“Stopping boats” is one of Rishi Sunak’s five pledges for 2023. More than 45,000 small boat migrants crossed the English Channel last year, exposing the UK’s inability to control its borders. That number is expected to grow this year. Mr Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman has now come up with a plan. New legislation unveiled on March 7 will bar people who cross the English Channel in flimsy dinghies from making asylum claims. Instead, they will almost all Detained and deported, never to return.
However, it’s hard to imagine how the government’s new Illegal Immigration Act could go a long way toward alleviating the problem. Detaining asylum seekers is morally and legally dubious: Asylum seekers cannot be considered “illegal” under international law. The Home Office itself has acknowledged that many people entering the UK by boat are legally seeking asylum. In 2022, the asylum rate for migrants from the five countries that account for nearly half of people crossing the Channel exceeds 80%. For three ethnic groups — Afghans, Eritreans and Syrians — it was 98 percent.
The plan also has myriad practical flaws. The UK does not have the capacity to hold large numbers of detained migrants. The government’s idea is to prevent others from making the journey, thus maintaining the number of people in lockdown and deportations. But it’s unclear whether the policy will have that effect. Or, if it does, how long that will take and how many migrants the UK will have to detain in the first place.
The next question is where will these migrants be deported? The UK already has a repatriation deal with Albania that has reduced the number of Albanians applying for asylum. But it has been unable to strike similar deals with other countries from which most asylum seekers flee. That’s because it’s illegal to send them back to countries deemed unsafe. Since there is no return agreement with France (which is still inconclusive), the UK cannot send them back there. Attempts to use Rwanda as a destination for processing claims and settling winners have stalled in court. The UK has no other arrangements with safe third countries.
It seems likely, then, that the UK will continue to process applications from those from countries where they cannot return. This would echo the earlier failure to resolve the issue. Migrants who arrive in the UK through other safe countries but do not apply for asylum are classified as “not admissible” under rules due to be introduced in 2022. Immigration lawyers, however, say this has no real impact on the way their applications are processed, other than further prolonging the wait for a decision. The new law seems likely to have a similar effect, although it may temporarily please some on the Tory right.
Critics of this and previous attempts to address the boat crisis point out that there are few other avenues for people fleeing war and persecution to apply for asylum in the UK. There are plans to reunite refugees with their families, and Afghans, Hong Kongers and Ukrainians can also apply for resettlement (although too few Afghans who helped Britain in its war against the Taliban are allowed in). Asylum seekers from other countries can only enter the UK by boat or truck.
The government has promised to introduce new safe routes, but says the problem of small boats must be tackled first. “It’s the wrong approach,” said Sunder Katwala, director of the UK Future think tank. He said the introduction of new schemes for certain countries, together with a return agreement with France, could reduce the number of people traveling to the UK by small boat. New laws won’t stop them. ■
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