Britain’s Battle Against The Boat People – Analysis


In the second week of December, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told parliament that in 2023, his government will announce new measures to curb ‘illegal’ immigration.  

“If you enter the UK illegally you should not be able to remain here,” Sunak told parliament. “Instead, you will be detained and swiftly returned either to your home country or to a safe country where your asylum claim will be considered. It is not cruel or unkind to want to break the stranglehold of criminal gangs who trade in human misery,” he said.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman was harsher. She described illegal immigration as an “invasion” and some of the immigrants as “criminals.”

There is also a feeling among some in the UK, since it is the most crowded country in Europe, it cannot take more immigrants. The website says: “We know that more than 80% of recent population growth has been due to the impact of immigration – both directly and indirectly. The share has been 90% or more since 2017.”

According to Al Jazeera migrants and refugees arriving on small boats have become a major political issue for the Conservative government, particularly in working-class areas in north and central England, where they are blamed for making it harder to find work and stretching public services. The cost incurred by the government by accommodating the illegal immigrants, which is 15 million British Pounds a day, is also an issue.  

Sunak drew flak from the UN refugee agency, which said in a statement that the government’s plans would “undermine the global refugee system at large” and violate international refugee law. The UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, said that forced return to unsafe countries would be a violation of the Refugee Convention.

However, the UK has been actively welcoming immigrants of a certain kind in its own interest. These contribute to the economic growth of the country. According to an official statement, in the 12 months to the end of March 2022, the UK issued over 182,000 skilled worker visas, 3,500 global talent visas and 466,000 student visas. The number of visas issued across work and study routes is now exceeding pre-pandemic levels with 749,000 in the year ending March 2022 compared to 598,000 in the year ending March 2020. The Graduate Route provides students with the opportunity to stay in the UK to work or look for work after they graduate.

What Britain is very worried about is the influx of the “boat people” who enter Britain illegally in small boats across the English ChanneI. According to BBC, more than 40,000 people had crossed the Channel in small boats in 2022, the highest since data began to be collected in 2018. In 2021, the total by boat arrival was 28,526. In 2020 it was 8,404. Almost all of the people arriving in this way claimed asylum. From October 2021 to end of August 2022, 90% of such arrivals had applied for government protection or asylum.

In 2022, till September, the UK had received more than 72,000 asylum applications, relating to almost 86,000 people. Small boat arrivals were roughly half of these. Of the 7,805 small boat arrivals who had received an initial decision since 2018, 53% were granted asylum or some other type of leave to remain. The rest were refused, BBC says. People who arrive illegally could face four years in prison and removal to a safe country. 

Half of those who arrived in 2022 in small boats were either Albanians (35%) or Afghans (15%). The rest were from Iran (3,594); Iraq (3,047); Syria (2.191); Eritrea (1,509); Sudan (1,211); Egypt (850); Turkey: (689); Ethiopia: (440).

However, the Refugee Council of the UK insists that the majority of people who cross the Channel or arrive through “illegal routes” would actually qualify for refugee status. It points out that other far less endowed countries than the UK, accommodate far more refugees. 

In 2021, the UK resettled approximately 1600 refugees – far fewer than it has the capacity to take, the Council says. The vast majority of the world’s 27 million refugees from conflict-affected countries take shelter in poor neighboring countries, it adds. The UK is home to just 1% of the 27 million refugees who were forcibly displaced across the world.

Countering the criticism, the Home Office has said that a number of “safe and legal” routes to enter Britain have been made available. For example, there is the Resettlement Scheme for people from conflict regions, like Afghanistan, Ukraine and Hong Kong; and the Family Reunion Scheme too. 

But the problem is not the refugees from the conflict areas but the burgeoning number of boat people. Home Secretaries (Suella Braverman and her predecessor Priti Patel) have tried to send them off to Rwanda under an April 2022 agreement with the Rwandan government. 

But this scheme ran into rough weather and has been thwarted by a legal challenge. Human rights organizations have pointed out that it violates UK’s commitment to international law under the 1951 Refugee Convention. The UK is blamed for thrusting refugees on Rwanda, a poor country, by dangling money before it (US$ 150 million). 

However, the Rwandan government denies that it has agreed to host refugees for money. Anadolu news agency quotes President Paul Kagame as saying: “I have heard some people claim that the UK gave us money, wanting to dump people here. No, we don’t do that kind of thing. We are not involved in the buying and selling of people. We can’t do that because of our core values.”

Kagame said that in 2019, Rwanda took a similar step with the UN Refugee Agency and the African Union to establish an emergency transit mechanism for refugees and asylum seekers stranded in Libya. The success of this scheme inspired the UK to contact Rwanda about their migration problem, he added.  

Under the 2019 agreement, about 824 evacuees from Libya were received in Rwanda in multiple batches. The Rwandans also say that opportunities will be made available to the refugees on par with Rwandans. Rwandans can contribute to the growth of the refugees and vice-versa.  

Unlike the UK, Australia has been able to thwart the “boat people”. This is because Australia has been strictly barring illegal immigrants from the very beginning, with no legal redress made available to them. The UK, on the other hand, has been allowing appeals from the start. This has encouraged boat people to try their luck in the UK, it is believed.  

When the UK was in the European Union, it was possible to transfer asylum seekers to their “first country of entry” in the EU. But this facility is no longer possible because Britain has quit the EU. “Britain is hoist with its own petard,” as the Lowy Institute put it.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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