You will see it written that the number of people who cross the channel in small boats, and then claim asylum, is smaller than the number of people who enter Britain by other means, and then do so. This is true as far as it goes, which isn’t very far at all.
The total number of asylum applicants each quarter during 2020 was 5,789, according to the Home Office, of which those who arrived via small boats was 2,012. The asylum figure overall halved in the second quarter. Given Covid and lockdowns, it would have been surprising if it hadn’t.
Nonetheless, the number of boat-related applications has increased almost fivefold – and that figure, of course, relates only to claims, not entries. Overall, the Home Office recorded 8,404 of these. The total this year to date is over 23,000. And that, as I say, is a Government estimate. The actual number of arrivals will have been larger.
Of all 2020 applicants arriving by small boat, 74 per cent were aged between 18–39, and 87 per cent were male. Half claimed to come from Iran, a quarter from Syria, and half of the rest from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some of these will be refugees. Others will simply be migrants, who want to work and live in Britain.
Who can blame them for wishing to settle in what Nadhim Zahawi, who arrived here as “a boy from Iraq who spoke no English”, described yesterday as “the greatest country in the world”? But what are people who already live here, including migrants who may themselves have arrived only recently, likely to make of it?
That those who enter are largely of working age confirms, were there any doubt, an overall picture not of huddled families seeking refuge via boats they have unearthed themselves, but of youngish men arriving via craft provided by gangmasters – paid by money which those same young men have scraped together.
How many go on to work or not is beside the ultimate point, which is about the implication of what’s happening for border control. Most voters will tolerate, indeed welcome, indisputable asylum seekers, if they enter via a legal route and their number is managable (as those same voters see it).
However, a significant slice of them will protest if a rising proportion of entrants are economic migrants entering illegally. And if the total number of boat arrivals has risen from about 8000 to 23,000 in a year, where’s the limit? For despite yesterday’s horror, entering via a boat is less unpleasant, if ultimately more risky, then doing so via a lorry.
The logical choice for Ministers is between two policies. The first is an open borders one – or, to put it more pejoratively, the Angela Merkel policy. Abandon border control altogether, in effect if not in name. Let all asylum seekers work. Declare an amnesty for illegal entrants. And take applications from outside Britain, too.
The second is the closed borders, Fortress Britain option. Quit the ECHR. And the Refugee Convention. In short, don’t just take back control from the EU: take back total control, unbound by any obligation. Turn back more boats. If Border Force can’t or won’t deliver, find something else that can. Detain illegal entrants who can’t be returned.
Neither of these options is palatable and Boris Johnson, predictably, has havered. In the absence of decisive action, Priti Patel has been left with little option but to issue increasingly desperate briefings (and be subject to increasingly destablising leaks).
Now the Prime Minister has drafted in Steve Barclay to conduct a review. Let me predict what will happen next. Slowly but surely, he will find himself inching towards option two. The Government’s New Plan for Immigration already seeks to limit asylum claims and the entitlements of claimants.
Its instrument is the Nationality and Borders Bill. NGOs, specialist lawyers and interest groups – what Paul Dacre might call the Asylum Blob – will soon be at work in the courts. Elsewhere, the Judicial Review Bill, based partly on the Faulks Review, will remove some rights of appeal, but many will still remain.
To all this, the Government will add, or seek, derogations from parts of the ECHR. Court cases will multiply. Parts of the “the academy”, as the nexus of senior judges and legal academics is sometimes called, will warn that Johnson is acting illegally.
Senior civil servants will counsel likewise in private, and those same warnings will somehow leak. Ministers will counter by pointing out that Parliament is sovereign. Talking of which, some Tory MPs will get cold feet. Others will seek to destablise Johnson, for whom they have never cared.
But as the Guardian hits the roof, Keir Starmer will sit on the fence – as he ponders the findings from Labour’s focus groups in Red Wall and marginal seats in what once were the party’s industrial heartlands. Embattled Remainers will warn that Brexit Britain is set to become an international pariah.
We should be grateful to them, because it is necessary, in order to understand small boats and their consequences, to grasp the international dimension. The world in which the Refugee Convention was agreed is long gone. In 1951, when it was drafted, the communist bloc was intact, mobile phones unavailable and the internet a dream.
In a nutshell, the convention wasn’t drafted for a globalised world. Migrants and refugees may be pulled to Britain by the English language, no ID cards, non-contributory welfare and the presence of family, but the number of our boat arrivals last year was outstripped by Italy’s (34,000) and Spain’s (40,000).
Refugees, fleeing despotism outside Europe, are seeking freedom; migrants, abandoning failed states, are getting to the West to the profit of the gangs, or by any means they can find. Only a minority meet the terrible fate of those who yesterday drowned in the English channel.
As for uncivilised, Vote Leave, pariah Britain, have a quick glance at the news from abroad. Consider the state of the Poland-Belarus border. Or at how Germany hauled up border controls in 2015. Or at the Danes now preparing to deport asylum claimants aboard, just as Patel wants to do.
Or turn your gaze to the tactics that Greece is deploying. “The men from the speedboats jumped onboard screaming and shouting, they all had guns and knives and were wearing black and masks,” one witness claimed. “They began beating people with batons, looking for the captain.”
Trump-type walls are going up all over Europe, figuratively if not literally. Johnson will seek a deal with France. Macron will be unwilling to give him one, this side of France’s election at least (and the Northern Ireland Protocol is still in play).
One of the Prime Minister’s main strategic aims is to thwart Labour in the Red Wall. What he seeks to deny Starmer he will not wish to gift Farage – or, infinitely more bleakly, some new force from outside the democratic tradition. Immigration is rising among voter concerns. Most Britons believe in border control.
It is possible that Johnson will do too little, too late, and so provide an opening for a bigger, bolder and nastier version of UKIP, thus returning England and Wales to the four-party politics that the EU referendum quelled. Or else launching most of us into an age of five-party politics (don’t forget the Greens).
I apologise, having panned the camera out to try to take in Europe, for narrowing its focus again to the parochial business of domestic politics. But following the Conservative Party is ConservativeHome’s business. It is confronted by a more existential challenge that it may appreciate.