“A complete mess”: small boats, a big problem for successive home secretaries | Immigration and asylum

Jhe is a former interior minister Priti Patel had a whiteboard behind her ministerial desk on which she had written a list of her priorities. For most of his tenure, the top three issues have been: managing small boats, reducing crime, protecting national security.

When she left the firm in September, Patel was unable to report much progress on priority number one and the situation she left to her successor, Suella Bravermanquickly disintegrated into chaos.

Within the already beleaguered department, morale has plummeted again this week. “It’s a complete mess,” said home office says the source. “It’s very depressing because we have deployed massive resources to think about it, to talk to the French, to launch the Rwandan project, to try to put in place new accommodation structures. None of this worked.

Officials say there is now an unworkable tension between how Tory ministers want Home Office staff to respond to the issue of small boats crossing the Channel and how officials believe the problem should be dealt with . Ministers insist the arrival of small boats must simply be stopped, but Home Office staff say the focus should now be on improving the dysfunctional asylum system .

Refugees have undertaken dangerous journeys across the English Channel for decades, but since the lockdown disrupted lorry and train traffic between France and Britain, the switch to crossing in tiny boats unseaworthy has made a largely hidden phenomenon that is very difficult to ignore.

The sharp increase in the number of people arriving by boat, from almost zero in 2018 to almost 40,000 this year, must be set against this movement of people arriving (usually unnoticed and uncounted) by truck.

It is unclear whether there has been an overall surge in the number of people crossing the Channel, or simply a passage of unseen and unrecorded arrivals by road (many of whom have disappeared into the black economy) to visible arrivals who come on small boats and are immediately picked up and checked in by officials.

The perspective of the arrival of the boats is politically problematic. In a post-Brexit era, when the referendum result was supposed to allow the government to regain control of its borders, the regular news broadcasts of these repeated landings have caused serious concern within the cabinet.

“As part of the takeover, you have a very visible hole in the border, and No 10 wants it to stop. They are not asking the Home Office to deal with it or reduce it – the message is that we have to stop it,” an official said. “To the public, it seems inconceivable that we can’t stop it.”

Staff inside the department’s headquarters in Marsham Street in Westminster monitor the forecast and mark the Home Secretary’s diary as a Home Office red day when the weather forecast is fair with no northerly winds . On those days, the French police will deploy more officers to the coast between Calais and Dunkirk, the British navy is put on alert and special advisers turn on the news channels continuously and prepare for trouble.

“If it’s a sunny day and Sky News has good pictures then it all kicks off. Calls start coming in from No 10 asking, ‘What do you do about it?'” said a former adviser to the Ministry of the Interior.

The issue has taken up huge amounts of ministerial time from Patel and his cabinet colleagues. Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson launched a task force last year to meet weekly to discuss solutions; the task force compiled a 25-point plan with different options, including a column of “magic solutions”, a Home Office source said, most of which involved replicating initiatives taken – under maritime conditions very different and with questionable success – by Australia. New installments of money were sent to the French to pay for drones and infrared night goggles and more police.

Under Patel, officials said, the search for solutions for small boats was often exhausting. “They fought to do one thing and then another,” an official said. “[Patel] would go to Greece, look at the Greek asylum model and come back and say, ‘Do what Greece did’. Please do all of this. And then three weeks later, she was like, ‘Have you ever done it?’ »

Then authorities were instructed to stop the sale of dinghies in northern France, but discovered that as the boats were often ordered online from manufacturers in China, this was no simple task. . In the summer of 2021, Patel hoped that a strategy of ordering naval cutters to push small boats back to France would prove effective. “Thousands of hours of work have gone into the legality assessment. For it to be legal, it had to be safe, and there was no way it would ever be safe,” said an official who worked on the strategy. “We knew the pushback policy was doomed from the start.”

This scheme was later superseded by the equally problematic Rwanda initiative, under which the Rwandan government received £120m in return for allowing Britain to transport an unspecified number of arriving people. by small boats to have their asylum applications processed in Kigali.

Those whose applications are accepted will be allowed to stay in Rwanda. Although Braverman said she dreams of a plane full of asylum seekers taking off for Rwanda, the project is currently mired in legal challenges.

“What ministers didn’t want was officials saying, ‘We have a problem and we’re going to deal with it.’ What they wanted officials to say is, ‘We have a problem and we’re going to fix it. We’re going to stop them from coming,’ the source said.

But officials working on the issue say ministers must now accept that there is going to be a stream of arrivals of asylum seekers from northern France, and rather than invest energy in trying to prevent arrivals, they should instead focus on processing them more efficiently.

The asylum system is set to process about 20,000 applications a year, but currently processes twice that number each year, and the backlog of unprocessed applications stands at around 120,000. The department has struggled to recruit new social workers, and many leave jobs considered stressful and poorly paid.

Despite repeated promises in the wake of the Windrush scandal that the Home Office would undergo a complete cultural transformation and rebuild itself into a more compassionate and just institution, there is still a politics of hostility built into the asylum process of the UK. Having a slow and slightly dysfunctional system is part of a deliberate deterrence strategy to make life difficult for asylum seekers.

“We’re not supposed to rush into cases because it’s going to look soft,” a Home Office source said.

But the delays are bad news for everyone involved. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work or study, so they cannot begin to rebuild their lives – or pay taxes – as they sometimes wait more than a year for their cases to be decided.

Many of these people who are waiting for their applications to be processed are staying in hotels or hostels at taxpayers’ expense. The UK is spending nearly £7million a day on asylum hotels as a direct result of this backlog.

The whole structure of the asylum system has been designed to be skeptical and try to put holes in claimants’ stories in order to reject claims. It is an approach that is ill-suited to the current cohort of arrivals, most of whom come from conflict-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and Iran, and whose most are eligible for asylum.

There is no evidence that this hostile approach deters people from coming to the UK to seek asylum. Furthermore, migration experts point out that, despite Braverman’s characterization of the arrival of migrants as an “invasion on our southern coast”, the number of people coming to the UK is relatively low compared to its neighbors across the UK. EU. Seventeen EU countries received more asylum applications per capita last year, according to a analysis of official figures by the OMO.

Patel acknowledged that media coverage of boat arrivals created relentless pressure. Two years ago, a small boat crisis ruined her son’s 11th birthday party, she said, just as it forced his predecessor, Sajid Javid, to scrap his family Christmas vacation in 2018 “The day was completely ruined because we had small boat problems. “, she told the Telegraph.

The issue now looks poised to dominate Braverman’s tenure. The new interior minister is expected to spend much of her ministerial career checking weather forecasts in northern France.

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