Who rescues migrants in the Channel?

HMS Mersey leaving Portsmouth Image copyright PA

Since the October 2018, there has been a marked increase in migrants making the dangerous trip across the channel, but who is responsible for rescuing them?

A country's territorial waters stretch for 12 miles off its coast. Beyond that is international waters.

If a boat carrying people is found within national waters it's fairly clear-cut - that country has a duty to rescue them to a place of safety.

In international waters, it's slightly less clear and may vary on a case by case basis. But there is still a legal obligation to rescue those in distress and take them to a place of safety.

The stretch between Dover and Calais (the narrowest point) is entirely covered by territorial waters on either side but further down the Channel where it widens out, the waters outside of the two countries' territories are divided up into French and English search-and-rescue zones.

These rescue zones - which roughly divide the area of the Channel in half between the two countries - are co-ordinated by operations centres in Dover in the UK and Gris Nez (between Calais and Boulogne) in northern France.

It's the responsibility of the authorities there to ensure that anyone in distress in these zones receives assistance. In reality, if people are in danger, any boat nearby will have a duty to rescue them.

Those picked up in the UK zone will be taken to an English port and those in the French zone to a port in France.

Where can they seek asylum?

Under international law, people have the right to seek asylum in whichever country they arrive. There's nothing to say you must seek asylum in the first safe country.

However, under EU law there is a provision to allow asylum applications to be transferred to another member state.

The Dublin Regulation states that a person's asylum claim can be transferred to the first member state they entered.

In 2018, according to the European Council of Refugees and Exiles, 1,215 people were transferred to the UK from another EU country under the Dublin rules, and 209 were transferred out of the UK.

The UK grants refugee status to those who are unable to live in their own country for fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or other factors such as sexual orientation. A successful application usually allows someone leave to remain for five years with the opportunity after that to apply for indefinite leave to remain.

Top 10 asylum seeking countries by success rate

Percentage of initial decisions ending in asylum being granted, 2018

Source: Home Office

Entry into the original EU country must be proven - so if someone has travelled through mainland European without being fingerprinted and doesn't appear in the shared European fingerprint database, then they cannot be sent back.

If someone already has an asylum claim underway in another country, there will be a dialogue between those two countries about who is responsible.

If an asylum claim in another EU country has already been unsuccessful, the claimant has to prove that this decision was made unfairly or that their circumstances had changed since the decision was made.

Migrants coming from Calais, for example, are likely to have already made an application there according to immigration lawyer, Marcia Longdon.

Children can also be transferred under Dublin Regulations to a member state if they have relatives living there who are capable of taking care of them.

If the UK leaves the EU with a deal, it will likely remain part of the regulations during any agreed-upon transition period. In the case of no-deal, it will stop being part of them on 31 October 2019.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has said: "I will not let the ruthless gangs of criminal people smugglers continue to put lives in danger - which is why I'm doing everything in my power as Home Secretary to put a stop to these illegal crossings

"We've been working extremely closely with our French colleagues to tackle the use of small boats."

A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.

UPDATE - The map in this article was updated on 10 January to distinguish the Channel Islands' territorial waters from French waters

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