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Monday, November 29, 2021

Boris must turn the boats back or face an almighty political backlash

The Tories appear to have already given up on the issue that now threatens to destroy them. As record-breaking numbers of illegal migrants cross the English Channel by boat, a scandalous revelation now gnaws at the public: despite the Vote Leave vow to “take back control” of immigration, Britain apparently cannot even police its borders. And yet, No 10 has already dismissed the option of returning boats to the French coast, known as a push back policy, as only feasible in the rarest circumstances, even though this is the one idea that is most likely to work. Senior Tories shrug that push backs are too controversial. They also sigh that, when it comes to risking renegade status on the world stage, all the Government’s capital is being expended in tussles with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Plan B is for the Home Office to try and deter migrants by processing them offshore. Yet the pioneers of this approach, Australia, figured out as far back as 2014 that detention camps in the Pacific have no impact whatsoever on illegal crossings. It has been quietly winding down the policy ever since, and last month announced the closure of its notorious Papua New Guinea camp. In contrast, the country’s push-backs have proved so successful that some have called for a policy shift to focus exclusively on patrol tactics.

For the UK, offshore processing would not only be fruitless, but politically sticky. Such a policy can do little to take the heat off the Tories in the short term, as it will take months or even years to implement. The Home Office is still casting around desperately for a country willing to take part. If the UK finally finds a partner, it can expect exactly the kind of humanitarian uproar that the PM fears push backs would trigger. The UN and the ICC have long blasted Australia for its “cruel, inhuman” and “unlawful” treatment of migrants.

The Tories should then look again seriously at push backs. Of course, they should never be carried out in a way that endangers migrants’ lives. Nor should British border guards ever hesitate to assist a migrant boat that is in imminent danger. Nonetheless, it should be possible to implement push back operations on a greater scale than is currently envisaged by No 10. Britain has a moral duty as well as a sovereign interest in taking strong action to deter boat crossings: more than 300 have died on the Channel route, whether by land or sea, since 1999, and as boats replace lorries as the preferred means of travel, we might expect the number of drownings to rise dramatically.

The UK should then urgently pursue bilateral cooperation with Emmanuel Macron to stop boats as close to the French coast as possible and to guide them, safely and smoothly, back to port. The big question is what the French President’s price might be. Financial incentives are unlikely to fly, not least as Britain has already given Paris millions to police properly the Calais border to little effect; more valuable to Macron is something he can sell to his electorate. Why not throw a curveball and offer for Britain to take a greater share of asylum seekers clogging the French system via legal means, in exchange? In the year ending March 2021, the UK received 26,903 asylum applications, whereas France had 93,475. Even backbench MPs who take a tough line on illegal crossings concede that the UK is not currently “taking its fair global share” of refugees.

A push back campaign will be controversial, but it will not necessarily be as toxic as feared. No 10 would need to get on the front foot by busting liberal myths. Push backs are not illegal per se. Nor do they contravene search and rescue convention, as long as boats are directed to a “place of safety”. Some countries interpret lifeboats, which allow migrants to safely return from whence they came, as such a “place of safety”. Cooperation with the French would lend the UK even more legal cover; it is extremely difficult to see how search and rescue rules have been broken if boats are guided to a “place of safety” in the form of French patrol vessels.

Some have argued that in certain circumstances push backs may contravene some UN conventions, particularly if the migrants have reached British waters, but it is an open secret that these rules are already routinely tested by Western powers, not least by the EU. The latter’s attitude is particularly grotesque, as it virtue signals about incorruptible “freedom of movement”, while it turns a blind eye to dubious actions taken by overwhelmed countries on the fringes. While Greek coastguards are accused of stabbing refugee boats with hooks and firing into the water, reports abound of masked officers beating people back on the Croatian-Bosnian border.

In contrast with the EU’s brutal border controls, the UK’s approach should be professional and transparent, emulating Australian best practices. The latter has even developed “unsinkable” life vessels to transfer migrants onto, as smugglers resort to their latest despicable tactic of sabotaging or sinking boats, so that migrants are obliged to be “rescued”.

A tough approach on the border might be softened politically by coinciding it with a winding down of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policies. This would be in keeping with the pragmatic instincts of the PM, who has said he is open to an amnesty for some illegal migrants. The hostile environment policy has proved a dismal failure, with the number of voluntary departures by illegal migrants actually falling in recent years.

The Home Office’s shift to a zero tolerance culture has not only allowed scope for absurd judgement errors like Windrush but distracted from the department’s institutional chaos. The Home Office blob has not bothered even to try and estimate the number of illegal immigrants since 2005. It is utterly unaccountable, with no infrastructure in place to track whether the immigration enforcement policies it spends £400 million on each year have any effect whatsoever.

In other words, the Tories’ current approach is a noxious fusion of tokenistic cruelty and cowardly impotence. They must instead shift to a strategy that is both respectably humane and ruthlessly focused on doing what works. It won’t be easy, but Boris should take the gamble, instead of catastrophically folding so early.   

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