I advised Starmer on his plan to ‘stop the boats’. This is why Labour’s policy will work

<span>Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA</span>
Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

The prime minister’s pledge to “stop the boats” has become an easy target for ridicule. Small boats continue to cross the English Channel in near record numbers. More than 20,000 people have arrived on Britain’s shores this year, with up to 500 people (sometimes more) arriving on any given day. In fact, the only boat that has been stopped is the Bibby Stockholm barge, commissioned to house asylum seekers, after legionella was found in its water system – a perfect symbol for the disastrous handling of this crisis.

It couldn’t be clearer that the government’s plans aren’t working. Only weeks after saying the Illegal Immigration Act will stop the boats, the home secretary, Suella Braverman, claimed yesterday that the United Nations refugee convention needs to be rewritten for the asylum system to work.

Doing nothing is not an option. Asylum seekers are risking, and occasionally losing, their lives in dangerous crossings. Criminal gangs are thriving, profiting on the trade in human misery. Small boats have become seen as a test for ensuring control of Britain’s borders.

But it’s not enough to watch the government make a mess of it. Something must be done. It raises the crucial question of how Labour can succeed where the Tories have failed.

When I was asked by Labour to look into possible solutions, I considered the facts and examined the root causes. There were no small boats recorded before 2018, but they exploded to tens of thousands since 2020. Why did the rise happen then?

The reasons behind the increase in small boat crossings are many and complex. But I found that a significant factor is the UK exiting a returns policy with the EU called the Dublin regulation.

The deal meant that anyone coming across illegally could be returned to the first EU country they had entered. The arrangement was never “a panacea”: not everyone who could be returned was removed, and sometimes the UK received more migrants than it sent away. For this reason, some critics claim the returns policy didn’t work because it did not remove migrants in large numbers.

These critics ignore the returns policy’s role as a deterrent. The Home Office referred to these migrants as “clandestines” because they travelled clandestinely, as detection at any time meant possible removal. When there was a returns policy, overall numbers were low and there were no small boats.

Yet when the government got Brexit done, it chose to surrender that policy. This wasn’t necessary because there are non-EU countries such as Norway and Switzerland that have the returns deal that we needlessly, and wrongfully, gave up.

I would best describe Keir Starmer’s approach as competence with compassion

But the implications were predictable, as I noted even before the EU referendum. If people couldn’t be easily returned, more would attempt dangerous crossings in the knowledge that removing them would be difficult, maybe impossible, as some refugees have attested. Tragically, my prediction has come true and small boat crossings have grown from none to about 46,000 people a year in just five years.

Keir Starmer’s Labour is right to see a new returns agreement with the EU as critical to actually stopping the boats. There were no small boats when we had a deal, and having it again would make every difference.

The government can’t criticise this plan with a straight face. Rishi Sunak boasts that the number of Albanians in small boats has plummeted this year. The reason why is that the UK struck a returns deal with Albania. Anyone coming can now be sent back, so new arrivals have quickly dried up.

Their own arrangement shows it works. Since all small boats are coming from the EU, an EU deal is necessary – and it makes sense (and saves more taxpayer money) to send those from France back to France or other safe EU states.

I would best describe Keir Starmer’s approach as competence with compassion. We need to act to save lives and work with our allies to ensure those who require asylum protection receive it as soon as practically possible. A cross-border issue requires cross-border cooperation. As an immigrant, I want an end to the anti-migrant rhetoric that neither brings the Labour party nor our country together.

This is in stark contrast to Sunak’s approach, which has been a series of unworkable and divisive gimmicks continually backfiring, while blowing a hole through public finances.

The most awkward part for the government is they were warned repeatedly by Labour since 2017 about the impact of leaving the EU returns policy. The government claimed it might seek a new deal, but in the end surrendered any such hope. Today we pay the price, but it’s a mistake that Starmer has promised not to repeat.

Related: Dividing lines: where do Sunak and Starmer stand on key UK issues?

Labour is in opposition for the time being, but a general election victory in 2024 would give Starmer a new mandate to reassert Britain on the world’s stage and strike a returns deal after 13 years of decline and distrust under the Tories.

The small boats must be stopped. But a returns policy – coupled with a crackdown on the criminal gangs – is the only formula for success. As Conservatives become increasingly shrill in writing Labour’s strategy off, it’s a sure sign the government is existentially rattled that Starmer has adopted a policy formula that will actually work.

• Thom Brooks is professor of law and government at Durham University. He sits on the executive committee of the Fabian Society

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