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Nearly half of British public have little or no sympathy for migrants crossing Channel from France, survey finds

Andy Gregory
There has been a rise in Channel crossings as previously more popular routes were effectively closed by government policies: PA
There has been a rise in Channel crossings as previously more popular routes were effectively closed by government policies: PA

Nearly half of the British public have little or no sympathy for asylum-seekers making the desperate journey across the Channel from France, according to a YouGov survey.

The public spotlight on the increase in crossings of the Dover Strait has intensified in recent days after more than 677 people reached the UK between Thursday and Sunday.

With tightened security measures and coronavirus-related travel restrictions effectively cutting off the previously more popular route of stowing away in lorries, last week’s arrivals add to a total of more than 4,000 migrants who have risked their lives in small boats so far this year.

While the apparent increase – up from 2,758 crossings in 2019 – is likely largely accounted for by the change of method, media outlets and Tory MPs have respectively labelled it a “crisis” and “invasion”, with home secretary Priti Patel appointing a new “clandestine Channel threat commander” and stepping up plans to send in Royal Navy warships – amid warnings this was “unlawful” and “could seriously risk human life”.

The survey on Tuesday suggested that many among the British public may favour such increasingly hardline measures – particularly Brexit and Tory voters.

Of 3,163 UK adults, 27 per cent said they had “no sympathy at all” for the asylum-seekers’ plight, while 22 per cent described having “not much sympathy” for those attempting to cross the world’s busiest shipping lane on small boats.

Just 19 per cent described themselves as having “a great deal of sympathy”, a quarter reported “a fair amount”, and seven per cent said they didn’t know.

While this represented a fairly even split, the contrasts were starker when framed in the context of political affiliations.

The number of Tory voters and Brexit voters with little or no sympathy both sat at 73 per cent – the same as the proportion of Labour voters who reported having a “great” or “fair amount”. Two thirds of Remain voters also felt favourably towards those making the crossing.

A further poll by YouGov also that found half of the British adults surveyed felt the UK does not have a responsibility to help protect migrants are arriving in England from France.

There appears to be considerable confusion as to why people are attempting to reach Britain from France, with some in the public sphere accusing those making the desperate journey of being “economic migrants” rather than refugees.

The group of Tory MPs and peers led by John Hayes insisted on Tuesday that arrivals are being put up in “expensive hotels” and enjoying “immediate access” to financial help.

Meanwhile, BBC presenter Carrie Grace mistakenly claimed that “the rules state, around refugee and asylum status, that asylum-seekers should apply in the first state country they reach”. The broadcaster has been contacted for comment.

There are no such legal restrictions on asylum-seekers, but under EU law some refugees may be returned to a country they have already passed through. This is due to cease in 2021, due to Brexit.

“Over 80 per cent of asylum-seekers and refugees stay in neighbouring countries,” Baraa Halabieh, a Syrian actor, interpreter and refugee living in the UK told the BBC.

“If they were after the financial support, they [would] stay in other European countries where the financial support is way higher than the UK – they are not coming to the UK for £37 a week.”

Echoing the sentiments of refugee charities, he said that the main reasons asylum-seekers come to the UK are that they speak English or have a family connection in the UK, and because the UK’s family reunification programme is faster than other countries.

The UK offered asylum, resettlement or protection to 19,480 people in the year to September 2019 – the highest number since 2003, according to Home Office statistics.

A third YouGov survey also published on Tuesday suggested 46 per cent of Britons believe that in comparison with other EU countries, the UK has “done more than our fair share to accommodate refugees”.

However, European Union data shows that, in 2019, Germany received 165,600 asylum applications – the largest of any EU country, followed by France with 128,900, Spain with 117,800, Greece with 77,300, and the UK with 44,800.

The Independent revealed on Tuesday that the government was warned nine months ago that its own policies were “pushing migrants to take more dangerous routes” across the English Channel in an official report by MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee, among them Ms Patel.

The report called for the government to increase legal routes to seek asylum, improve “dire” conditions in French camps, and address the root causes of migration.

“These are people who are desperate, who have seen violence in countries, they are fleeing from places like Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq,” Gulwali Passarlay, who wrote an acclaimed book about escaping Afghanistan when he was a 12-year-old boy, told the BBC on Tuesday.

Responding the group of 25 Tory MPs discussing “invading migrants”, Mr Passarlay told the BBC on Tuesday: “They have to look at themselves and have humanity and have decency.”