I have long advocated the need to stop human smuggling across the English Channel. What began as a trickle three years ago is in danger of becoming an armada this year: already, more than 5,000 people have made the journey across Channel in small boats since January.
Ideally, this would be achieved by coming to a “safe third country” agreement between the UK and France – or better still with the wider EU. Indeed, the EU has already implemented its own internal agreement that any asylum claim should be processed in one Member State only to prevent “asylum shopping” (the Dublin Regulation); and it has negotiated its own “safe third country” agreement with Turkey, to reduce irregular migration into the EU via the Eastern Mediterranean.
But despite the best efforts of the Home Secretary – including generous offers of financial support – neither France nor the EU has been prepared to entertain such an agreement with the UK thus far.
Meanwhile the migrants keep coming, the organised crime gangs continue to thrive, and more lives are placed at risk. Turning a blind eye is no longer an option.
Opening up asylum centres in Calais won’t help. Disappointed applicants will still take to the boats, and many more migrants will cross the EU’s porous external border and the borderless Schengen zone to flock to Northern France, in hope and expectation of a new life in the UK. The human smugglers will continue to thrive on their misery; and, tragically, even more lives will be lost.
The Government has admitted that the “push back” tactics advocated by some are not workable, given the nature of the vessels involved and the consequential risk to life.
The UK’s asylum system is broken. The demands on the system, costs to the UK taxpayer and flagrant abuses are increasing every day. This is costing the taxpayer over £1.5 billion, the highest amount in over two decades. About 37,000 people are now being housed in hotels – at a total cost, when including those on resettlement schemes, to the taxpayer of £4.7 million a day.
The Government is right to open new lawful resettlement routes from people who are genuinely fleeing persecution – such as those coming from Afghanistan and Ukraine – to supplement others, such as the Syrian Resettlement Programme. But we cannot pretend that we have an unlimited capacity to run 2 parallel systems – one for those using lawful routes, and another for those using unlawful ones.
There is no single solution to tackle illegal migration, but the Home Secretary’s announcement of a new world leading migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda to cater for the latter group is a bold new step to break the current impasse.
There is nothing in the UN Refugee Convention which prevents removal to a safe country. Under the existing Immigration Rules, the UK can already remove individuals to any safe third country to process their claims. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 already enables the Home Office to remove persons unlawfully in the UK. But that is contingent upon an agreement with a safe third country to do so.
The Government says it is providing substantial investment to boost the development of Rwanda, including jobs, skills and opportunities to benefit both migrants and host communities. This includes an initial investment of £120m as part of a new Economic Transformation and Integration Fund. It is also funding the processing costs for each applicant who is relocated, including caseworkers, legal advice, translators, accommodation, food, healthcare, and (for those granted protection) a comprehensive integration package.
People will say that this is cruel, and that Rwanda is not safe. But the UN Refugee Agency has itself conceded that Rwanda provides a safe and protective environment for refugees. And clearly nothing can be more cruel than to allow people to continue to drown in the English Channel at the hands of human smugglers.
Under this agreement, Rwanda will process claims in accordance with the UN Refugee Convention, national and international human rights laws, and will ensure their protection from inhuman and degrading treatment or being returned to the place they originally fled.
But ultimately it means that those arriving dangerously, illegally or unnecessarily into the UK can be relocated to have their claims for asylum considered and, if recognised as refugees, to build their lives there.
This will not be straightforward. The government will face significant challenges along the way. But when combined with the Nationality and Borders Bill, these reforms will enable the government to tackle illegal entry and the people smugglers behind it, limit the legal challenges used by those with no right to be in our country, strengthen our approach to safe and legal routes, and bring in tougher border protections.
Whether it will ultimately stop the boats remains to be seen – but it is a bold step forward in our war against the human smugglers.
Tony Smith is the former head of UK Border Force