Faith Alone Won’t Stop the Small Boats Coming

UK Policy Community

Faith Alone Won’t Stop the Small Boats Coming

Posted on: 26th July 2022
Harvey Redgrave
Senior Policy Advisor, Home Affairs

According to Voltaire, "faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe". 

When it comes to the government’s Rwanda asylum policy no-one can accuse the Conservatives of lack of faith. 

The most recent blow to the policy came over the weekend as the government of Rwanda revealed that they can only currently accommodate 200 migrants. This is the latest in a series of setbacks, with a High Court ruling on the legality of the plan expected on 5 September, the day Sunak and Truss hope to be announced as the new prime minister.

In a media blitz designed to appeal to Tory members over the past few days, Sunak committed to “make the policy work”. You can understand why he would do this in raw political terms. Small boat crossings are a hot button issue for Tory members and his opponent is pushing the boundaries of decency in trying to win in that space.

However in practical terms the policy is unworkable. Even if the government negotiates the legal minefield there is little evidence the plan will deter irregular migration. The central policy case for the scheme is that deportations will change people’s minds about making the journey, thus stopping the boats. But the fact that it is likely to impact only around 1 per cent of asylum seekers coming to the UK weakens any potential deterrence effect. The government could commit to ramping up capacity, but at around £1 million per asylum seeker the costs of scaling up meaningfully would quickly run into billions. 

The truth is that asylum seekers will continue to attempt dangerous irregular routes because the lack of meaningful viable ones means there is nothing to lose.  

Interestingly, Sunak's plan implicitly acknowledges this by borrowing one of the solutions from our own TBI report – a capped legal route – although he doesn't set out how it would work. Over the weekend, there were suggestions that the government could establish processing centres in France for all asylum seekers, as we currently do for Ukrainians. In our report, we proposed going further, suggesting a new humanitarian visa which asylum seekers could apply for at British Embassies abroad. This would allow them to travel to the UK to make a claim if they had a reasonable chance of success.

Sunak's plan also shows awareness that if the government is serious about fixing the problem, they need to address the catastrophic underperformance of the Home Office in making asylum decisions swiftly and fairly, and returning those whose applications have been rejected. As our report documented, during the 2000s, the majority of asylum cases were resolved within six months. That is now the exception rather than the rule. 

Sunak talks about cracking down on businesses employing illegal migrants. But this would only be possible with the new digital identity verification system which the TBI proposes. This would make it harder for undocumented migrants to "disappear" into the informal economy and thus reduce one of the pull factors of illegal work. 

As the candidates continue to campaign, they should be pushed to go beyond soundbites and set out a detailed policy that has a chance of succeeding. A workable plan is what most of the public – including Tory members – want most of all.

Faith alone won’t stop the small boats coming.

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