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Briefings and barges do not make for good asylum policy

The government’s ‘small boats week’ may fill a recess-shaped hole in the media grid, but won’t help the prime minister ‘stop the boats’.

Bibby Stockholm
The Bibby Stockholm can hold 500 would-be asylum seekers, just 1% of the 50,000 currently being housed in UK hotels.

A flurry of briefings today and over the weekend kicked off the government’s “small boats” week. These have included an announcement that the first asylum seekers have been moved onto the Bibby Stockholm barge in Dorset, and that ministers are somehow both considering and not considering resurrecting plans to process asylum seekers on Ascension Island. Such moves fall far short of meeting the scale of the problem the government faces on asylum.

The government’s ‘new’ plans do not come close to meeting the scale of the problem

The argument behind the Bibby Stockholm barge 10 Cursino M & Johnson D, ‘Bibby Stockholm: First asylum seekers to board barge’ BBC News, 7 August 2023, is that housing asylum seekers there will reduce the amount of money the government spends on hotels. But that depends on that saving not being outweighed by the sizeable set-up costs involved  – the contract to run the barge and other asylum schemes was signed at £1.6bn. 11 Dearden L, 'Government quietly awards travel firm £1.6bn contract for asylum barges and accommodation', Independent, 16 June 2023, Given the 500 people the Bibby Stockholm can accommodate equates to just 1% of the 50,000 people currently being housed in hotels, and less than 0.5% of those in all forms of Home Office accommodation, this seems unlikely.

The scheme to offshore process asylum seekers’ claims on Ascension Island 12 Dathan M, ‘Migrants could go to Ascension Island if Rwanda policy fails’, The Times, is not new and will not happen (presumably this is why No.10 already seem to have distanced themselves from the briefing). As then home secretary Priti Patel had raised, and dismissed, the prospect as impractical in 2020. Then as now, it is not at all clear the cost of setting up and running a processing centre 4,000 miles away in the middle of the Atlantic would be any cheaper than procuring accommodation in the UK.

Some have suggested  the prospect of having their cases heard on a remote island could deter would-be asylum seekers from crossing the Channel. But this appears to be a fundamental mismatch in the government’s thinking, as only those deemed admissible for UK asylum would be moved under the scheme – this would exclude all those arriving by small boat, who are now deemed inadmissible under the Illegal Migration Act. This leaves only those who arrive by ‘legitimate means’ and those already in the UK whom, presumably, ministers have no need to deter.

There are still big holes in the Illegal Migration Act

When the Illegal Migration Bill was first announced in March, we posed the seven questions the government needed to answer for the bill to succeed. None of the announcements this week have provided any answers. Indeed, the chasm between the briefings and the scale of the problem shows that while Sunak and Braverman may have succeeded in getting the act onto the statute book they are still far short of delivering a workable plan.

For example, the act makes nearly anyone arriving by small boat inadmissible for UK asylum but does not significantly improve the government’s prospects of actually removing those people from the country. It gives the government far greater power to detain people arriving irregularly for longer but does not increase detention capacity or clarify in what circumstances ministers will use those powers – or how they will pay to do so. This will most likely result in either soaring costs as government scrabbles to secure detention places, or thousands being stuck in the UK without the right to asylum and or work, so drawing on the state’s resources, or both.

Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman are relying first on their Rwanda plan being waved through by the Supreme Court, where it awaits a final ruling, and second that the threat of a small number of people being flown to Rwanda (or another country) will deter people from crossing the Channel in the first place. This is a gamble. Even if the court rules in the government’s favour there is no more evidence to support that theory now than there was when Patel issued a ministerial direction to launch the scheme last year, in which she acknowledged the lack of evidence to support the deterrence hypothesis.

Ministers should seek workable solutions not headlines

Today’s announcements have generated headlines but not solutions to the problems the prime minister has committed to fix. If ‘small boats week’ is to prove successful, the government will need to address more substantive challenges, including on:

  • International cooperation – the government has agreements in place with Albania, Rwanda and a handful of other countries. But it will need many more agreements – including with France – that enable the removal of many more people if it is going to be able to implement the Illegal Migration Act.
  • Asylum decisions – making more decisions, faster is the most direct way to reduce the backlog and associated cost to the public sector. The Home Office’s asylum transformation programme seems to be moving in the right direction. But ministers could go further to make decision makers more senior, experienced staff with better tech, higher salaries and clearer career pathways. The up-front investment will be more than returned by a reduced backlog.
  • Controllable, legal routes – the prime minister claims that the government will ensure the only way to come to the UK for asylum is via “safe and legal routes”. But it remains nearly impossible to apply for asylum from abroad. There is an opportunity for ministers to set out their plans for more workable, controlled legal routes to UK asylum.
  • Sustainable, long-term policy – too much asylum policy is rooted in assumptions about why people choose to come to the UK and their experience of the asylum system. Investing in an independent evidence base, more public evaluations of policy and regularly commissioned outside research would put ministers of this and future governments in a better position to judge what works.

In the meantime, today’s stories should be seen more as shadow boxing ahead of the next election than substantive policy developments. But if this and future governments sincerely want to stop the boats, clear the backlog and fix the myriad other problems with the asylum system, they should be wary of conflating headlines with policy that actually has the potential to help.

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