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If offshore migrant assessment works, bring it on


LAST month was the worst for illegal Channel arrivals ever recorded: 2,000 people crossed in small boats, nearly four times the total for the same month last year – see our Channel Tracking Station. At the current rate, we are heading for over 20,000 arrivals by the year’s end.

But now, it seems, there may be a plan. According to a report in the Times of 28 June,  there will be legislation making it possible to send those arriving by illegal Channel crossings to a third country (or British territory) where their asylum claims – the vast majority do claim asylum – would be processed.

The report says that such centres will be shared with other countries, one assumes, along with the cost and responsibility of running them. We also learned that the scheme has been discussed with the Danish government. 

The Danes would certainly be the right people to talk to, given that they have recently passed legislation allowing them to set up offshore processing centres and have already been in discussions with other countries, including Rwanda, which could host the centres. Indeed, Danish ministers are reported to have signed an agreement on asylum and migration with the Rwandan government. The Times further reported a government source as saying, ‘We’ve had conversations to see what the Danes are doing.’

If Denmark can come up with imaginative solutions and has the political will to make an idea like this happen, why can’t the UK? Boris Johnson and Priti Patel spent enough time trumpeting the ‘Australian system’ but when it comes to the crunch on asylum and illegal immigration, they run scared of the Australian way. Not that their much-trumpeted points-based system is anything like the one the Australians have in place. But that’s another story, which I dare say I will revert to on another occasion.

Sticking to illegal immigration, Australia’s ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ was implemented in 2013, a year that saw boat arrivals hit more than 20,000. Prior to 2013, some 50,000 ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ were recorded on more than 800 boats. Most of those looking to enter Australia in this way came from Indonesia, often paying large sums of money to traffickers. Tragically, hundreds died en route.

When the Australian authorities apprehend migrants attempting arrival by boat, they are not landed in Australia nor given the right to settle. Instead, their asylum claims are heard in offshore processing centres. Even those found to be genuine refugees are not allowed to settle in Australia but cam reside in Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia and, following a 2016 agreement, in the US too.

As former Australian PM Tony Abbott has said, the important thing is to stop the boats. From 2013, military vessels have patrolled Australian waters and made it clear that ‘no one who attempts illegal maritime travel to Australia will be settled here’.

It is the sort of approach we should consider. We must make it crystal clear that if someone illegally crosses the English Channel, they will not be able to stay here. That message must be reinforced with significantly more returns than is happening now, while those whose applications are being considered must not be able to roam freely while the state provides shelter and maintenance.

This is the only way to stop the boats and end the evil trade in people-smuggling. Otherwise, the number of illegal entrants will go up and up.

As I have often said, the UK should always do what it can to help genuine refugees – and on this we have a very strong record compared with other European countries. But these illegal crossings are different – they risk lives while crowding out the claims of genuine refugees. They are an insult to legal migrants, as well as massive burden for UK taxpayers.

While the proposed policy may not be perfect – and it is certainly controversial – it is far better than allowing an unfettered and increasing flow in potentially deadly trips in unseaworthy vessels.

Australia’s tough stance has paid off. The boats stopped coming in 2013 and 2014.

Alexander Downer, who was foreign minister of Australia in the early 2000s, said: ‘Once word got round that if you tried to get into Australia by boat, you would not be allowed in and would be sent to Papua New Guinea instead, they ran out of customers. The smugglers’ businesses closed down.’ Clearly, closing off this route is necessary to save lives.

Didn’t Boris Johnson himself say in the summer of 2019 that if people came via this route, ‘then we will send you back’? In fact, there have been no removals of illegal entrants to the safe European countries they travelled through since the start of 2021. Total asylum-related removals dropped by more than 90 per cent, from 18,000 in 2005 to 1,500 last year. Indeed, Boris Johnson has a much worse record on immigration enforcement than Labour. That is hardly a record to be proud of.

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Alp Mehmet
Alp Mehmet
Chairman of Migration Watch UK, former British diplomat.

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