Facing exploitation: migrants attempting to cross the English Channel from France are often at the mercy of Albanian criminal gangs. Image: Eye Ubiquitous / Alamy
The ‘broken’ asylum system in the UK has opened the door for organised criminal groups to become intermediaries in dangerous crossings of the English Channel, risking lives and exploiting vulnerable individuals. But is spending more on border patrols an adequate response to a highly organised, systemic issue?
The practice of ‘people smuggling’ has been long-established in the Mediterranean; however, in 2022 the English Channel saw its arrival on a massive new scale. Organised criminal networks from Albania are operating out of the north of France, notably targeting camps such as Calais to smuggle migrants and refugees across the Channel in small boats. A large portion of those crossing the Channel are fleeing countries where they may face significant hardship such as Afghanistan or Iran, but the number of Albanians coming to the UK is unprecedented.
While the small boat operators are often Iraqi or Kurdish and have been around for years, these criminal networks have newly tapped into them. Despite the country’s small population, Albanians now make up the majority of these small boat crossings, jumping from merely 54 migrants in 2020 to a record 11,250 as of September 2022. A report from the BBC noted that some Albanian cities such as Tirana have been almost emptied of young people who have been ‘lured to France’, and that the groups operating in northern France are some of the most powerful criminal organisations in Europe.
To combat this increase in small boat crossings, the UK and France signed a $74 million agreement in mid-November to increase the amount of funding for border patrols and policing on French beaches ‘within the framework set by international law’. The Home Office states that the new joint strategy will deter crossings by making the route unviable, as well as attempt to dismantle facilitation networks, but makes no mention of reforming safe and legal pathways to the UK or the asylum system more broadly – meaning these efforts are likely to be as futile as past agreements have been.
The Problem is Policy, Not Policing
This is both a human rights and international security issue. However, attempting to stop human movement altogether will never be successful, and only creates more avenues for exploitation. The solution to Albanian organised criminal involvement in Channel crossings cannot come from simply increasing border patrols; it must include an overhaul of the ‘broken’ system to establish more government-controlled migration routes that cannot be easily exploited by criminal actors.
Policing small boats and the individuals within them will not be effective in the long term against highly organised criminal activity
It is undeniable that organised criminal groups operate in migrant spaces, and that Albanian gangs may be recruiting individuals to move from their home country. However, it is critical to understand that this does not mean all migrants are criminal actors with bad intentions. Many are escaping instances of violent conflict or political persecution that are not covered by one of the UK’s resettlement schemes, and others are seeking better wages or economic opportunities. Without support, criminal groups can take advantage of these vulnerable people, even offering to pay for their passage in exchange for working in the UK ‘drugs industry’.
Posing as a migrant, a BBC correspondent reported that Albanian intermediaries made the trip seem ‘very easy’, and gave advice on claiming asylum. In fact, small boat crossings are extremely dangerous and migrants have died attempting the journey, meaning most individuals would not pursue this route if they were fully informed of the risks and there were legal alternatives. The Refugee Council has previously stated that there are no safe routes for typical refugees to seek asylum in the UK and limited resources to aid them – though the Home Office claims there are ‘several’ – and that expanding safe pathways could reduce crossings. This would thus also reduce the role of intermediaries such as Albanian networks and their ability to earn a living from exploiting the system.
The Bigger Picture
Forcing migration passages underground, so to speak, is what has allowed smuggling groups to thrive. Policing small boats and the individuals within them will not be effective in the long term against highly organised criminal activity, especially as conflict, instability and economic uncertainty will only continue to increase as climate change and other global crises worsen.
While the Albanian government must tackle corruption and provide better economic opportunities at home, the UK also has the worst wage deflation of G7 countries, as well as other economic problems that may drive people into criminal activity. One former migrant who has been working in the UK for the past decade stated that half of his migrant staff were ‘lured away by drug gangs offering higher wages’. One individual documented being approached four or five times to get involved. These were individuals already living and working legally in the UK who faced similar economic challenges to those attempting to cross the Channel.
It is time that the UK realised it cannot stop the inevitability of human movement, and instead focused its efforts on settlement schemes available to a wide range of migrants
Furthermore, only 4% of asylum applications were processed last year, with an average wait time of 16 months. There has been a drastic increase in wait times over the past several years, and individuals do not have the right to work while waiting for their claim to be processed. With support payments of less than £40 per week, this can also drive migrants to seek alternative sources of income. There has been success with resettlement schemes such as those for Afghans and Ukrainians, indicating that such programmes are entirely possible with funding and support.
There are numerous approaches the UK could take to improve its asylum system, especially since it is home to only 1% of the world’s refugees. Most migrants are either internally displaced or move to a neighbouring country, but the UK also receives substantially fewer asylum applicants than high-income counterparts such as France and Germany. For example, while the Dublin Regulation has its flaws, being part of international agreements such as this one would ensure that the UK asylum system actually complies with international law and works with rather than against other countries.
The Albanian Ambassador Qirjako Qirko was questioned on this issue on 7 December, and he called for an end to the ‘campaign of discrimination’ and the reinforcement of stereotypes. The UK government is reportedly considering plans to reject asylum seekers from ‘safe’ countries or to ‘remove’ those from Albania. But the issue is not solely the responsibility of the Albanian government. Other highly organised criminal networks, including within the UK, are capable of these types of activities. And some of the factors pushing individuals to migrate will continue to exist and impact individuals’ ability to earn a legal income.
The BBC reported in October that the Channel ‘has sucked in resources, year after year’, yet the number of individuals crossing is still rising. Slashing dinghies, intercepting crossings, destroying migrant camps, and even shutting down Albanian networks would still allow other groups to exploit those seeking a better life. It is time that the UK realised it cannot stop the inevitability of human movement, and instead focused its efforts on settlement schemes available to a wide range of migrants rather than forcing these groups into the shadows.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Former Research Analyst