Sunak’s ‘stop small boats’ plan is a desperate gamble he seems unlikely to win

12 March 2023: The “illegal migration bill” places a legal duty on the home secretary to remove anyone who arrives on a small boat, either to Rwanda or another “safe third country”, “as soon as reasonably practicable”.

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For this plan to work it will be necessary to detain each and every person arriving in a small boat until their removal can be affected. The logistical problems here are immense. Last year the total entering by this route was 45,756.  The figure for the current year is likely to be as high, with over 3,000 arriving since January.

According to the Oxford University Migration Observatory the immigration removal centre estate has a capacity for detaining people in the region of 2,500 places. A further 500 people have been detained in regular prison establishments but the scope for making greater use of these facilities is limited. The statistics provided for the UK in the World Prison Brief shows the prison system already in an overcrowded state, with more than 83.000 people being held across an estate with an official capacity of just over 77,000.  

If small boat crossings continue at high levels it is unlikely that the home office will be able to remove people to Rwanda or other supposedly safe third countries as quickly as the plan supposes. The Rwanda programme is stalled by legal challenges which make it unlikely that the authorities will be able to remove people to the one nation that has signed an agreement to receive asylum seekers who had landed in the UK and the prospect that others will be stepping up to take in potentially large numbers seems to be more a ‘dream’ on the part of the home secretary than a practical reality.

Sunak’s plan to close down the one remaining route that asylum seekers have to make claims for protection in the UK seems to be a challenge to the people traffickers organising the crossings as to who will blink first.  Will the continuing accumulation of large numbers of people waiting for decisions on their application, now standing at over 160,000, lead to an eventual downgrading of the UK as preferred choice for safe haven, leading to refugees spurning the services of the traffickers?

Alternatively, as the UK system continues to descend into a chaotic mess, will the gangs be able to sell this as an opportunity to desperate people to take the opportunity to join the crowds whose position will one day have to be addressed by a programme of regularisation?  Sunak cannot be sure that his gamble will pay off and the small boat crossings will dwindle to an end, or if he only succeeds in creating even more hectic and disorganised confusion that will be exploited by the traffickers to fill more boats.  Either way, with his thoughts on the gloomy prospects for the re-election of his government in 2024, he is willing to try.