Forget ‘stop the boats’, Starmer wants to ‘smash the gangs’ – but will it work?

As Labour swept into power on Friday, there had not been any small boat crossings in the English Channel for three days. Numbers are still running at an all-time high, with more than 13,500 people making the treacherous journey so far this year, but high winds and rough seas have created a temporary respite for Keir Starmer’s government.

Officials are clear that it will not last. “The boats will come and numbers are likely to continue rising,” says Lucy Moreton of the ISU union that represents Border Force staff. “There are a large number of people in France wanting to make that crossing. The demand is there and there’s no suggestion that it will stop any time soon.”

A surge in crossings is expected when the weather calms this week, and is likely to turn the political spotlight quickly on to the new government’s plans to tackle the phenomenon, now in its fifth year.

After watching Rishi Sunak’s vow to “stop the boats” fail while more than £300m was spent on the Rwanda scheme without a single removal flight taking off, Labour has made a different promise to the electorate – to “smash the criminal boat gangs”.

Former prime minister Rishi Sunak gives an update on the plan to ‘stop the boats’ and illegal migration on 7 December 2023. Photograph: James Manning/AP

Its manifesto says it will create a new Border Security Command including hundreds of specialist investigators, intelligence officers and cross-border police officers. The new government plans to use money saved by scrapping the Rwanda policy to fund the unit to “pursue, disrupt and arrest those responsible for the vile trade”.

Moreton says that officials are waiting to see what the new body will look like, and expects it to take several months to set up, adding: “We don’t know what the manifesto promises mean in practice.”

Ben Brindle, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, warns that the ever-shifting networks of smugglers responsible for organising Channel crossings have become resilient to attempted crackdowns. “The gangs are decentralised – there’s not some big boss you can smash,” he says.

“The Conservative government was also very hot on enforcement, so it’s not a new direction. Labour say they’ll do it more effectively but it’s not clear how that would happen and what it would look like.”

Smugglers have already changed tactics numerous times in response to UK-funded security operations on the northern French coast, launching boats from different locations and taking migrants out to dinghies already at sea.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Home Office civil servant says that border control is already “strongly enforced” but the “gangs are very adaptive and they keep outsmarting most provisions”.

The official took issue with the Labour manifesto description of the small boats crisis as “fuelled by dangerous criminal smuggler gangs”, saying that smugglers were “offering an illegal service to those in need” because of an absence of alternative ways for refugees to reach Britain.

The new government has so far been silent on the creation of new safe and legal routes for asylum seekers, which campaign groups have long argued are necessary to reduce demand for small boats.

Under current UK law, asylum can only be claimed in person on British soil. There is no visa to reach the country for that purpose, and eligibility for resettlement schemes and family reunion is limited.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is among the thinktanks arguing that new routes to asylum in the UK are needed to “divert people away” from small boats. “The reality is that this is one of the key ways of addressing Channel crossings,” associate director Marley Morris says. “It’s likely that there will be continuing high numbers over the coming months, and there will be a lot of pressure on the new government.”

More than 118,000 asylum seekers are waiting for decisions on their claims, with 105,000 receiving government financial support and about 36,000 living in hotels.

Labour has pledged to end the use of hotels to house asylum seekers, but has also opposed the controversial use of military bases and the Bibby Stockholm barge, where a man took his life in December.

The new government also promised to “restore order to the asylum system so that it operates swiftly, firmly and fairly”, and plans to bring forward new legislation to override the Conservatives’ Illegal Migration Act, which stopped the processing of more than 50,000 claims from small-boat migrants.

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Home Office insiders fear that new laws will take many months to implement while the backlog builds, and the Refugee Council has called for the government to use guidance to allow civil servants to restart consideration of the applications.

Without the Rwanda scheme, and with the UK cut out by Brexit of an EU-wide returns deal, few options remain for removing failed asylum seekers from the country.

Labour has pledged to set up a new returns and enforcement unit that it says will fast-track removals to safe countries, and to “negotiate additional returns arrangements to speed up returns and increase the number of safe countries that failed asylum seekers can swiftly be sent back to”.

Nigel Farage, leader of Reform UK, stands in front of a billboard questioning Labour’s plans, in Blackpool on 20 June. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

But Morris says that returns are “very hard to do”, even with agreements in place, adding: “They’re expensive, they’re complicated and there are complex legal challenges involved.”

The European Commission has refused to negotiate an asylum agreement with the UK since Brexit, and the bloc has recently entered a new migration pact that has hardened screening requirements for asylum seekers and allows states to refuse to consider applications from people who travelled through “safe third countries”.

While such a scheme may seem desirable, given that the vast majority of small-boat migrants have by necessity passed through France, it would also require Britain to receive asylum seekers from elsewhere in Europe who have family connections to the UK.

“A bespoke deal may be more palatable to Labour, but it would be more difficult to get,” Brindle warns.

He expects the new government to have more immediate success with its promise to reduce record net migration, saying the party is inheriting falling figures because of recent Tory policies causing reductions in visa applications from students and health and social care workers.

Its manifesto pledged to “end the long-term reliance on overseas workers” with workforce and training plans for struggling sectors, but Brindle says such action would take time.

“The policy could be effective in areas where there are skills gaps, but in sectors like social care the problem isn’t skills – it’s that people don’t want to work there because of poor pay and working conditions,” he adds. “Immigration policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

The Guardian