Britain told to look beyond its borders in struggle to 'stop the boats'

Experts tell The National how UK and Europe must collaborate if Rishi Sunak's pledge to crack down on illegal migrants is to be met

More than 16,000 people have crossed the English Channel this year despite UK government promises to 'stop the boats'. Getty Images
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When migrants reach the English Channel and set off on flimsy boats that cost six more lives last weekend, many have travelled thousands of kilometres from Asia and Africa to reach northern Europe.

Yet despite the harrowing human toll and intense political pressure to “stop the boats” from reaching Britain, nobody along the migration route has been able to cut them off.

The UK government has searched high and low for ways to “stop people coming here in the first place”, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described his task on Tuesday.

As Mr Sunak stakes his career on solving the crisis:

  • Efforts to deter migrants by housing them on barges and deporting them to Rwanda have been plagued by setbacks, and are unlikely to bring the same results as an Australian crackdown admired by UK ministers, experts said
  • Britain is paying for police patrols in France but there is a “strong feeling that the French aren’t doing their best”, former UK minister David Jones told The National
  • European countries have tried shoring up their borders and using neighbours such as Tunisia and Turkey as gatekeepers but analysts said there was no point in Britain “simply imagining they should deal with the problem”
  • Proposals for the UK to accept more legal migrants, work more closely with the EU or spend more money on tackling causes of migration in countries such as Afghanistan are a hard sell for parts of Mr Sunak’s party.

So, what else can be done? The National spoke to experts to find out.

In countries of origin

Migrants’ home nations are experiencing a “brain drain” of people who "will be better placed to build up their own countries”, argued Alan Mendoza, director of the UK’s Henry Jackson Institute.

He said one option was to “look more towards supporting development in the original host countries”.

Rob McNeil, deputy director of the University of Oxford's Migration Observatory, said the UK needed to “address the big picture” and not “simply on the challenge we see on the south coast”.

The UK should "consider what factors are driving the migration of desperate people – despotic regimes, persecution, economic inequality, war and a lack of opportunities for people and their families", he said.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose country is among the most exposed to Mediterranean people trafficking, has pursued alliances with African countries to “stop illegal migration upstream”.

The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) is trying to entice Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan by building homes, schools and health clinics. But many are reluctant to return home because of the Taliban’s restrictions on women and girls, said Leonard Zulu, UNHCR’s senior representative in Kabul.

Long-term development assistance to relieve poverty in Afghanistan “is not on the table at the moment because of the human rights challenges that we have”, Mr Zulu said. The UK has cut its overseas aid budget to save money.

In Europe

Mr McNeil said closer UK co-operation was needed not only with France but with other European countries through which migrants travel.

“Simply imagining that they should deal with the problem, so we don't have to, rather misses the point – they already are," he said.

EU members recently struck a deal to reject people from the visa-free Schengen zone if their nationality means they have little hope of asylum.

People who reach the Channel must have made it into Schengen first, so the deal could limit numbers because “there might just be fewer people who make it to Italy, then make it to France, then make it to the UK”, said Camille Le Coz, an associate director of the Migration Policy Institute.

However, the deal could still founder over the redistribution of migrants. Poland has called a referendum on the loaded question of whether voters want “thousands of illegal migrants from the Middle East and Africa”.

The EU has held talks with potential non-EU gatekeepers such as Tunisia. The UK offered to help Turkey break up smuggling networks.

Their support tends to come at a price. “It’s a discussion about development assistance, but also political support, the EU not criticising the regime when they take a more authoritarian turn,” said Ms Le Coz.

Prof Andi Hoxhaj, a researcher on migration at University College London, said the rate at which Europe looks for new agreements highlights the difficulties with them.

An EU deal with Morocco “must not be working because otherwise they would not be exploring a new deal with Tunisia”, he said.

In France

Britain pays France to patrol its northern beaches but not everyone is happy with the results.

“There's a strong suspicion that they are not particularly helpful and there's a strong feeling that the French aren't doing their best,” said Mr Jones, a Conservative MP and former Welsh secretary.

Mr Hoxhaj said: "If you speak with the French authorities, they do not see it as a problem ... most migrants just use France as a transit route. They do not stay long.”

A French opposition MP for Calais also called for authorities to go further by banning illegal migrants from a 50-kilometre exclusion zone near the coast.

France is expected to unveil an immigration overhaul soon that could offer work to some unregistered migrants, while also speeding up deportations.

“If your asylum claim was to be processed more quickly, maybe it would convince more people to claim for asylum in France,” said Ms Le Coz. “If it was also easier to access legal status, work in France, maybe that would also convince more people.

But “if this person speaks English, has relatives in the UK, they might still try to go the UK".

In the UK

If all of the above fails, the UK will continue to be faced with thousands of people a year willing to risk their lives in the Channel. Another 111 people made the crossing on Monday, only two days after the fatal boat wreck.

Ministers are hoping a tough new asylum law, along with the stalled Rwanda policy, will deter people. The plan to house people on a barge hit a snag when 39 were evacuated in a legionella scare.

An Australian policy of handling asylum claims offshore is credited by the UK with stopping boat arrivals, but Mr McNeil said the Rwanda plan was “unlikely to achieve this on its own”.

“Australia's offshore processing was part of a bigger suite of policy actions, some of which have been seen as breaching international law, including turn-backs of boats,” he said.

Tony Smith, a former Border Force chief, said ministers “have put a lot of store on Australia, because they did stop the boats and said if Australia did it then we can do it" – but he added “the conditions are completely different down there".

“They have loads of sea between Australia and Asia and when you’re in international waters as opposed to territorial waters, different rules apply. And the Indonesians allowed the Australians to tow boats there."

Mr Smith said deportations from the UK had "gone through the floor" and suggested that "if we can get returns going again, people will see that on TikTok and that will have a powerful deterrent effect".

Then there are calls to open more safe routes for refugees. While Mr McNeil called them a "simplistic perspective", Mr Smith said a post-Brexit agreement with the EU might be a long-term answer.

He said it could involve returning Channel migrants to France in exchange for taking in legal refugees "two or three times that number" – a potentially tough sell.

“That’s what the political dilemma is going to be, for this lot or the next government,” Mr Smith said.

“It might be we say to the EU ‘we take 120,000 a year from the EU and in return, you take them back if they come on a boat'.”

100,000 migrants cross the Channel in five years - in pictures

Updated: August 16, 2023, 7:04 AM