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The real threat to traffickers: Ryanair, not Rishi

The prime minister's brutal tightening of rules around seeking asylum is a boon to modern slavers and human traffickers. But the rules can changed as radically in the opposite direction - with much more promising results. 

December 09 2023, 13.54pm

There is a self-defeating loop at the heart of Rishi Sunak’s speech on Thursday. In the preamble, he sought to persuade anyone who would listen that the Conservatives’ increasingly monomaniac obsession with immigration is neither xenophobic nor racist. After all, Sunak pointed out, his own parents came to Britain as immigrants. “But the difference is, he went on. “My family came here… legally.”

“Like most immigrants, they integrated into local communities, worked hard to provide for their family, built lives and businesses, found friends and neighbours, and most of all, they were really proud to become British [...] But it’s not a given. Illegal immigration undermines not just our border control it undermines the very fairness that is so central to our national character. We play by the rules.” 

This was already a little rich from the leader of a party who, for fourteen years, did everything it could to stop asylum seekers from integrating into local communities (by forcing them into crummy hotels and detention centres) or from working hard to support their families (by banning them from finding work, including in areas where Britain has desperate labour shortages.); good luck expecting them to feel proud to be British after that. It was almost comical to hear Sunak draw the line between legal and illegal immigration in the same week as his government announced plans to make legal migration exponentially more difficult, upending thousands of British familial lives in the process (has any government in British history tore apart more British families than this party of family values?). 

Still, what came next in the speech was even starker. In the same breath as he declared that “we play by the rules”, Sunak proceeded to explain how the rules will be changing, in some cases right from under people already trying to play by them. This, on its own, is nothing new: Today’s Conservatives make no bones about seeing some rules for themselves and other rules for the rest of us. But his speech also highlights a deeper truth. By showing us that rules can be changed overnight to make what is currently legal illegal - and thereby, paradoxically, increase the scope of “illegal immigration”, creating a demand for harsher measures still - Sunak reminds us they can be changed in the opposite direction, creating scope for measures that repair rather than punish, and build rather than destroy. 

Why dinghies instead of planes

As Zoe Gardner points out in an earlier issue of our newsletter, the geopolitical and human realities are such that people will continue to want to come to the UK: because it’ll take a lot of damage to make the UK less attractive than where they come from (and do we want that, really?), because they already have supportive communities here - the same communities Sunak praises so - and, in many cases, because they already speak English: no one’s fault but the Empire’s. They will continue to come no matter how dangerous the crossing is made and no matter how convoluted a journey awaits them after they arrive - yes, even if this journey takes them to a detention centre or to Rwanda. 

And “blocking” the meagre legal protections they still have here, as Sunak promised, won’t stop them from coming either; it will only increase lawlessness around immigration. If modern slavers were publicly traded companies, their stocks would have skyrocketed after Sunak’s speech. The same goes for human traffickers. The same also goes to mobsters stealing far more dangerous items across Britain’s border: the more the migration black market swells, the more resources you need to control it; and the more resources are taken away from chasing drug importers and weapon smugglers. 

In reality, the greatest threat to human trafficker gangs on the coasts of Belgium and France aren’t any particular country’s coast guard. It’s Ryanair. The reason people pawn their very lives to pay tens of thousands of pounds to mobsters, to arrive here traumatised and bankrupt, is that they can’t take a £20 flight to Gatwick. And they can’t take a Ryanair flight to Gatwick because the airlines would be liable for fines and for their deportation costs; this is why untrained check-in clerks at airline desks ask passengers about their visas. But just as Sunak is changing those hallowed rules of his to make something hitherto lawful illegal, rules can be changed around in the other direction - and safe migration and asylum routes would be key.  

There is another reality where claiming asylum is one option among several ways to stay in the UK legally, and is adjudicated swiftly and professionally on arrival. Where already traumatised and financially hard-pressed people arrive in the country with their dignity and at least some finances intact. A reality where border patrols are free to chase drug and weapon traffickers who actually bring danger to our communities, instead of indirectly sponsoring them. A reality in which labour shortages are filled and ideas and cultures cross-pollinate instead of stagnating. This isn’t the reality that the Conservatives are building - but anyway, it’s quite obvious they’re main prism is inner party games rather than challenges faced by real people in the real UK. Perhaps the next government, not beholden to Tory squabbles, will look at this anew.