The best way to beat the Channel traffickers is to let refugees enter the UK legally

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The harrowing 2019 discovery of 39 Vietnamese migrants dead in the back of a lorry remains a stark reminder that Channel crossings are by no means the only path through which undocumented migrants try to come to the UK.

Gritty economic reality dictates that demand for other entry points will rise, which may lead to even riskier journeys to the UK: one of the reasons why so many more people are crossing the Channel in small boats is that heat-sensing technologies have made it far harder for them to jump into lorries and make the journey that way.

Harsher punishments for smugglers will certainly make some reconsider the dirty business they conduct. But for those who keep going, demand will be higher, and their income will rise. The higher the risk, the higher the fees – and the result for many will be more expensive and more dangerous treks to Britain.

Moreover, it places migrants further at the mercy of smugglers. Women and girls are especially vulnerable to exploitation. To name just one example, 80pc of Nigerian women who attempt to cross the Mediterranean end up victims of sex trafficking, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

None of this means dangerous Channel crossings should be tolerated, or go unmitigated. But a crackdown in one area can lead inadvertently to worsening conditions in others, if safer pathways are not created.

This is what makes the proposal of a “humanitarian visa” from a group of cross-party MPs (minus the Conservatives) so appealing.

The only realistic way to undermine demand for illegal services is to create new, legal pathways that cut smugglers out of the process. Currently a proposed amendment to the Nationality and Borders bill, such a visa, would allow for refugees who have a good claim to be in the UK instead of France and give them the opportunity for safe passage.

It would be a tough political sell for this Government. It has indeed been a point of pride that it abolished most pathways for “low-skilled” people to come to the UK in its latest immigration reforms.

But it was flagged when these reforms came in – by NGOs, charities, and the House of Lords – that the risk of pushing migration “underground” was set to increase: and this was before labour shortages really started to bite, making matters significantly worse.

Another set of reforms is now needed: not just to create better, safer and legal pathways for those who are determined to come to Britain, but to allow people to flourish here once they arrive.

Comprehensive reform should include allowing asylum seekers to work while waiting for their application to be processed, amounting to nearly £100m net gains according to a report from the Lift the Ban coalition.

But for any of this to happen, politicians must start prioritising the realities of the situation above what they simply wish it to be. It’s a lot to ask in politics, but nothing at all compared to the lives it might save.

Kate Andrews is economics editor at The Spectator

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