Britain can have a world-leading asylum system – but only Labour will deliver it

Nobody wants to see people risking their lives in small boats crossing the English Channel in search of asylum. The number of people making these perilous journeys is increasing – and with it the likelihood of further tragedies at sea.

Priti Patel has sat on her hands for two years without a plan for dealing with this issue. The Home Secretary sees this as a matter of breaking up human traffickers by providing a deterrent, sending those wanting to claim asylum in Britain to Rwanda to be processed under Rwandan, not British, policies.

During Wednesday’s Commons debate on the Rwanda policy, Yvette Cooper was blistering in her criticisms. The Shadow Home Secretary highlighted how Israel had already tried and cancelled a similar programme with Rwanda after it was found to fuel, not cut, human trafficking. Therefore, Patel’s plans risk making the problem worse. And if she was serious about tackling people smuggling, Cooper argued, she should not be looking to make cuts of up to 20% of staff at the National Crime Agency, which tackles gangs.

It is striking that Patel has at no point considered why gangs might be targeting Britain for human trafficking following Brexit and after she claimed the government ‘took back control’ of our borders. The connection is unmistakable. In 2018, there were 299 people who crossed the Channel in small boats. But after leaving the EU, the number has rocketed to 28,526 in 2021, with the current year’s total on track to be even higher and set a new record.

Some Tory MPs like to argue that refugees should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach – as was noted in the Commons debate – but this is only relevant for the Dublin Regulation agreement we were a part of until Brexit. The agreement meant that, if someone had entered any European country first, they might be returned there if found to have claimed asylum somewhere else. As a consequence, if someone entered the EU through Greece or Italy first, they could be promptly returned there if they later claimed asylum in the UK. But when we left the EU, we left the agreement and threw away our ability to return people to the EU, without any alternative in place. This isn’t taking back control – it’s giving it up.

Labour saw this problem coming. On my advice, our frontbench teams in the Lords and the Commons tabled questions as early as 2017 on what plans the government had for either staying in the Dublin Regulation or finding an alternative. We received different replies or sometimes no response.

While the Lords said that negotiations aimed to retain our future “cooperation”, the Commons replied that Britain was seeking a different arrangement. But even in October 2019, Patel said “discussions” were under way as “part of our ongoing negotiations with the EU” about what arrangement might be put in place – and nothing ever was. These different answers to the same question show clearly that the government’s position was confused and ministers’ eyes not on the ball.

As I raised repeatedly with shadow ministers in both Houses, there would be a profound impact on the UK if no alternative plan was in place, and we regularly pressed the government to make clear its plans for how this issue would be handled. But no arrangement was agreed – and it has had the significant impact that I warned about. The government failed to take our advice to assess the impact of having no alternative agreement – which they admitted in the Lords was “not modelled” – and we are now paying the price for their failure. Patel and her team cannot say we didn’t warn them repeatedly about this.

Over two years ago, anyone seeking to cross the Channel could be returned at any time – and hundreds were. But since Patel failed to agree a replacement plan, the arrangement for returns has ended.

The effect of Patel’s error is that now someone seeking to cross the Channel knows any removal would be unlikely, with no plan in place and the time spent in the UK increasing as vetting takes ever longer in a strained and under-resourced system. It is no surprise to me or anyone I spoke with that the current problem has arisen in the way it has. Nor does it surprise me that Patel refuses to acknowledge the source of this problem, as it would highlight the fact that she was alerted to this risk multiple times and ignored it.

Unlike Patel, Labour has a plan moving forward. As noted in my Fabian Society pamphlet on immigration, we require a new arrangement for making returns with the EU. Cooper was spot on to highlight the essential need to cooperate with the French authorities in finding a solution.

This will likely have a price tag, as have past policy changes such as working with the French authorities to improve security around Calais and closing the jungle camp. These efforts were estimated by Full Fact to cost about £33m annually. While Patel refuses to say how much Rwanda would be paid by UK taxpayers to assess and support each asylum seeker, we do know that £120m has already been spent before a single person has been received. Such a sum would be far better spent on a workable system, and it would likely cost far less and be better value for public money.

Tackling the issue of small boat crossings will require addressing its causes. There are human trafficking gangs that need to be stopped. This is a global problem that requires a multilateral solution – a one-way return system to Rwanda will make the situation worse. Cooperation with the EU and other partners in supporting Ukraine can be a bridge for further cooperation in tackling these gangs.

Finally, Patel claims that her policy will be a deterrent, but her department has yet to produce any evidence – or even any hypothetical modelling – that those willing to risk their lives will be deterred by her plans, as not a single individual has yet been removed. It was telling that the number of people crossing the Channel hit 444 on the day she hoped the first Rwanda flight would leave – underlining the lack of seriousness with which many view her plans. This is the highest number to make the crossing in single day since April 14th, when 562 people made the journey.

A more effective way of ensuring control is a new cooperative arrangement with France and the wider EU for returns, alongside a joint anti-trafficking taskforce. Britain can show compassion – but must do so with competence supported by the evidence. We should have border controls, and only a Labour government can ensure they are fit for purpose by preventing abuses and fulfilling our humanitarian obligations for which we should be proud.

As a former shadow immigration minister and shadow Brexit minister, Keir Starmer understands this. We need Labour in power to deliver it. Britain can have a world-leading plan, but not while the Conservatives remain in government.

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