In one of her first acts as home secretary, Suella Braverman instructed Home Office staff to stop all small boat Channel crossings. Ending the crossings was also her predecessor’s number one priority but, since coming into power, this government has seen the number of Channel small boat crossings treble. This article, the third in a series of three, explores why the government is likely to fail in its objective.
The first article addressed the failure to create safe routes for refugees and, particularly, those fleeing Afghanistan who supported the British government and to whom we promised and owe sanctuary. The second analysed how government policies encourage trafficking and labour exploitation of Albanians. This final article focuses on the failure of the government’s punitive philosophy. Together, they outline how the government’s main policy drivers are exacerbating the problem it seeks to resolve.
Rational choice theory drives Home Office policy
The government approach to curtailing unwanted behaviour – whether it is criminal behaviour, anti-social behaviour, claiming state benefits, or seeking asylum, is primarily based on the theory of ‘rational choice’. This was first espoused by Adam Smith in relation to economics and JQ Wilson in relation to criminology. The theory assumes that people, as ‘rational actors’, will pursue things that are in their best interests and so rewards and punishments are key to driving behavioural change.
Some government policies, and their sponsoring government departments, are more inclined towards balancing rewards and punishments. For example, HMRC makes it easier for people to pay their taxes through online systems and PAYE rather than focusing solely on the punishment of those who do not; and the health department supports smoking cessation programmes as well as high taxes and the prohibition of smoking in public places.
While other government departments have a more balanced approach to changing behaviour, the Home Office is uniquely punitive. Given its history and the policy areas for which it is responsible – generally ‘dealing with’ people the government would rather disappear, its mindset is controlling and punitive and it has few tools other than punishment on which it can draw.
It also strongly resists measures that might shift the balance, for example, to a harm reduction model in its drug misuse strategy. And it has taken decades to shift the imprisonment of young people to an educative model, over 60 years after Scandinavia and Scotland, and 20 years after Northern Ireland.
Punitive responses to asylum
By making the Home Office responsible for asylum and refugee policy, a punitive mentality to problem-solving is inevitable. Safe routes for Afghans, even for those whose exodus was caused by the British government’s behaviour, have all been closed and Afghan refugees are now to be forcibly removed to Rwanda. Ukrainian refugees were provided with ‘safe routes’ but of such inordinate complexity and delay that they were clearly intended to deter and to make those fleeing feel like criminals and a security threat.
This punitive policy has been effective in respect of Ukrainians because there have been better alternatives or ‘rewards’ in a welcoming Europe within which they can freely move according to where there are work and accommodation opportunities. Even those who want to settle in an English-speaking country have found entry into Canada, Scotland and Ireland easier to navigate.
Punitive deterrence as policy failure
Rational choice theory has much to offer government policy, including refugee policy, but it has two major weakness as a policy driver, especially in the Home Office’s hands.
The first of these is that the department is constitutionally and culturally incapable of thinking in anything other than punitive terms. This leads to the fallacy that punishment for bad behaviour, without any rewards for good behaviour or desistance, is effective in changing that behaviour. The Home Office has no ‘reward’ levers in its policy toolkit and is unable to think beyond its narrow and punitive mental imitations.
The second fallacy under which the Home Office operates (as do many other government departments) is to assume that the things policy makers would find painful or punitive will therefore be painful to everyone. It’s a ‘common sense’ (and very middle class) view of effective rewards and punishment.
The example of sexual crime policy failure
Although the impact of punitive asylum policies has yet to be examined in the UK, we can surmise their likely impact from other similar Home Office policy decisions and also punitive asylum measures that have been adopted in other countries.
The government’s response to serious sexual crime, driven by the Home Office’s punitive mindset, is illustrative of likely responses and outcomes. As concerns about sexual violence have grown, sentences have got much longer and punishment is the preferred means of tackling the problem. But, as sentence length has increased the conviction rate has decreased.
Of the estimated 700,000 victims of sexual assault in 2021, only 6,690 cases resulted in a conviction (less than 1%) leaving almost every single victim unprotected from further assault and, when processed through the criminal justice system, further victimised. This expensive punitive policy has had no deterrent effect on offenders but has deterred women from reporting.
Failed leads to greater determination
Similarly, the detention of refugees arriving in Australia and the denial of their rights to settle there (punitive deterrence) has had no impact on the numbers trying to get into the country. Pushbacks at sea (situational deterrence) did have an impact on the numbers able to gain access to the country on any one day, but it is not clear if it reduced the overall number of those making the attempt.
French police slash dinghies and destroy refugee camps along the French coast, but there are no indications that these measures have an impact on the numbers attempting to cross the Channel. In fact, the converse may be true, making people even more determined to flee to the UK.
The government should understand this. Every setback Priti Patel faced in implementing her Rwanda plan, only made her more determined than ever to realise it, and boast that she would “not be deterred” (her words). Braverman appears to be similarly motivated.
Rational choice and flawed thinking
Policy failure is often caused by policy makers failing to engage with the day-to-day reality or the decision-making processes of the people whose lives they are going to impact. Often, the views and knowledge of those who will be affected by policy decisions are not considered legitimate topics for exploration or understanding. For example, Margaret Thatcher refused to sanction research into, or even discuss, gay men’s sexual habits and in this knowledge vacuum many men died unnecessarily.
Inevitably then, research that could positively influence policy decisions is either not undertaken or is undertaken only in a piecemeal way when academic funding allows. The last Home Office commissioned research into asylum seekers’ motivation for coming to the UK was undertaken in 2000.
Asylum seekers have already experienced the worst that can be happen
According to punitive rational choice thinking and ‘common sense’, if punishment has failed to deter, it must be insufficiently punitive, and this is the basis of the government’s Rwanda plan. Yet, there is no evidence that punitive deterrence measures deter, either in respect of the targeted individual or the wider population made aware of the likely punishment. And there are many incentives to make the journey.
The Channel crossing, for all it is the most dangerous shipping channel in world, is considerably less dangerous than the countries from which refugees have fled. It is much less dangerous than crossing Iraq, Türkiye and the Mediterranean (600 people have already died this year) or facing Libyan slavers or French, Libyan, Greek or Frontex border guards prior to getting to the northern French coast. The Channel is, comparatively, a minor problem. As I noted in the previous piece on Albania, the development of a ‘professional’ smuggling trade across the Channel has led to better boats, more attention paid to weather conditions and a much greater chance of a safe crossing than previously.
The deterrence policies that fail to deter
The Rwanda policy, a game of roulette, is predicated on asylum seekers knowing about it and that its entirely random nature will deter them from crossing as they ‘might’ be subject to it. Patel’s three-month media campaign to discourage Channel crossings, applies the same foolish logic.
Punishment and hardship and fear of death are not deterrents when those crossing have already faced that many times over. Refugees hope they might be one of the lucky ones. They may not be sent to Rwanda. They may be able to settle, eventually, in the UK. And, if they are sent to Rwanda, then death by suicide remains an alternative.
Braverman faces the same difficulties as Patel. Stopping the boat crossings through the creation of physical barriers would require the building of booms or something similar in the Channel – an unrealistic proposition given the 120 miles of possible Channel to be fenced off and the difficulties this would cause to shipping.
‘Pushbacks’ into French territorial waters would not only bring the UK to the International Criminal Court (as it did Australia) but would also breach maritime law as our territorial waters merge with those of France and do not extend into international waters as was the case in Australia.
A new approach
In previous articles I identified the provision of safe routes, especially for those fleeing Afghanistan and the removal of disincentives for the employment of exploited labour in the UK as prerequisites for solving the problem of Channel crossings.
These measures need not lead to a huge increase overall. The number of women being trafficked from Albania has remained stable since 2019 and the number of boys and young men under 18 has reduced to just a few. Changes in government guidance recognised the risks to these groups and has allowed more trafficked people protection. This has led to fewer coming. The provision of protection has eradicated any ‘value’ women and boys have as commodities for exploitation.
The UK relies on the EU to prevent refugees arriving in Europe and relies on France to prevent refugees crossing the Channel. The UK cannot stop refugees or trafficked people crossing the Channel without working in cooperation with the EU.
At present the UK ranks seventh in Europe in terms of number of refugees accepted and 14th when measured as per head of population. Unless the UK takes its share of those seeking asylum across Europe, a comprehensive returns scheme which would, most likely, reduce the number of crossings, will not be developed.
Change of mindset
Channel crossings are a problem because the government has chosen to make them so. The government has boxed itself into a corner where only a significant reduction in numbers will satisfy the demand it has created. Braverman has doubled down on this.
No government can stop Channel crossings, but it could reduce them to a level that is politically acceptable. Solutions are within the government’s grasp, but it is too constrained by the Home Office’s punitive philosophy and antipathy to working with Europe. Developing solutions may be impossible without first removing the asylum brief from the home secretary and the Home Office.