On the face of it, the slogan said it all. Printed on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s lectern were three stern words: stop the boats.
But how the Home Office measures the success of stopping the boats is difficult to say - even for the Home Office itself. We know how difficult, because we asked.
On Tuesday, when the Prime Minister announced his Illegal Migration Bill, the bundle of draconian measures were pitched as designed to deter people from claiming asylum in the UK. They include 28-day detention with no bail of everyone arriving via irregular routes, followed by deportation either to their country of origin, a third safe country, or Rwanda, and a lifelong ban of ever applying for asylum in the UK again.
The plans are already being questioned by human rights lawyers, as well as various migrant rights organisations and trade unions and even Holocaust survivors have questioned the increasingly hostile tone to refugees from the government. The United Nations has expressed ‘grave concerns’ on what it says amounts to an ‘asylum ban’ that ‘extinguishes the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom’.
However, a freedom of information request by The Lead has revealed the government has precious few ways to monitor whether draconian policies bring about the desired results – and no parameters for what these desired results might be.
The request asked the Home Office to provide key performance indicators or metrics against which the success of its policies to deter small boat crossings could be measured.
In response, the Home Office explained the objectives of its policies and operations were to “make the system fairer and more effective so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum” and to “deter illegal entry into the UK”.
“Our ability to meet these objectives,” it continued, “is not based on one metric or evaluative indicator”. Instead, the response pointed to regularly published migration statistics which “form the basis of our analysis”.
This means that, without KPIs or metrics to determine the policies’ success or failure, the only way to measure if the government has met its stated aims is to look at statistics on irregular arrivals into the UK.
Do that, and the results are clear: the deterrent policies implemented by the government are not achieving their goal to stop the boats.
Take the Rwanda partnership as an example. Concerns and protests about the ‘world-leading’ scheme were drowned out by promises to deter illegal migration. The policy was launched in April, when the number of people entering the UK on small boats that month reached 2,000.
By September, crossings had increased by more than 5,000 people per month.
A month after the Rwanda announcement, the Nationality and Borders Act was passed, putting a range of deterrent measures into law. The Act created a tiered asylum system where those who arrived ‘illegally’ would receive different rights to those arriving via resettlement schemes and other regular routes, including on family reunification and indefinite leave to remain.
The number of people arriving by small boats in May was 3,000. Three months later, in August, 8,631 crossed the Channel. More than 40,000 people arrived via the Channel in 2022, as the government announced more and more deterrent measures and employed increasingly inflammatory rhetoric.
Whether it is either moral or necessary to try to reduce the number of people seeking asylum as a standalone goal is, to say the least, debatable. But the government is patently failing even on its own terms.
A different path
Meanwhile, experts and migrant rights campaigners have repeatedly shown that the government could reduce the number of irregular crossings into the UK by introducing more safe and legal routes for people seeking asylum – and implementing those already in place.
This is obvious if we compare two high-profile cases.
The government has opened two safe and legal routes to refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the Homes for Ukraine scheme and the Ukraine family scheme. Since the routes were launched, 165,700 Ukrainians have come to the UK where they have the right to work and claim benefits, in what has been a relatively successful humanitarian response to a refugee crisis.
Compare this to Afghanistan. The Taliban takeover put thousands of women’s rights activists, human rights advocates, LGBTQ+ people and religious minorities in immediate danger, along with anyone who worked with British forces since 2001. Millions more face hunger, poverty and persecution.
There is a safe and legal route for some Afghan people to come to the UK via the Afghan Citizens Resettlement (ACRS). The problem is, it’s not working. After 6,314 Afghan people were resettled as part of the emergency Operation Pitting response immediately following the Taliban takeover, only 22 people have been brought to the UK as part of the ACRS. This has left desperate people feeling they have no choice but to make dangerous, irregular journeys into the UK for safety. With no effective safe and legal route, small boats offer the only answer.
In fact, the latest figures show that the largest population group arriving in the UK via irregular crossings are from Afghanistan, at 33%, overtaking those from Albania. More than 9,000 Afghans came into the UK on small boats last year, with numbers increasing over the autumn – up from 1,323 in 2021.
Nearly all (98%) Afghans who claim asylum in the UK are granted status. Under the new bill, Afghan people fleeing the Taliban and crossing the Channel who would previously be granted asylum will now be deported.
As they cannot be returned to Afghanistan, those deportations will either be to France – or to Rwanda.
Whatever one’s views on the numbers of people crossing the Channel into the UK, the data tells us one thing: deterrent policies have not achieved their stated goal. If the government had data to show the opposite, we assume it would be putting it front and centre. But it doesn't, and it doesn't even seem to try to gather it. We can only assume this is because it suspects such data would show one simple fact: that other than inflicting needless misery and poisoning our national discourse, their policies accomplish nothing at all.
True to form, when approached for comment, the Home Office ignored any questions about metrics, or indeed about whether anything they've inflicted on asylum seekers so far has worked. Instead, they vaguely promised to "remove the incentives" for people smugglers and those resorting to their services, "once and for all." How will they tell if it's working? Anyone's guess.