Voices: If Sunak really wants to stop the small boats crossing the Channel, this is how to do it

In the early days of the Mediterranean migrant crisis, when thousands of people were arriving in Greece and Italy on small boats every day, I never imagined that the people smugglers would one day take the same tactics to the world’s busiest shipping lane. “At least they’ll never do the Channel,” a British NGO worker once told me, looking for a silver lining.

I was wrong. In January alone, the Ministry of Defence reported 27 small boats making the crossing, with 1,180 people on board. One forecast predicts that 65,000 will have attempted the crossing by the end of the year.

We shouldn’t let the fact that such crossings have become commonplace fool us into thinking this is not an incredibly dangerous journey. Just two months ago, four people drowned and nearly 40 were rescued from a dinghy that was “wholly unsuitable” for such a crossing. (Anyone who’s seen Netflix’s recent hit The Swimmers will know the smugglers’ boats can run into trouble making even short journeys in the calm waters of the Mediterranean.)

It’s not a crossing that anyone makes if they have other options. As well as hundreds of giant cargo ships passing each day, the English Channel has some of the biggest tides in the world. In November 2021, 27 people died after their dinghy capsized near the border between French and English waters.

While corners of the media like to portray the people making these crossings as “illegal” economic migrants, this is inaccurate. According to recent analysis by the Refugee Council, more than 60 per cent of those who reached the UK in small boats last year will eventually be granted refugee status by the Home Office.

So why did these people take the risk in the first place, paying smugglers thousands of Euros for the privilege? Why not apply for asylum through official channels, as 135,000 Ukrainians did last year?

The sad truth is that, unless you happen to be fleeing Ukraine, such channels have been almost completely shut down since the Covid pandemic. In the first nine months of 2022, just 967 refugees were granted resettlement through the government’s partnership with the UN – down 77 per cent from the same period in 2019.

Even applicants who can prove they meet the government’s exacting criteria are having to wait longer and longer to be approved. More than 70 per cent of applicants have already been waiting longer than the government’s six-month target, with reports of some asylum seekers waiting up to three years for a decision. With a backlog of 140,000 cases and counting, it’s unlikely the situation will be getting better anytime soon.

Whether it’s deliberate policy or the result of chronic mismanagement at the Home Office, it has become almost impossible for most refugees to gain legal asylum in the UK within a reasonable timeframe.

Would-be asylum seekers know this. Faced with the prospect of interminable delays, with no guarantee of a positive outcome at the end, they are forced to take matters into their own hands. (By the way, international law is on their side: if a person has come from a territory “where their life or freedom was threatened”, they cannot be penalised for entering the UK illegally to claim asylum.)

Rishi Sunak has made “stopping the boats” one of his five key pledges to the electorate. A raft of draconian new policies is coming soon, which may well be found to be unlawful under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which the UK is still a signatory.

A source close to Sunak has hinted that if a challenge is mounted, he will solve the problem by simply walking away from the ECHR – a move decried as “willy waving” by the Tory MP for Thurrock, Jackie Doyle-Price. Moreover, as Sean O’Grady has pointed out, this could have exactly the opposite effect, increasing the number of small-boat crossings.

If Sunak really wants to reduce the number of people making this dangerous journey – not just grandstand for the anti-immigration wing of his party – he should make unclogging official routes to asylum his top priority.

With a robust, properly funded asylum processing system, the Home Office could not only fulfil its much-vaunted commitment to the most vulnerable refugees, but also turn away more of the “economic migrants” that the right of the Tory party is so worried about – and tackle the driving force behind the surge in dangerous Channel crossings at the same time.