11. Derived from Home Office Immigration Statistics on removals, tables rv_01 and rev_07_q https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/immigration-statistics-january-to-march-2015-data-tables
  12. Admissions data, Home Office Immigration Statistics, table ad_03_0 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/immigration-statistics-january-to-march-2015-data-tables
  13. https://www.gov.uk/asylum-support/what-youll-get
  14. Outcome Analysis of asylum applications, table as_06, Home Office Immigration Statistics https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/immigration-statistics-january-to-march-2015-data-tables
  15. HC Deb, 15 October 2013, c642W http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm1310… 1015w0001.htm#131015w0001.htm_wqn31
  16. The Daily Mail. 3rd August 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3183288/Seven-ten-Calais-… -enter-country-illegally-month.html
  17. http://www.migrationwatchuk.org/briefing-paper/11.34
  18. Ibid
  19. http://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/immigration-detention-uk

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