David Simmonds is the Conservative MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner.
A year ago last week, a dingy carrying men, women, and children sank in the English Channel. This resulted in the tragic loss of 27 lives. One year on, these dangerous channel crossings show no sign of decreasing.
Having spent years working on migration in local government, and as the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Migration, I am interested in a fair and effective asylum system. I want a system that respects our borders and provides a compassionate response to those fleeing conflict and crisis. I welcome important discussions on how to improve the system. But I’m concerned that by focusing on deterrence, we are missing the opportunities to effect real change in our asylum system.
In line with proposals from the APPG, earlier this month the UK and France announced a further agreement on cooperation to reduce small boat crossings. This cooperation involves increased surveillance and police officers patrolling the French coast as part of measures to try to prevent crossings.
However, whilst cooperation with neighbouring countries is an important part of managing a controlled immigration system, an agreement centred on deterrence fails to address the reasons why many people risk their lives to make these crossings in the first place, and that they lack alternative, safe, and legal, routes to apply for asylum in the UK.
The UK is rightly proud of its support for people in need of protection, strongly demonstrated by recent schemes to support people from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, and Hong Kong.
The Government also created a UK Resettlement Scheme in 2019 which is open to other nationalities. However, its implementation was delayed due to COVID-19 and the scheme did not operationalize until 2021.
For those fleeing persecution who do not qualify within these very important but limited schemes, routes to enter the UK are extremely restricted. It is important to remember that there is no way to claim asylum in the UK from outside the country. Additionally, one route for family reunion was lost when the UK left the European Union’s Dublin Treaty, and there are no further agreements for transferring people between European states, including deporting those with no right to be in the UK.
For many refugees, then, the Channel is their only available route, and Home Office statistics show that the clear majority of people arriving via small boats are likely to be refugees fleeing war, conflict, and persecution. Having met people waiting to make the crossing to seek asylum in the UK, it is clear that the combination of robust ‘first safe country only’ rules in the EU, meaning they cannot lodge a claim in France, and connections to family and friends in the UK, mean they have little option but to pay smugglers for the hazardous journey.
The Home Office has acknowledged that there is no one solution to managing present challenges. However, to meaningfully reduce the need for people to take dangerous journeys across the Channel, and to meet the goal to ‘save lives’, we must make sure that alternative, legal, and safe routes are genuinely available and accessible for those fleeing persecution.
There have been a number of suggestions on how we can achieve this. Organisations from across the political spectrum, like the International Rescue Committee, have commendably argued for a number of ways in which safe routes are opened for those fleeing persecution.
With long-established UK border controls in France, one option is to require those seeking asylum to lodge their application at the UK border in the same way that arrivals by air can. UK authorities could then consider the application and either issue permission to travel or declare the claim inadmissible, which would also make it easier to remove applicants who still chose the smuggler route after being refused permission.
The UK could also explore developing bilateral agreements with European states that facilitate the voluntary transfer of people seeking protection. In the case of Ukraine, for example, refugees were transported from Moldova to Romania, assisted by UNHCR. Similar arrangements should be explored for refugees of other nationalities seeking protection in the UK.
On 29 November, the EU convened a high-level meeting on ‘legal pathways’ with member states, the US, Canada and the UK in attendance. Several European countries made clear that they recognize the link between providing safe pathways and reducing the need for people to take dangerous journeys, and demonstrated innovative ideas for safe routes.
This is a critical moment for the Government to commit to exploring alternatives to its ineffective and expensive deterrence approach and create ways for those in genuine need to access the safety and support they deserve.