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On the 7th of March, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced, in a bid to deliver one of his five pledges, new laws designed to curb illegal immigration. Sunak’s plan was simple and almost entirely based on deterrence. Standing behind a lectern with the words “stop the boats’, he insisted that those who come to the country illegally will be detained and swiftly removed. “Once this happens – he continued …the boats will stop”

Now, under this new legislation, those arriving in the UK illegally will not be eligible to claim asylum and will be barred for life from settling in the country. Arguably, these proposals focus disproportionately on disincentivising illegal crossings, rather than providing viable, safe and legal alternatives.

These policies have largely been developed as a response to public concern about the worsening illegal migration crisis, with tackling illegal boat crossings ranking consistently high on the list of voters’ priorities, particularly for Conservative voters. This largely correlates to the fact that the number of people entering the UK illegally in small boats has more than quadrupled in the last two years, reaching over 45,000 in 2022. 

In his speech, the PM emphasised a division between these ‘illegal’ migrants and those who use legal routes. However, his speech did not acknowledge that the UK lacks safe and legal routes for those not covered by existing resettlement schemes. There is no specific visa for asylum seekers, and coming into the country without a visa constitutes an offence under the Nationalities and Border Act 2022.  Moreover, there are no provisions in place to claim asylum from outside the UK either. As a result, the only way one may claim asylum in the UK is by using illegal, and often dangerous, routes. Therefore, if we want migrants to come to the UK through safe and legal routes, then we need to create them. 

The Government has previously been urged to introduce a “humanitarian visa” for asylum seekers, a system that has also been employed in France. Under this proposal, those at risk of persecution in their home country, or country of residence would be eligible to apply for an asylum visa to come to the UK legally, and apply for asylum here.

This, however, does not represent a proper solution to the problem. Firstly, officials would be required to process an application based on the likelihood of the success of an asylum claim of the visa applicant. This would add another layer to an already complicated procedure, requiring asylum seekers to effectively apply twice – once for the visa, and once when they have arrived in the UK. Additionally, those whose visa application is rejected may still attempt to reach the UK illegally, using dangerous routes to apply for asylum on British soil. Thus, this proposal may likely reduce the number of those crossing the channel somewhat but would be a tactical rather than a strategic solution. 

Instead, changing the law to allow asylum applications from outside of the UK in their entirety would be a more pragmatic response. Under this process, applications could be set up online and would be accessible from anywhere in the world. While concerns have been raised that making asylum applications accessible universally could overwhelm the processing system,  this can be mitigated by limiting the territories from which asylum can be claimed remotely, for example to Belgium and France. 

This policy should be implemented in combination with an expansion of the UK’s processing capacity and, therefore, substantive additional funding. This would not be unprecedented – Germany rapidly expanded its processing capacity during the 2015 Migrant Crisis and in 2022 processed almost 4 times as many claims as Britain did.

Additionally, funding for programs dedicated to preventative measures can likely be re-directed away from reactive policies if the number of illegal crossings drops substantially as a result of the implementation of legal routes. For example, the UK has committed to paying France £480 million over 3 years to tackle small boat crossings through the use of enhanced patrols, drones, and a detention centre – reducing the number of attempts by creating alternative legal routes would allow to re-allocate a proportion of this funding over the next decade.

Introducing provisions for processing asylum claims from outside the UK would also allow the government to save money on housing current applicants and help to finally clear the growing backlog of unresolved cases. The UK currently spends over 6 million pounds a day on housing for refugees – a number that can be greatly reduced if more applications are processed outside of the country. 

Additionally, joint physical processing centres that would be located in France have been proposed as another possible solution. Moreover, French officials have indicated a willingness to consider opening these centres for processing asylum requests in northern France and around the major ports on France’s coast. These would allow British officials to process claims on French soil, reducing the incentives for prospective claimants to attempt an illegal and dangerous crossing of the Channel.

Measures announced in Sunak’s Illegal Immigration Bill may well be a core element of a wider strategy to combat illegal migration but, in isolation, are not enough. Only the introduction of sufficient safe and legal means by which prospective seekers can apply for asylum will make a meaningful contribution to reducing the number of illegal crossing attempts and ultimately, tragic deaths in the channel.

Roni Greenfield is doing work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Alan Austin]