The government has pledged to stop small boats crossing the Channel and has staked its political life on doing so. This week Rishi Sunak agreed to right wing demands to pass legislation that would allow the home secretary to ignore European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) injunctions against deportations to Rwanda.
The government proposals in the illegal immigration bill are likely to fail in stopping the small boats. This article explores the increasing level of cruelty that is likely to result from this failure – and where it will end.
The Australian model for tackling small boat crossings
The UK government’s approach to tackling the small boat problem is copied from Australia. Australia introduced a ‘punitive deterrence’ programme which included the immediate detention of those claiming asylum, off-shoring their detention (for years) while their case was heard, and refusal to ever allow those granted refugee status to permanently settle in Australia. This programme had little impact on those attempting to make the sea crossing.
It also implemented a ‘situational deterrence’ approach of pushing back boats into international waters and this did have an impact on the numbers, although it is not clear that this impact was sustained over time. Mostly, the level of those trying to get to Australia was determined by factors outside Australia’s control.
While the Australian model has been a ‘cruel and costly failure’, it was also popular. Opposition parties either supported the scheme or were muted in their condemnation of it, just as UK Labour has focused its attention on the government’s ineptitude rather than the substance of their policies.
In developing the policy, Australia was cognisant of the potential for reputational damage and so, along with off-shoring immigration detention and processing, it attempted to off-shore the responsibilities that go with it.
It attempted to transfer accountability to the providers or other receiving nations and made no attempt to secure the quality or humanity of the policies it was paying for, much in the same way the UK is attempting to do with respect to sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. It also changed other laws, including those relating to human rights and citizen protections that had, previously, rendered their programme illegal, just as the UK government is hoping to achieve by withdrawing from the ECHR.
UK government and the Australian model
The explanatory notes for the illegal migration bill reiterate the government’s core belief that punitive measures are the only way stop people making the crossing. There are no other measures proposed and safe asylum routes have been ruled out until the crossings have ceased.
There is no evidence that punishment is an effective deterrent in respect of any unwanted behaviour. It neither deters those punished from repeating the unwanted behaviour nor deters the wider public from embarking on it. A fuller explanation of why a policy of deterrence will fail to stop small boat crossing can be found here, written in October last year before more recent punitive measures were proposed.
Lack of understanding of asylum seekers
Government policies are uninformed, perhaps deliberately so, by asylum seekers’ knowledge or motivations. For example, the bill’s notes state:
“If people know there is no way for them to stay in the UK, they won’t risk their lives and pay criminals thousands of pounds to get here.”
This assumes a level of knowledge asylum seekers do not have. It fails to understand how asylum seekers assess and manage risk (and their previous risk management history) and it fails to understand or anticipate the measures that smugglers and the asylum seekers themselves will put in place to circumvent barriers.
In time, and if every asylum seeker is denied residence in the UK, the UK may be removed from asylum seekers’ mental list of ‘safe’ countries. This took several years (and two election cycles) in Australia and, even then, other factors had much more of an impact on the numbers reaching the country.
In the case of small boats, it is already very clear that punitive measures have had no impact on the number of people crossing the Channel, perhaps even the reverse. Suella Braverman, and her predecessor, had has access to the research into the push and pull factors of those seeking asylum in the UK with assessments on the likely success of the proposed measures. The research and data is sufficiently comprehensive and clear for the Home Office top civil servant to refuse to sign off the Rwanda plans on the basis of their being insufficient evidence to indicate likely effectiveness.
Failure as a strategy
Each failure to stop small boat crossings has freed up the government to take increasingly punitive and extreme measures. Braverman (and Priti Patel before her) has overseen a backlog of asylum cases that, at current rates, would take at least seven years to clear and this backlog has enabled her to get a court ruling that army camps can be used to intern asylum seekers – without time limit.
She has blamed all her failures on ‘lefty’ lawyers and the application of human rights law, and failure to curtail small boats has enabled her to roll back human rights in the UK and the role of the ECHR (if last week’s announcements go ahead). In these measures she has been both cheered on and taunted by extreme right-wing groups in the UK and other political parties, even Labour. Braverman’s failure may increase her political success.
Removing the UK from the ECHR (with all the implications this has for British citizens as well as asylum seekers) has been a policy goal for many on the right for many years and small boat crossings has provided the opportunity to pursue it.
What are the limits to the government’s cruelty?
Some measures in the bill might have a marginal impact on the number of asylum seekers but this will not satisfy the extreme right. Nor will it satisfy the public who have been fed a diet of false promises. All parties are colluding with the fantasy that limiting access to asylum is both achievable and desirable.
The number of small boats crossing the Channel are dependent on only two factors: external conditions – such as war, ecological or economic devastation, and these are beyond the UK government’s control – and whether the UK is viewed as a ‘safe’ country by those seeking asylum. Language, kin and community ties play a part, but these are secondary to the perception of safety.
The perception of the UK as a safe country has already shrunk amongst refugees and the UK does not score well. We are 20 in the world rankings in support for them and sixth in Europe in terms of asylum applications, even though some countries such as Italy and Greece have also significantly increased hostility towards asylum seekers in the past couple of years.
Cruelty as policy
The success of the government’s measures is predicated on being sufficiently cruel to ensure asylum seekers reject the UK as a haven to which they might flee. How cruel and inhumane the government will have to be for this to be effective can only be guessed at.
While Braverman has shown signs of pleasure in cruelty (flights to Rwanda), it is not clear that Sunak delights in quite the same way. The problem for him is that he is beholden to the extreme right of his party – as appointing Braverman and agreeing to remove the UK from the ECHR has shown – and the Reform UK party is still snapping at his heels. He is not in control of the agenda or the depths of cruelty to which the UK must sink to implement it.
Meanwhile, Labour is watching from the side-lines, likely to jump whichever way it considers electorally advantageous.
The Australian scheme has been opposed throughout its operation by many national and international human rights and refugee groups but was popular amongst the electorate for some time. In the end, the Australian scheme has softened (it has not ended) following its failure. It was beset with corruption scandals including the payment of people smugglers to return the boats from Australian waters.
The cruelties became too evident for even the opposition and civil society to ignore without being implicated in them. International criticism including findings of abuse by the International Criminal Court impacted heavily on Australia’s reputation (though no sanctions were applied). And, it cost over £6bn per annum for detention facilities alone. The costs were a major factor in the policy change.
Costs have a strong bearing on the treatment of asylum seekers (and all other groups accommodated or detained by the state). The history of prison and care facilities shows that all good quality facilities deteriorate as costs increase, and abuse increases as standards decline.
In the UK, the costs of accommodating asylum seekers have grown exponentially as the government has failed to assess claims in line with the number of applications. Attention to costs is not leading to swifter decision-making and earlier permission of refugees to work and be self-supporting, but the decline in the standards of accommodation asylum seekers are forced to live in. These cost pressures will continue as the backlog grows.
Undeliverable stop the boats policy
At present there are about 160,000 people awaiting an initial decision and the numbers are growing every day. On 23 April we learned that staff continue to leave the Home Office in droves and more intend to do so if the bill is passed. The speed of decision-making has reduced despite the plans and resources put in place over the past year. Inexperienced, poorly trained and poorly paid staff are struggling to cope with what is being required of them. So, the wait for a decision continues to grow, extending into future decades and the costs will grow equally.
The government has already boxed itself into a ‘stop the boats’ policy corner on which it cannot deliver. Very few, if any, asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda and the majority will be detained (effectively if not intentionally) in prisons or asylum camps. As the government has failed to invest in the asylum processing system, this detention will be indeterminate, likely to be in excess of eight years, and possibly for life. Children will not be exempt.
Yet, no one will be satisfied and the clamour from the right for harsher penalties and poorer conditions at a lower cost will continue. Even now some are calling for labour camps in which asylum seekers will be forced to work to ‘contribute’ to the costs they are accused of incurring. Stop the boats will fail but the human cost of this dangerous policy is incalculable.