Perspective-Setting for Small Boat Crossings

Media and politics pay a lot of attention to small boat crossings. Clearly, some people are offended by the images we see of refugees coming to our borders. In a series of tweets, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Dover and Deal, for instance, claims that border crossings are “no refugee crisis… but simply illegal immigration” before expressing her horror over a firebomb attack on the Manston camp of the same migrants she herself demonises.

The arrival numbers that are almost always cited appear concerning. The risky nature of the journey has thankfully resulted in a low number of fatalities thus far, thanks to the heroic search and rescue efforts of Home Office staff, the navy, and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

If Brexit happened, David Cameron warned that there would be refugee camps on English shores. He was proven to be correct. The Dublin return agreement between the UK and the EU was waltzed out, the number of applications for asylum has increased, and refugees are being held in overcrowded, unhygienic detention facilities, which is causing outbreaks of diphtheria and scabies. According to a recent briefing by the Institute for Public Policy Research, the rise in small boat crossings is likely caused by “a combination of greater securitization among other routes, the UK’s exit from the Dublin Regulation, and a “snowball effect,” from a base of zero before to 2018.

Keeping things in perspective is crucial. Refugees arriving in small boats is not a good idea in any part of the world. The crossings should be halted, everyone agrees. There have been suggested three distinct types of responses. Small boat crossings cannot be stopped by any of the current legislative solutions; since they have become a common route, they are likely to continue.

Punish And Discourage

To discourage others from doing the same thing, the government’s initial response—which is highly promoted—is to penalise those refugees who do make it ashore on small boats. It is believed that by transferring some of them to Rwanda, others will decide against attempting the border.

Those of this opinion also believe that depriving them of the ability to work, providing them with only subsistence-level assistance, putting them in detention facilities, and keeping them waiting for years for a decision (which is an asylum grant in 75% of cases) all serve as deterrents to other people. They argue that if it weren’t for the cruelty, the numbers would likely be even higher when it is pointed out that there is no evidence to show the programme is effective.

Safe And Authorised Paths

The second solution, which is strongly supported by campaigners, is to establish safe and authorised channels so that no one would ever need to board a tiny boat in the first place. The demand for small boat crossings would disappear if the entry obstacles were removed, which would put an end to the smugglers’ industry. How do they differ from those who come via the current safe and legal channels when nearly all of those crossing the Channel in small boats are legitimate refugees? I believe that the IPPR estimate of 70% asylum seekers is made before the results of any appeals are considered.

In this case, the policy would undoubtedly succeed in its objectives. However, if the idea were carried out as intended, it might also equate to eliminating the border with France. Never would a British administration consent to it. It might draw more refugees into France from within the Schengen border-free area than was previously the case if it were a cap scheme and/or required processing asylum applications in France. That might not make the French government so happy. Small boat crossings may still be exploited by those who were turned away from the country due to the entrance cap or because they were ineligible for asylum.

This is not the simple fix that is occasionally advocated. On the surface, it appears to be utterly impractical given the current political atmosphere. I’ll get back to that, though, in a moment.

France Deal

The third option is to send individuals who arrive in small boats back to France. The Dublin system was a returns agreement between the UK and the rest of the EU in the past. On that, I put prepared a thorough briefing. To make a long story short, during the Dublin system’s final years, more refugees were admitted to the UK than were expelled. Given the Dublin system’s structure and the substantial volume of removals that other comparable nations were conducting under its auspices, this is remarkable. The Home Office, not the Dublin system, was likely the cause of the low number of removals. So, one choice may be to re-join the Dublin system, which is not just for EU nations and has numerous safety nets.

Otherwise, you might be able to work out a bilateral deal with the French. I simply lack the expertise to determine how likely that might be. It becomes less likely, though, if the UK government proceeds with unilateral violations of the EU separation agreement over the Northern Ireland protocol.

A substantial risk of returning to France could discourage crossings. Although there is no supporting data, it appears more conceivable and less absurd than sending a limited number of refugees to Rwanda with no legal protections in place. If the returns happen rapidly and in large amounts, the deterrent effect might be strengthened. It would be challenging to execute that in a manner that complies with obligations under international law, but it is not necessarily impossible.

Personally, I have severe doubts about the Home Office’s ability to accomplish this given the current situation. Since they are currently at an all-time low, forcible removals are dangerous, costly, and difficult to carry out (see chart). Even by Home Office standards, the “Third Country Unit” that formerly oversaw Dublin removals was inefficient. Although there are significant legal and practical barriers, this looks like a more logical public policy approach on the surface.

Small Boats Are, Comparatively, Small Fry

Let’s not, however, abandon the notion of safe and legal paths so quickly. The main argument against this strategy is that it would permit an excessive number of people to enter with insufficient protections. But compared to arrivals in other European nations, the number of persons entering by small boat or vehicle in the UK is negligible. The numbers are equally outnumbered by the other methods by which persons seek refuge in the UK.

There were 63,089 asylum claims filed here in the UK throughout the course of the previous year, which ended in June 2022, involving 75,181 persons. That appears to be a lot. But let’s think at it in the perspective of other nations and the other sanctuary routes that the UK offers, such as the programmes in Hong Kong, Ukraine, and the general resettlement programme, which excludes Afghans.

Let’s consider foreign comparisons first. In addition to 4.6 million asylum seekers, according to UNHCR estimates, there are currently 21.3 million refugees worldwide. There are 3.8 million refugees living in Turkey alone, 1.8 million in Colombia, and 1.4 million in Pakistan. There were 1.4 million new asylum requests worldwide, of which 0.5% were submitted to the UK. In 2021, Germany alone received 148,175 applications from within Europe. Receiving 103,790 was France.

Regarding the UK alone, a total of 75,764 visas were awarded in the previous 12 months under the Hong Kong plan for British Nationals (Overseas) who wanted to move there, and then some further visas were given to individuals who had previously arrived in the UK via other means as well. Since the route began in January 2021, a total of 133,124 visas have been granted.

Nearly twice as many, or about 140,000 people, entered the UK through the Ukrainian system alone in the past nine months.

Comparatively few refugees from the rest of the globe enter via the much-heralded safe and legal channels. In the year ending June 2022, 1,622 persons were given refuge through the established resettlement programmes, which is more than seventy percent (71%) less than in 2019. The Afghan programme barely functions, and those who were transported to the UK are still sulking in temporary housing more than a year later.

It turns out that only 26% of the refugees who entered the UK during the past year did so by tiny boats, vehicles, or other impromptu ways.

Let’s not act as though we are overwhelmed or incapable of coping. Comparable countries receive significantly fewer applications than we do. Why can’t we extend these programmes to others and provide proper safe and legal means of entrance if we can set up programmes for Hong Kongers and Ukrainians that welcome much more people than enter from the rest of the globe combined?

Written by:

Tahir Shahab Khan

Managing Director