Has Brexit made the UK more attractive for illegal migration?

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  • Priti Patel
    Priti Patel
    British politician (born 1972)

"Taking back control" of Britain’s borders was a key rallying cry for Vote Leave during the Brexit referendum - but the UK’s departure from the EU may have made the country a more attractive destination for illegal migration.

In August, the home secretary promised to make the route across the Channel “unviable”, but the number of people crossing in small boats has reached record highs.

On Wednesday, 27 people died in the waters near Calais in the worst incident of its kind in the Channel since the current migrant crisis began.

France begins grim task of identifying the victims - live updates

So far in 2021 more than 25,700 people have completed the perilous journey across the Dover Strait, the busiest shipping lane in the world - three times the total for 2020.

Of these people who have made it to UK shores, the government’s immigration minister revealed last week just five people had been returned to Europe.

Thomas Pursglove, a minister for the Home Office and Ministry of Justice said there had been “difficulties securing returns”.

But these “difficulties” evicting people from the UK could be attributed, in part, to Brexit.

When party to the EU’s “Dublin” arrangements, the UK could ask other countries to take back people they could prove had passed through safe European countries on their journey to Britain.

But since Brexit, the UK has no return arrangements with any EU country and so will have to negotiate with each one individually.

Although Priti Patel said she is “actively pursuing” an agreement with France, this has not yet materialised.

The government proposed a post-Brexit replacement for the Dublin arrangement, but the EU turned it down.

However, it is worth noting that even before the UK left the EU, the total number of Dublin transfers that took place was a small fraction of the total asylum seekers.

According to the Migration Observatory, in the five-year period, 2016 to 2020, around 194,000 people applied for asylum in the UK - while there were only around 1,250 Dublin transfers out of the country.

Following Brexit, the UK also lost a seat on the management board for Europol - the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation - and British officers can no longer interrogate the Europol database. This will impact the UK’s efforts to dismantle immigrant smuggling networks.

Emmanuel Comte, Senior Research Fellow at The Barcelona Centre for International affairs wrote: “It is dubious that Brexit has offered back control of immigration to the UK.

"The British government has achieved, at an excessive cost, more control of declining inflows from EU countries, but it has lost access to useful EU instruments to control rising inflows from third countries.”

He added: “It is not just a missed opportunity, but a dangerous situation. In the next months and years, the EU and the UK will face the challenge of managing their migratory interdependence without a framework."

In July, Priti Patel brought forward a new Nationality and Borders Bill which, if passed, will increase prison sentences for people entering the UK illegally and - for the first time - consider whether someone arrived legally or illegally when looking to grant asylum.

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Specifically, on small boats, Ms Patel has reportedly asked the Border Force to use “pushback tactics” to turn away vessels trying to enter UK waters.

The Home Office is understood to have taken legal advice that such tactics are in accordance with international maritime law.

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