The public debates on migrant Channel crossings. Whose voice is legitimate?

The public debates on migrant Channel crossings. Whose voice is legitimate?

Pierre Monforte

In summer 2020, questions related to ‘border crossing’ and ‘illegal migration’ are making the headlines in the UK – again. The pattern is familiar. In the first weeks of August, as a few hundred migrants attempted the perilous journey across the Channel aboard inflatable dinghies, media turned their attention to what some MPs have described as a ‘crisis’ and an ‘invasion’.

Immediately, the Home Office announced new measures: negotiations about border controls in Calais are reopened with the French government; a ‘Clandestine Channel threat commander’ is nominated; a new reform of the asylum system is announced; military aircrafts are deployed to help Border Forces find migrant boats; asylum seekers who had recently arrived in the UK are deported…

With these announcements, the Home Office hopes that it can copy the Australian ‘Pacific solution’ by militarising its borders to discourage asylum seekers from entering the British territory. When considering these developments, it is important to remind ourselves of some basic facts.

The phenomenon is not new. Since the 1990s, many migrants trying to reach Britain have been stuck in the Calais region due to a lack of safe passage. The reasons for the existence of the ‘jungle’ in Calais are the same that led to the camp in Sangatte, which was dismantled in 2002. For decades, the British and French governments have cooperated to try to deter migrants from crossing the Channel.

In 2003, the two governments signed the Touquet agreement, which partly externalised the British border to Calais. In 2016, they invested twenty million pounds to reinforce border controls. The horrific living conditions in the Calais jungle have been documented, and tragedies like the death of 39 people in a truck found in Essex in October 2019 remind us that migrants have to take immense risks to try to reach their destination.

The number of migrants crossing the Channel clandestinely is small and stable over time. It is estimated that 4,343 migrants have arrived by boat to the UK since January 2020. This is an increase since last year, but this has to be put in the context of the pandemic, which limits the possibility to take other clandestine routes (for example aboard lorries). These are small numbers compared, for example, to the 182,877 migrants who arrived on Italian shore in 2016. More generally, only a small proportion of refugees arrive in Europe: 85% of the refugees in the world live in countries neighbouring their country of origin.

The militarisation of the Channel to push back migrant boats is unlawful and dangerous. Blocking the progress of vessels at sea goes against the right to life, and intercepting them (once they entered UK waters) with the view to returning the persons on board to France is a violation of international laws on refugee protection. Moreover, as the example of the Mediterranean shows, the militarisation of borders does not deter migrants from attempting the journey to Europe. Research shows that “stronger borders don’t work” (Goodfellow, 2020). Stricter border controls lead migrants to take more risks. This benefits smugglers. This causes more tragedies. It is estimated that 40,555 people have died at the European border since 1993.

As these elements highlight, there is no such thing as a ‘crisis’ or an ‘invasion’. If a crisis should be evoked, it is a crisis of ‘compassion’ on the part of the British and European governments. More generally, the tone of the public debates raises the question: who talks about these issues? Who makes the agenda on migration? In his essay Language and Symbolic Power (1991), Pierre Bourdieu argued that we need to understand who talks – who is authorised and who feels authorised to talk – in order to analyse the construction of public problems.

Public issues are debated in a certain way because dominant groups have the legitimacy, the authority, to talk in the name of others; they are those who set the terms of the debate. They ‘take the floor’ (“prendre la parole”) by ‘taking’ it from other – less authorised – actors, who are silenced. In other words, analysing who sets the terms of the public debates on migration also leads to ask: who can’t talk about this issue? Whose voices are illegitimate, not authorised?

Exploring these questions shows the overwhelming power of some voices. Political leaders and commentators who represent the agenda of law and order are dominant in mainstream media (Goodfellow, 2019). Often, these voices follow the lead of right-wing populist leaders, and they are rooted in ethnocentrism and colonial legacies (El Enany, 2020). Their discourse is familiar. It is based on the idea that they can speak in the name of ‘ordinary citizens’ and that they are legitimate to represent their fears, anxieties and feelings of injustice.

From this perspective, it is argued that existing standards in terms of refugee protection – however low they already are – are too generous and can be exploited by migrants who are trying to benefit from the system. In sum, it is argued that the system fails to protect citizens from what is perceived as an external, diffuse, threat. The framing of the so-called ‘crisis’ in August 2020 is no exception.

For instance, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, argued that people approved the deployment of military forces in the Channel because they voted to regain control over the borders in 2016. A few days later, Boris Johnson argued that the government needed to look at “the panoply of laws that an illegal immigrant has at his or her disposal that allow them to stay here”. Over the years, this language of ‘crisis’, securitisation of borders and dehumanisation of migrants has become the doxa in public debates.

With some exceptions, voices that use the language of Human rights, social justice or compassion remain largely unauthorised, illegitimate. In particular, migrants’ voices are silenced. In most cases, those who are the object of sensationalist headlines are shown, but not heard. Although migrants are made visible as groups – in particular at symbolic border sites (Calais, Lampedusa…) – they remain largely inaudible as individuals. In 2020, the filming of migrants’ perilous journey by reporters following them along the coast of Dover is a perfect illustration of this. This border spectacle leads to shift the focus from the production of illegality by lawmakers to the ‘crime’ of those who cross the borders. It reifies their ‘illegality’, and it legitimates even more the language of securitisation and dehumanisation.

Another voice that remains largely illegitimate is that of the activists and volunteers acting for the support of refugees. As we have explored in a recent ESRC project, the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ has led to an unprecedented wave of solidarity across Europe (1). In particular, the picture of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who died in September 2015 when attempting to cross the Mediterranean, sparked an emotional response from many individuals who had not necessarily engaged into actions of support in the past. This response materialized into different types of initiatives: hosting and befriending networks, language courses, food and clothes donations in Calais, legal assistance, or rescue missions at the European borders.

Although we have shown that this movement is not without ambivalences, it is interesting to note the diversity of its participants. During our research, we interviewed students, retired people, teachers, nurses, journalists, psychologists, police officers, warehouse workers, lecturers, doctors… Our participants came from different walks of life, they lived in urban centres and in rural areas, they had different political opinions. Some of them were politically active, others were not. Some tried to involve other people in their community, others presented their engagement as more private. The vast majority of the people we met during our research are still active today.

In 2015, to some extent, migrants and their supports managed to ‘take the floor’ in public debates. Reports were made about migrants’ living conditions and the injustice of the British and European migration regimes. Also, activists and volunteers did have some opportunity to share their views publicly. This moment showed that, far from the representation of a nation that aims to regain control over its borders at any cost, the inclusion of these voices leads to a more nuanced picture, one in which values of Human rights, compassion and social justice are legitimate. Yet, 2015 remains an exception: these voices are largely inaudible in the current debates (as they were before 2015).

Two differences with the current situation need to be underlined. The ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015 seemed mostly a distant ‘crisis’: migrants were arriving in Greece, not Britain. Also, it was depicted as a temporary ‘crisis’ that would eventually fade away with the end of the conflict in Syria. Therefore, it is essential to explore how migrants and their support can ‘take the floor’ when the situation is not framed as a distant humanitarian crisis. As Martha Nussbaum (2013) argues, values and emotions such as empathy, compassion and social justice are critical for the development of a just society. Silencing these values and emotions is a threat to our democracies.


References and Notes
(1) ‘Exploring the Frames of Altruistic Action: A Comparative Analysis of Volunteers’ Engagement in British and French Charities’ (2017-2020): ES/N015274/1. The Final Report is available here.
Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power, Harvard: Harvard University Press.
El Enany, N. (2020) Bordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Goodfellow, M. (2019) Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats, London: Verso.
Nussbaum, M. (2013) Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, Harvard: Harvard University Press.


Pierre Monforte is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Leicester. His research interests are in the fields of social movement studies, migration and citizenship. From 2017 to 2020, he was Principal Investigator of the ESRC project ‘Exploring the Frames of Altruistic Action’ (ES/N015274/1).