UK government's fate in 2023 lies in resolving migration crisis

Migrants continue to cross the Channel but Rishi Sunak can transform his image by staunching the flow

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, on board a Border Force vessel following a small boat incident in the Channel. PA
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As the unforgiving world of British politics enters a new period, many of the key issues that dominated the tumultuous past 12 months are locked in crisis — but migration above all offers Prime Minister Rishi Sunak a means of demonstrating he can get to grip on the country's problems.

That, at least, is the view of senior Conservatives who are pressing the government for radical action in 2023. Alongside this issue stands the cost-of-living crisis, war in Europe, strikes in several industries and a failing health service.

Migration, which reached record levels over the past 12 months, is likely to be the bellwether for political affairs next year.

More than 45,600 men, women and children crossed the Channel in small boats from France in 2022, up 60 per cent on the previous year. The influx placed unprecedented stress on reception centres and has put mounting pressure on the government.

Mr Sunak in December unveiled a five-point plan to deter people from travelling to the UK illegally. It included a pledge to push ahead with a plan to deport migrants to Rwanda while their asylum applications are being processed.

The Tory leader will have get on top of the migrant crisis if he is to remain in No 10 in 2023. With millions of households facing soaring household bills, taxpayer money being allocated to housing and caring for immigrants will not go down well with voters.

The issue is a thorny one for so-called Red Wall voters in particular. Constituents who flocked to the Conservatives in the last general election could switch their support back to Labour next time around if the Tories' plan to stop crossings proves fruitless.

‘Rwanda plan is like a nuclear deterrent’

Marco Longhi, MP for Dudley North, is among those on the Conservative benches urging the government to seize on a recent court decision that approved the plan to start deporting migrants to Rwanda in the new year.

He wants a decisive blow against an “industry” that helps people to illegally cross borders and “scupper the UK government”.

“This whole illegal immigration thing has become huge business,” he told The National. “You have solicitors, charities, gangs [of] smugglers, access to all of these dinghies that are being manufactured and imported somewhere.

“There is a whole business there … that I would say is worth billions of pounds.”

UK coastguard responds to migrants in the Channel — in pictures

Mr Longhi suggested the Rwanda plan would serve as a powerful deterrent to anyone pondering a perilous trip across the Channel in an inflatable vessel.

“The clear message has to be, if you come to the UK illegally you go to Rwanda, or you go to the Ascension Islands or you go wherever else,” he said.

Ascension Island, a UK overseas territory about 6,500km away, was in 2022 re-proposed as a destination to process refugees after the Home Office first considered it back in 2020.

“The point of Rwanda is a bit like a nuclear bomb,” Mr Longhi added. “The whole point of having a nuclear bomb is to never have to use it.

“The point of Rwanda is to never have to use it. Will we send the first few planes there? Yes we will.

“But once that happens, and once we prove that if you arrive in the UK illegally you will be removed, then those boats will stop.”

He said that the government's current strategy for dealing with illegal immigration — housing migrants in hotels while they await longer-term accommodation — is causing the fabric of communities to change overnight.

Britons living in areas where large numbers of migrants are given emergency accommodation have “a greater sense of fear” in their neighbourhoods than they had previously, he added.

Jake Berry, Tory MP for Rossendale and Darwen, said there is additional outrage over the cost involved in housing people who break UK immigration laws.

“I think the British public don’t want to see their cash — because there’s no such thing as government money, it’s all our cash — spent on asylum seekers,” he said.

Days after Christmas, the Home Office released a new video to encourage illegal migrants to leave the UK. In a sign of the tough line the government looks set to take in 2023, the footage leaves little doubt about the deal struck with the Rwandan government.

The clip shows Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo seeking to reassure illegal migrants in the UK about their new life in the East African nation.

“In Rwanda, we believe that Africans and other people should be able to live a dignified life,” she said.

“They should not need to take dangerous journeys that endanger their lives in order to have opportunities to live and develop themselves.”

‘Criminality has no nationality’

Suella Braverman, the UK home secretary, has said it is her “dream” and “obsession” to see planes carrying illegal migrants depart the UK for Rwanda.

But while she faces growing pressure from the Tory benches to tackle the crisis, opposition MPs have lambasted her over her stance.

The government minister, who has on several occasions singled out Albanians as the main perpetrators of illegal migration, said the UK is experiencing an “invasion”.

Qirjako Qirko, the Albanian ambassador to the UK, told The National that his country was being used as a scapegoat for Britain’s weak border controls and said politicians’ inflammatory rhetoric was fuelling a “wave of discrimination” against Albanians living in the UK.

“Everything has been happening for more or less two months now,” he said in an interview in December. “We’re on the front pages, [but] criminal has no nationality, no colour, no religion.”

Updated: December 30, 2022, 3:50 PM