The escalation of the Channel crisis over the last two years has prompted ever more dramatic statements from the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. From sending in the RAF to introducing life sentences for people traffickers, the rhetoric since 2020 has risen in line with the number of people arriving in Britain illegally. The announcement today of establishing a processing centre in Rwanda at an initial cost of £120 million, together with a large holding camp in North Yorkshire, is the most noteworthy yet.
Just how big a problem is illegal immigration? The numbers speak for themselves. Yesterday alone, more than 600 people arrived in small boats, pushing the total this year over the 5,000 mark.These are just the official figures, of course, but they are running at three times the 2021 rate.The boats being launched from France are bigger, carrying an average of 40 people as opposed to just 20 or fewer before. Nine out of 10 arrivals are male and they are usually young.
Why are people coming? Quite simply because the so-called “pull factors” of the United Kingdom are seen as greater than ever, making Britain seem far more attractive to immigrants than France. Indeed, these days the prospect of four-star hotel accommodation and almost zero chance of deportation are used as a marketing strategy by the traffickers.
Some 28,500 people arrived in Britain via small boats last year, and the impact of this is being seen and felt by millions of people across the country. It is not unusual for me to receive emails from people who have had to change their wedding plans because the hotel where they had intended to hold their reception has – at taxpayers’ expense – been filled with undocumented young men who have arrived in Britain illegally. Concerns are running high in such areas about these young men loitering on high streets. And British citizens whose dream of moving into a council house has been derailed by the longer waiting lists caused by illegal immigrants are angry.
On current trends, up to 75,000 more people will arrive here this year. Make no mistake: for those in Red Wall seats, who backed Brexit chiefly because they wanted the government to be able to control the borders, illegal immigration is the number one political issue. With three weeks until the local elections and the Labour Party taking a consistent lead in the polls, the government has been forced to act, hence the Rwanda option.
Will this new tactic work? If Rwanda-bound flights do start to leave Lydd Airport in Kent, and a couple of thousand young men are sent there to be processed (or indeed paid to stay in that country) it will certainly have a short-term impact. After all, why would anyone pay a criminal trafficker up to €5,000 to come to Britain if they know there is a risk they won’t be allowed to stay here but will instead be flown to Africa? Any tangible drop in the numbers coming would give the government a significant political victory. I fear, however, that this potential success will not be long-lasting.
First, there’s the cost. The government has been careful to use the figure of £120 million today. On the fact of it, this may seem reasonable. But anyone can see that with thousands of illegal immigrants to be processed, flights to be funded, plus myriad medical and other costs to be met, that figure will increase substantially and soon tip over into a much more substantial figure – all at a time when taxes are high and the cost of living is going through the roof.
Another difficulty is the hostility to the idea itself. Twenty years ago, when the Australian government faced a similar crisis because of boats crossing from Indonesia into their country, an offshore processing centre was set up. The policy became known as the Pacific Solution. However, it wasn’t long before terrible tales of abuse and exploitation emerged in the Australian press. The situation spiralled rapidly into an international scandal. Australia ended up in the unenviable position of being condemned by the United Nations and the European Union. Some of the centres had to be closed down.
The choice of Rwanda is interesting, and I can only assume that no other country was prepared to do this deal. Rwanda is a country with a poor human rights record that has just recently been under investigation by the UN. I find it difficult to believe that within a month or two we will not hear negative stories on a par with Australia’s experience. At the first sign of abuse in one of these processing centres, the human rights lawyers in London would be rubbing their hands with glee and would almost certainly be able to use the Human Rights Act in court to prevent further flights heading to Rwanda.
So while I do have to give half a cheer to Priti Patel and the government for trying to confront this issue, I feel the entire media debate around today’s announcement ignores the elephant in the room – the Human Rights Act.
Britain is still a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights; still subject to the court in Strasbourg; and European human rights law is still fully incorporated into UK law. This is why, over the last 20 years, successive governments have found it so difficult to deport foreign terrorists, rapists and murderers. Just last week we learned of an Afghan torturer – whose name we are not allowed to know but who is apparently 42 years old – who cannot be sent back to his country of origin because of this legislation. Why not? Because, it was claimed, if he were sent back to Afghanistan he might be tortured. The Home Office decided to grant him limited leave to remain under the European Convention on Human Rights.
If a known torturer is allowed to stay in Britain thanks to this European legislation, there is no way our government will win court cases over undocumented men who can prove their treatment in Rwanda has for some reason been harsh or – in the eyes of the law – illegal.
The heart of the problem is that Brexit has not been fully completed. As Boris Johnson knows very well, it will not be completed until Britain leaves the European Convention. Then, and only then, will Britain be able to solve the Channel crisis and return people to France. Undoing this legislation will not be popular among the liberal elites of London, but it certainly would be applauded in the Red Wall. Indeed, removing Britain from the European Convention may well be the way the Conservatives win the next general election. There is no other solution to tackling the Channel crisis that I can see that could possibly work.