New migration laws to cost UK billions more than 'half-baked' official benefits estimates

The Illegal Migration Act could lead to thousands being detained in legal limbo

A Border Force vessel in Dover after rescuing suspected illegal migrants from the English Channel last month. PA
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The UK’s new anti-immigration law could ultimately end up costing the country billions because of the “half-baked” analysis of its effect, it is claimed.

The Illegal Migration Act prevents migrants who arrive in the UK by irregular means, such as crossing the English Channel in small boats, from claiming asylum. Instead the government wants to send them back to their home nation or a third country.

A deal is in place with Rwanda to take migrants and, alongside other measures, the government hopes this will deter enough asylum seekers to reduce the £6 million ($7.6 million) a day spent on hotel accommodation for them, one of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s five key pledges.

But the policy faces a legal battle after it was ruled unlawful and so far the government has yet to reach agreements with other safe, third countries to take asylum seekers who arrive in the UK in small boats.

In a new report, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford argues that if there is no deterrent effect and migrants cannot be removed then the “cost of detaining them would accrue each year for an indefinite period”.

Senior researcher Dr Peter Walsh told The National that the government “have put all their eggs in this deterrence basket, but it’s a basket that’s looking flimsy because it’s all relying on Rwanda”.

But, he said, “even if Rwanda goes ahead, there’s a question about whether the capacity will be big enough to accept tens of thousands, so in other words, if it doesn’t have the deterrent effect there’s this risk of a protracted legal limbo” for migrants.

He said there is also an “incentive to abscond” if people are housed in hotels, given the shortage of detention space.

“The impact assessment ignores some of the most important impacts of the Act, such as the effects of detaining or supporting people with no legal status indefinitely if they cannot be removed to Rwanda or another third country,” Dr Walsh said.

As well as sending migrants to third countries, the government hopes that detaining them in camps, such as Wethersfield in Essex, and on barges will act as a deterrent.

The Home Office says in its impact assessment each asylum seeker deterred from coming to the UK will save the taxpayer £106,000, which could reach £165,000 as accommodation costs rise.

But the department itself admits there is “little to no evidence suggesting changes in a destination country’s policies have an impact on deterring people from leaving their countries of origin or travelling without valid permission”.

Marley Morris, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, said the government’s policy is predicated on deterrence.

“It’s not out of the realm of possibility but it’s rather unlikely given what we know about how people behave,” said Mr Morris, who leads the think tank’s work on migration.

If there’s a large number of people being accommodated by the Home Office indefinitely then that’s considerably costly, which is a worse situation than we have now
Marley Morris, Institute for Public Policy Research

“The likelihood is that there will still be large numbers of people crossing and the government won’t be able to remove them, because they can’t operationalise the Rwanda plan if it’s ruled unlawful. Or if it is lawful they can only realistically remove a few hundred a year.

“So there will be a build-up of people in limbo who can’t access asylum, so that means there will be a build-up of costs.

“If there’s a large number of people being accommodated by the Home Office indefinitely then that’s considerably costly, which is a worse situation than we have now.

“We’re talking billions. Already the asylum accommodation system costs billions but if we start to imagine we have tens of thousands of people arriving each year and very few people being removed, the additional costs could easily get into the billions before long,” Mr Morris said.

“There’s no clear way out of that situation unless they reverse the legislation or find other third countries to remove people to, but it’s hard to see what those countries would be.

“It’s very hard to negotiate with countries to remove large numbers of people to. Why would a country agree to that?”

Mr Morris described the assessment of the Act as being “half-baked” and “failing to take into account all the possibilities that are likely to happen, which most experts believe is likely to be a build-up of the migrant population”.

He also said that it is hard to estimate the cost of the Rwanda scheme given that the government has said it is “commercially sensitive”.

So far it has quoted only a figure of £169,000, the cost of sending a migrant to a third country, which includes supporting them when they get there.

That figure is partly based on a National Audit Office figure from 2016 of £106,000 for supporting a Syrian refugee in the UK for four years, a calculation Mr Morris describes as bizarre.

Tony Smith, a former head of the Border Force, has supported the need for an Illegal Immigration Act to end crossings by small boats, but agrees the government has staked a lot on third countries to take migrants.

“What we're saying to people is ‘you can’t have asylum’, but where are we going to put them?” he told The National.

He said there is no political agreement with the European Union on safe returns, so what is needed is a post-Brexit deal with Brussels to make the Act work in reality.

“Unless we can find a way of removing people and send people back so that there’s no point in getting in a little boat and coming across here from France or you will get removed, then you’re not going to reduce the flow significantly,” he said.

“They’ve bet their boots on Rwanda and unless they can do deals with other third countries or do something with the EU we might just find loads more migrants here who are just in limbo. The new Act has placed a duty on the Secretary of State to remove them all, but operationally, where to?

“We’ve not really planned for a scenario where we can’t send people back and I think the government needs to do a lot of work on international relations so we can start sending people back.”

The Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden, told the BBC that the govermemt is determined to press on with its policy “because at the moment we are having people in hotels costing us £6 million a day”|.

A Home Office representative said: “Our impact assessment on the Illegal Migration Act showed that doing nothing is not an option.

“We cannot allow the unacceptable strain that the asylum system places on the UK taxpayer, which is why the Act saves £165,000 for every illegal migrant deterred.

“As well as seeking permission to appeal the Court of Appeal’s ruling in relation to Rwanda’s asylum system, the UK has excellent long-standing migration relationships with many countries, which include operational arrangements through to formal agreements to facilitate return of their nationals.”

Updated: August 04, 2023, 5:00 AM