Report finds Brexit failings are leading cause of small boats crisis

A new academic report identifies Brexit and other UK government failings as the underlying cause of the increase in people making the perilous journey across the English Channel.

In a highly damning assessment of the government’s immigration strategy, a report by Durham University has found that the deal Boris Johnson struck with the EU is the leading cause of the rise in the number of small boats crossing the English Channel.

The ‘Sea Change on Border Control: A Strategy for Reducing Small Boat Crossings in the English Channel’ was authored by Professor Thom Brooks, Chair in Law and Government at Durham University.

The report claims that the public has lost trust in the government to put the UK’s asylum system right. A key part of the issue is that the government failed to secure a post-Brexit returns agreement with the EU.

The Dublin Convention

The deal was made without a returns agreement in place. Under the Dublin Convention, an EU law which sets out which country is responsible for looking at an individual’s asylum application, the UK could ask other EU countries to take people back if they had entered the UK via safe countries. However, under the post-Brexit deal, no alternative to the Dublin Convention returns agreement was put in place.

“The government used to have a deal on returning migrants, but it ended with Brexit and no alternative was agreed. This made it far more difficult to return any new arrivals, and numbers have skyrocketed after this deal stopped,” says Professor Thom Brooks.

The study found that up until 2018, there were no recorded small boat crossings. Prior to this year, would-be refugees and immigrants more commonly hid aboard lorries, trains and ferries to enter the UK, and small boat crossing were rare. Levels of migration were also steady until the Brexit transition period ended in 2020, the report found.

Professor Brooks said he had forecast as far back as 2016 that migrant numbers to the UK would rise sharply without a returns agreement in place. According to the academic, the Conservative government had been warned repeatedly that a returns policy needed to be implemented.

The Durham University professor argues that the most effective way to stop more small boat crossings would be for the UK to agree new post-Brexit returns policy with France, and the wider EU. He warns that the number of Channel crossings will increase to as many as 80,000 this year, up from 45,000.

“The prime minister must acknowledge the main factor for creating the small boats problem so he can fix it. Rishi Sunak’s difficulty is it would mean recognising key mistakes that his government made, and were warned about but ignored,” says Professor Brooks.

Rwanda policy does not act as a deterrent

The research also found that there is no evidence that the government’s highly controversial Rwanda policy has acted as a deterrent to those making the perilous journey. Instead, the Professor believes that improved coordination under the National Crime Agency could be more effective in tackling illegal trafficking gangs.

The report also claims that the argument that rising numbers of small boat crossings are creating the backlog of asylum claims, is not accurate. Instead, case worker understaffing at the Home Office, reliance on outdated systems and the abolition of six-month targets, are to blame. Professor Brooks says that small boats can be reduced, if not stopped, but only if there is a workable plan that addresses its main cause, greater efficiency in application processing, and better enforceability, which the report sets out.

LFF reached out to the Professor for commentary on what he hopes reports like his will achieve.

He told us: “The government has offered only empty promises and scapegoating which does nothing to address the desperate plight of those seeking asylum nor does it tackle the criminal gangs who put their lives at risk.

“My hope is that the government will finally acknowledge why these crossings are happening to get a clearer view about how it might be addressed much better.”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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