London | An island nation with a reputation for welcoming immigrants in large numbers faces a small but steady flow of illegal arrivals by boat – and a conservative government scrambles to turn them back. Sound familiar?
It's a well-known story in Australia, but the issue of seaborne asylum seekers has now hit Britain's shores with particular intensity, as record arrivals prompt Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government to consider calling in the navy.
"The current situation cannot go on. We are determined to stop these boats," Immigration Minister Chris Philip wrote in Britain's Daily Telegraph on Saturday, as he faced fresh calls for "an Australian-style" solution.
The number of aspiring migrants who were detected heading across the English Channel from France hit a one-day record of 235 on Thursday, as people sought to take advantage of calm, warm weather to make the crossing in dinghies, inflatable kayaks and even home-made rafts fashioned from plastic bottles.
More than 3800 migrants have been detected this year so far, topping the 1850 recorded for the whole of 2019.
Matt Coker, a fisherman in the Channel, told the BBC late on Saturday (AEST) that he was now seeing multiple boat crossings on a daily basis. He said he was worried about the cost of policing the waters, and the risk the migrants were taking.
"Some of the things I've seen, it defies belief. The latest thing seems to be a lot of inflatable canoes, kayaks. They're only supposed to take one or two people and sometimes there's four people on it," he said.
"They're for use on the beach, and they're out in the middle of the Channel paddling with shovels and bits of wood and all sorts of things."
The influx is putting pressure on social services in the coastal county of Kent, where most arrivals fetch up. The local council has reportedly received more than 500 unaccompanied child migrants, 23 of whom arrived on Thursday.
Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted late on Saturday (AEST) that she is "working to make this route unviable". "This involves stopping the boats leaving France in the first place [and] intercepting boats and returning those attempting to make a crossing," she said.
But she admits she needs the co-operation of the French to receive any returnees, who might be less supportive if Britain sends in the military to start turning back craft unilaterally.
There's also the worry that forcible return or blockade won't work, as migrants are liable to threaten to jump overboard if turned back – and the government's primary duty is to preserve life.
"Operationally, once boats reach the sea our first priority must be to save lives," Mr Philp said.
"Small dinghies, handled by inexperienced sailors, are crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, often in front of large container ships. Once they are in UK waters we’re duty bound to bring them to safety."
Political pressure is building on the government from its right flank, where leading Brexiteer Nigel Farage has reinvented himself as a trenchant campaigner against illegal migrants.
His Twitter feed says that Britain is "a soft touch", that the government is "all talk and no action", and that the Border Force "can no longer cope". He also fulminates about asylum seekers being accommodated in comfortable hotels.
Border Force can no longer cope and British fishing boats are now having to do the job. pic.twitter.com/ZZBjy0b1SE— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) August 8, 2020
In a further throwback to the Australian debate, Mr Philp said genuine asylum seekers should make their claim in the first safe country in which they set foot, as the Dublin Convention stipulates, and also should not put their trust in people smugglers.
"These crossings are not only dangerous and illegal, but totally unnecessary. Migrants who set off from the shores of France have travelled through safe EU states with well-run asylum systems," he said.
"Genuine refugees should claim asylum there, not risk their lives at the hands of heinous criminals and break the law by seeking to enter the UK by illicit means."