The Independent

What is the plan to tackle small boats and will it work?


Ministers are publishing much-trailed new legislatio­n on asylum and immigratio­n. It is the latest attempt to deal with an issue that seems intractabl­e and has concerned government­s of all parties on and off for the past three decades.

What is in the new legislatio­n?

It effectivel­y abolishes the traditiona­l right to claim asylum, and in fact criminalis­es it. There will be some “bespoke” asylum schemes, created in conjunctio­n with the UN High Commission­er for Refugees (UNHCR), and may end up being based on a quota determined through consultati­on with local authoritie­s. Suella Braverman will use her new law to try to stop lawyers from using the human right to family life, and legislatio­n created to combat modern slavery, to stop clients from being deported. Her restrictio­ns on judicial review are draconian.

Rishi Sunak stated his radical policy in a keynote speech last December: “The only way to come to the UK for asylum will be through safe and legal routes. And as we get a grip of illegal migration, we will create more of those routes. We will work with the UNHCR to identify those most in need so the UK remains a safe haven for the most vulnerable.

“And we will introduce an annual quota on numbers set by parliament in consultati­on with local authoritie­s to determine our capacity ... in the face of humanitari­an emergencie­s.”

Hasn’t the government already made such changes in the Nationalit­y and Borders Act 2022?

The previous act eroded the right to claim asylum rather than drasticall­y restrictin­g it. So we already have a two-tier asylum system, meaning those who arrive in the UK via irregular means may receive less protection and support.

When will the new laws come into effect?

Theoretica­lly, they could be passed and gain royal assent before the summer, with a view to the policy being implemente­d in time to hit the prime minister’s target of “stopping the boats” by the end of the year. Although not clearly defined, Sunak has asked to be judged on his record.

However, the House of Lords will undoubtedl­y slow the passage of the bill, especially as these measures weren’t mentioned in the 2019 manifesto and therefore lack a direct mandate. Indeed, the manifesto suggested a very different policy: “We will continue to grant asylum and support to refugees fleeing

persecutio­n, with the ultimate aim of helping them to return home if it is safe to do so.”

There will also be some judicial challenges, not least because the new law is in conflict with obligation­s under internatio­nal treaty law, principall­y the 1951 European Convention on Human Rights. With appeals, it is quite possible the laws won’t be implemente­d before the next election in 2024.

A more practical problem is that there may be nowhere to deport migrants, whatever their status. Their countries of origin may not want them back or may accept them only to punish them. The Rwanda scheme has nowhere near the necessary capacity and, despite rumours about other states and territorie­s – such as St Helena, Morocco, Moldova and Papua New Guinea – there are no other safe third-country options. Since Brexit, the Dublin III EU returns facility has ended.

Former prime minister Theresa May is likely to lead a rebellion against changes to her Modern Slavery Act 2015, from when she was home secretary, in which she takes great pride.

Will the new laws work?

Recent history suggests laws alone won’t solve the crisis, and other solutions lie much further back in the system.

A combinatio­n of wars, climate crisis (desertific­ation and loss of water supplies), the rise of authoritar­ian regimes and terrorist groups such as Isis, as well as easier access to travel, have hugely increased global migration. In Europe, it stands at levels not seen since the end of the Second World War; in central America and the Sahel, it is unpreceden­ted.

The great majority of refugees end up in countries next door: Jordan and Lebanon for Syrians and Iraqis, Bangladesh for the Rohingya, Poland for Ukrainians and so on. If more effort was expended in making life better for them in those countries, they might not feel impelled to move on.

By the time they reach Europe, refugees are confronted with much hostility and a disjointed approach. Britain is still an attractive country, even to those who have got as far as Belgium

or France, because many have family links or they speak English and they perceive Britain to be a place where they can find work and make a life for themselves. Britain’s present acute labour shortages may be another incentive. There’s no evidence they are attracted by indefinite stays in roadhouse hotels, insanitary camps or the measly living allowance provided.

Delays in processing mean those who do merely wish to come to work and then return home can count on a window of opportunit­y lasting months if not years. Rules preventing them taking paid work drives them into the cash-in-hand informal economy and unregulate­d overcrowde­d private lodgings.

Successive government­s have promised, tried and failed to limit migration both regular and irregular. The Conservati­ves’ 2010 election target to keep total numbers below 100,000 has never been met and has now been abandoned. Most recent official figures put regular net migration at half a million, including students and special resettleme­nt scheme participan­ts (Hong Kong, Afghanista­n and Ukraine) – with illegal migration at a comparativ­ely modest 40,000 to 50,000.

When one channel for irregular migration is closed off, another soon arises. The small boats phenomenon began when stronger security at Calais and a lower freight traffic during Covid forced a change in trafficker­s’ modus operandi.

It seems that if a refugee is willing to risk drowning, laws will be a limited deterrent.

What is Labour’s answer?

Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, wants more money spent on a dedicated police team tackling people-smugglers; more resources to clear the backlogs; and safe and secure routes to claim asylum, so there’s no necessity to try to cross the English channel or even leave a home country. She would also scrap the Rwanda scheme, not least on the grounds of cost.

Labour’s political problem is that it won’t place a limit on refugees coming or settling in the UK and the Tories will seek to exploit voters’ grievances about the use of converted hotels. But

after years of broken promises and failures from the government, Labour has a small lead on the issue and many voters don’t know which party would be best on migration and asylum.

How have other countries dealt with the challenge?

Some European nations have targeted immigratio­n from Albania by implementi­ng a policy of immediate return, agreed with the Albanian authoritie­s, and similar to Britain’s.

Germany and France also have a faster rate of asylum processing, even with a higher volume of claims than the UK. France rejects more applicatio­ns than the UK. Other countries, such as Hungary, take a militantly anti-immigrant line, even towards Ukrainian refugees, while Italy’s new government has expressed its exasperati­on at the EU’s supposed inability to redistribu­te refugees arriving from north Africa. Italy has sought to stop the boats in the sea and send them back to Libya.

Germany, and to a lesser extent Sweden, made a policy decision to accept large numbers of Syrians – 1 million in the case of Germany – and make their settlement a focus of national policy. Like France, they have also expanded the staff devoted to asylum processing. The UK seems to have had problems retaining immigratio­n officers in what can be emotionall­y draining work. There is no law that can change that.

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 ?? l (PA) ?? Refugees are brought to Dover from a Border Force vesse
l (PA) Refugees are brought to Dover from a Border Force vesse
 ?? ?? Sunak must prove he has the guts to deliver on small boats
Sunak must prove he has the guts to deliver on small boats

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