The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rishi Sunak’s Tough Talk Won’t Stop Migrant Boats

With his post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is building a reputation as a leader who mastered the detail of complex policy areas and displays a knack for finding technocratic fixes. It would be some feat if he could bring those qualities to bear to solve a problem that has eluded even more governments than Brexit.

The government is preparing to announce a new law aimed at stopping small boats of migrants crossing the English Channel, one of Sunak’s five priorities for this year. Perhaps once again Sunak will surprise on the upside. But unlike with Northern Ireland, the migrant issue doesn’t lend itself to a Big Bang announcement; solutions can’t be put in place with the stroke of a pen.

From the policy changes that were briefed, the priority here seems to be, above all, demonstrating the firm smack of government. Under new rules, migrants arriving across the Channel will be temporarily detained and then removed from the UK to a third country. They would then be banned from future re-entry and unable to apply for British citizenship in the future should they make their way back. “Make no mistake, if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay,” Sunak told the Mail on Sunday.

The threat implies that Sunak has somewhere to send those who don’t heed the warning. But unless he has managed to quietly negotiate bilateral agreements with a number of European Union or other countries, it’s not clear where Britain will deport those who don’t heed the warning.

You would think that as an island, the UK is spectacularly well-placed to keep out those it doesn’t want. But the English Channel is only 20 miles at its narrowest point; migrants willing to risk their lives in dinghies are, by definition, desperate; they are not likely to read the fine print of national asylum policies or be deterred by them. Many seek a life in the UK because they speak some English, have better prospects of finding work and want to join relatives.

Much of the border control has to happen on the French side of the Channel. A deal with France last year guaranteed an increase in the number of border patrols, with UK officers joining French counterparts for the first time, but the effect has been limited. Anglo-French relations have warmed of late, and Sunak may be hoping for enhanced agreements when he meets French President Emmanuel Macron at the end of the week. But it would take a major step-up in policing along with an unlikely agreement on deportations to achieve real change.

Draconian new rules meant to deter smuggling gangs could have some impact on the margins. Of over 45,000 migrants who made the perilous cross-Channel journey in 2022, 27% of them came from Albania — an EU candidate country that the UK describes as “safe and prosperous.” In December, the UK announced it would be putting UK border officials in Albania and would speed deportations of Albanian migrants back to Albania.

Other countries have had similar or higher levels of claims, but Britain’s system for dealing with them has grown dysfunctional. Lack of adequate training, low morale and high turnover among Home Office case workers have left a burgeoning backlog, which was up 60% last year from the year before. Meanwhile, migrants are crammed into often squalid conditions and given no right to work, or sent to hotels and facilities the government has been forced to book, building resentment in local communities and increasing the financial burden. 

A decade ago, a Home Office case worker would typically decide 14 cases a month; by last year it was more like five. David Normington, a former permanent secretary at the Home Office, notes in a recent article for Prospect magazine that it took four years to reduce a much larger backlog after he arrived in 2006 doing much the same things the current government is promising. “Unless the underlying causes of this decline are addressed, there is no prospect of the backlog being cleared,” he writes. 

With no quick fixes, the government has placed its hopes on deportations and making it nearly impossible for asylum-seekers to make a claim, a right protected by international law. A much-criticized agreement to deport migrants to Rwanda has so far survived legal challenges (an appeals process is ongoing), but not a single migrant has been deported. For all the public relations effort on both sides to sell it, Rwanda would only be able to accommodate a small fraction of the thousands of migrants that the UK hopes to send to Africa. And most refugee experts say the idea that those willing to risk their lives in the Channel would be deterred by a small chance of being sent to Rwanda isn’t credible. 

For a policy to be both effective and fair it will have to balance carrots and sticks. The Biden administration’s program of “humanitarian parole” also seeks to crack down on migrant arrivals, but it allows as many as 30,000 migrants a month from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti to apply for temporary visas before reaching the border provided they have a sponsor. Those who cross the border without permission can be expelled to Mexico. There is room for criticism, but it’s worth noting that in the first two months of the year, border protection officials reported the lowest number of encounters in two years. 

Sunak doesn’t have the political room for generosity or the scope to fulfill his deportation pledges. But since he made stopping migrant boats one of his five priorities this year, he needs to either deliver results or find someone to blame. The government may welcome a legal challenge that allows it to portray human rights organizations and their lawyers as the enemy. And a showy announcement also allows Sunak to rebuff pressure from some Conservatives who want to see the UK pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights in order to thwart legal challenges to deportations and refused claims. 

Even if it survives legal scrutiny, a policy that would make it all but impossible for asylum-seekers to claim refuge doesn’t reflect well on Britain, a country that has benefited enormously from migration — some of them even producing the odd cabinet member. Better to take a page from the Biden playbook and offer both a path to refuge and tighter controls. To do that, though, the UK badly needs an effective system for processing asylum applications and closer cooperation with allies and neighbors. Neither will happen overnight.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Sunak Walks Right Into an Immigration Lose-Lose: Therese Raphael

• Golden Visa Doors Close, But Windows Are Open: Rachel Sanderson

• Economic Necessity Will Force Immigration Reform: Eduardo Porter

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

More stories like this are available on

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.