The irregular migrant crisis in the Channel is one of the biggest political issues of the day, with 100,000 having arrived since the boat crossings began in 2018. This has serious implications for our security, welfare state, resources and infrastructure. The Conservatives have lost control, admittedly thwarted in every measure by a reluctant establishment. Waiting in the wings, Labour has very few ideas – and arguably no desire – to deal with it. Meanwhile a vociferous fringe of the modern left demands an ‘open borders’ free-for-all. Some on the right suggest extreme measures without thinking practically or showing any empathy.
We need to tune out all the noise and identify fundamental things that need to be done. Below are seven measures that I believe are essential, doable and would get the problem under control. They will need political will, attention to detail, and most importantly, deep pockets.
To briefly discuss the international framework, this is formed by the UN Convention on Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which draws on it. There is in theory some leeway in individuals’ eligibility for asylum, which the UK can look to exploit. The framework also allows detaining asylum seekers while their claims are assessed, or sending them to safe third countries. All the measures I will suggest can conform to this, and if the ECHR keeps frustrating us from acting within its terms, we must reserve the right to leave. That would be regrettable and potentially risky, but may be essential.
1. Offshore Processing
It would certainly be a deterrent if we immediately sent asylum seekers to a remote third country or British territory. To comply with the international framework, we would have to ensure the country was demonstrably ‘safe’. There have of course been efforts by our government to send asylum seekers to Rwanda (they would stay in Rwanda if accepted). A facility has been built, and £125 million has been sent, but as yet the government has failed to transfer anyone there. This is because the ECHR and later the UK Supreme Court (overruling the High Court) have deemed the country ‘unsafe’, despite it being a signatory of the ECHR. It certainly has a turbulent history and question-marks over the government of Paul Kagame, so perhaps was a poor choice (although Denmark did try to follow suit). The government will appeal the court’s decision, but it seems the plan is doomed and that money written off.
The failure has prompted the suggestion of using the British protectorate, Ascension Island. This would have an advantage over a foreign country where we wouldn’t have complete control. Alternatively we could lease land in third countries, use British staff to run the facilities, and arrange our own legal authority within them. It would be essential to make sure the facilities were safe and humane, not just for moral reasons but because any scandal would jeopardise the project. We have seen the outcry about the discovery of Legionnaire’s disease on the Bibby Stockholm barge – there is no room for error.
Because of the numbers of asylum seekers involved, offshoring alone would not be a solution. No third country or remote territory would have enough space, and the costs involved would be prohibitive. The point is, if in the migrant’s mind there was a chance that they would not reach the UK but would be taken to a far-flung place, they would be more likely to go somewhere else. Thus it would be worth the expense of offshoring a certain amount of people. Australia’s longstanding policy of offshore processing (admittedly combined with towing migrant boats back to the Philippines) demonstrates its efficacy. Of course, not being signed up to the ECHR works in their favour.
Our policy must mainly hinge on fully detaining claimants in secure facilities. The problem with the widespread use of hotels, and even the (currently evacuated) barge moored off Portland is that the residents are allowed out into the community. This is a security risk for our citizens and also gives an element of privilege. If you removed that privilege from the equation, again it would put people off from coming. We are obliged to offer shelter and basic needs to someone claiming asylum, but nothing more. And besides, if someone is really fleeing mortal danger and dreadful oppression, surely they would be grateful for anything?
Detention would be expensive, but again, the deterrent effect would be worth it. Again, we would need to ensure the facilities were safe and humane, with independent inspectors and a minister whose only job would be overseeing the accommodation. There would be an issue of where to put such centres, but because they’d be secure the public and local authorities would be less likely to object. Also, they would provide employment and business for local people. We could hold referendums and offer incentives such as a reduction in council tax if communities voted yes.
While we were building new custom-made centres, we would have to have temporary facilities. We could repurpose existing buildings, or even erect temporary structures like we did with the Nightingale hospital during the pandemic. Similarly we need to mass-hire Border Force and Home Office personnel, and buy more patrol vessels (we have only three active in the Channel). We need to up the efforts with our intelligence services to take on the smuggling gangs, increasing the budget to do so. Security does not come cheap.
3. Returns Agreements
When we left the EU, we did not negotiate any returns arrangements with other countries to replace the EU’s Dublin Agreement. This obliges the first country that registers an asylum seeker to process them. If the claimant goes to another EU country, they can be returned to the first. However, in practice member states avoid registering asylum seekers and the migrants avoid getting registered. When we were in the scheme, we had to accept many more into Britain than we were able to deport. In 2020 only 1% of our deportation requests were granted, 8% in 2019, 4% in 2018 and 5% in 2017. Despite its shortcomings the agreement may have been a psychological deterrent to the smuggler gangs.
We should seek a raft of bilateral returns agreements with other countries, making sure that they work well for us and renegotiating if they do not. An agreement of this type has been made with Albania, where many asylum seekers were coming from, and has had an effect. Other cooperation is required with France and others to tackle the problem. Our intelligence and border services need to work together to destroy the smuggling gangs. It is in our common interests to do this, because the problem has severe implications for all of us.
4. More Efficient Processing
Labour’s main policy seems to be increasing the speed of assessing claims. It is certainly true we should swiftly determine if claimants are deserving of asylum, and avoid them hanging around in hotel limbo. We are slow, with an average time of 15.5 months for a decision, compared to Germany’s 6.5 and France’s 8.5. Only 4% of 2021 claims were assessed by the end of 2022. However, the worry with the ‘faster’ approach is that claims would be rushed through without the required scrutiny, when if anything we need to have more scrutiny. Also even when we reject claims, the ECHR (or our own courts) often do not allow us to deport individuals, resulting in so-called ‘failed asylum seekers’ roaming our country indefinitely.
5. Safe Routes
Another common proposed ‘solution’ is to simply allow people to claim asylum at British embassies and refugee camps and be freely flown over here, thus saving them the dangerous journey. This has been done with limited numbers of Syrian, Afghan and Ukrainian refugees. It could be rolled out, with proper scrutiny, to genuine warzones and trouble spots, but as a blanket policy it’s a nonstarter. It would simply encourage many more to come here as opposed to other nations, and we would be completely inundated. It would be a carte blanche to bogus claimants and their criminal traffickers.
6. Removal of Pull Factors
Asylum claimants get £45 of spending money a week. It’s not a lot in the UK but to them it is likely a significant sum. If they are fully provided for in the detention centres, this is not necessary. The notion of being put up in an (often high quality) hotel is probably also a draw, and we must do away with that. Word of mouth that the UK is a soft touch has undoubtedly spread. Anecdotally, I heard there is a false rumour going around we give £2000 a month to asylum seekers. Social media is a key factor in this and we should take action against accounts that encourage irregular entry. It’s worth pointing out that centre-left Denmark has several stern policies regarding asylum seekers, resulting in a drop to 1,500 claims in 2020, down from 21,000 in 2015 (it was 2,255 in pre-Covid 2019). We could use such measures.
7. Temporary Refugee Permits
Germany, rowing back on its irresponsible approach of 2015, has started limiting refugee residency permits to three years. If the situations in their countries are deemed safe, the permits will not be renewed and the individuals will be (apparently) repatriated. Asylum claims were down to around 244,000 in 2022, from nearly 746,000 in 2015. Even if this policy is not properly enforced, it is still a deterrent. Denmark has deemed Syria a safe country, and has also begun removing permits.
We have here outlined several methods by which we can tackle the crisis. The most important, I feel, is detention. That would be a game-changer, and the right thing to do to safeguard our citizens and the physical integrity of our country. Firm but fair action needs to be taken to protect the futures of our children and grandchildren.
I heard somewhere that in an emergency situation it is imperative not to freeze. If you freeze you will not survive. Our political class has done just that, staying stunned and feckless as disaster unfolds. They simply have to get moving, and we have to make them.