In their 18th century heyday, smugglers on the Kent and Sussex coast defied the harshest government measures and still controlled a fifth of Britain’s imports.
In the end, it was neither the death penalty nor brutish customs officers that brought their trade to heel. Instead, the decline of smuggling can be traced to lower import taxes introduced by then-prime minister William Pitt the Younger.
Some migration experts see parallels in Rishi Sunak’s contemporary battle to stop people smugglers trafficking record numbers of migrants to the UK by the same short-sea route from France — an aim he has placed among the government’s top five priorities.
More than 45,000 people crossed the Channel in small boats into the UK last year. More still are expected in 2023.
Such a prospect poses a significant headache for a Conservative government that has highlighted its plan to control borders but risks losing control of the debate on the streets, as last Friday’s attack by far-right supporters on a hotel housing asylum seekers in Liverpool suggested.
To turn the tide, the prime minister is preparing to arm the state after this week’s parliamentary recess with new laws that will, in the words of Whitehall officials, bring the UK to “the boundaries” of international law.
Sunak, government insiders have hinted, is willing to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights if its court in Strasbourg gets in the way.
The question is whether the regime will be any more effective than other severe measures introduced recently with the same ends — breaking the business model of people smugglers and halting their cross-Channel trade — in mind.
In the form outlined by Sunak, new legislation would eliminate the right of anyone reaching the UK without prior clearance to claim asylum. It would extend the state’s ability to detain such people potentially beyond the maximum 28 days permissible, even in the case of suspected terrorists.
It would also provide for their deportation either to their country of origin or to “safe” third countries, notably Rwanda — the only place with which the government so far has reached agreement.
Determining who goes where would take days and weeks, not months or years, Sunak told Piers Morgan in an interview on TalkTV earlier this month.
“If you come here illegally . . . then you will not be able to stay here and, in fact, we will be able to detain you and then we will . . . have the ability in the vast majority of cases to send you to an alternative safe country, be that where you come from, if it’s safe, like Albania, or, indeed, Rwanda,” he said.
Think-tanks, such as Policy Exchange, that are sympathetic to Sunak’s proposals agree that if Britain is to effectively deter people smugglers, tougher legislation is required to short-circuit legal challenges.
In an ideal world, the government would reach a deal with France to return anyone crossing by boat from there, Policy Exchange said in a paper published last week. In the real world, its authors argued, London should consider using British overseas territories for deportations, as well as “safe” third countries such as Rwanda.
The think-tank said the Home Office should be legally obliged to deport anyone arriving in the UK “illegally” from a safe country, including unaccompanied children. It added that Sunak should be willing to “disapply” the 1998 UK Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights to achieve his aims.
“It is necessary for the legislation to anticipate the likely grounds of litigation and to disarm them and the remedies to which litigation may give rise,” the paper argued.
Refugee rights advocates recoil at the implications for people fleeing conflict zones. But aside from humanitarian concerns, they point out a string of practical pitfalls that make the government’s plans “unworkable”, according to Enver Solomon, head of the Refugee Council, a charity.
The first is that, since leaving the EU, the UK has no agreement, or any near-term prospect of one, on returning asylum seekers who have travelled from safe member states.
Last year’s deal with Albania has allowed some migrants to be returned there. However, the only country willing so far to receive refugees from the UK is Rwanda.
The agreement, worth £120mn, that London struck with Kigali last year remains mired in legal challenges. Even if the UK’s Court of Appeal has allowed in principle for deportations there to go ahead, the accord envisages the removal of hundreds, not many thousands of refugees a year, and lawyers say it could be at least another year before the first deportation flight takes off.
Meanwhile, despite recent government commitments to devote more resources, there is a record backlog in asylum claims, casting doubt on Sunak’s pledge to process and deport refugees arriving in the UK in days.
The implication is that anyone contravening his new law would for now have to be held for longer than the period presently allowable by law.
James Wilson, director of Detention Action, a non-governmental organisation, said: “By tearing up the only road left for most people seeking asylum here, Sunak’s plans could lead to tens of thousands of people being detained.”
“The UK’s detention regime has been plagued by inhumane conditions, abuse and mismanagement,” he added, alluding to overcrowding and outbreaks of disease at the Manston detention facility in Kent last year. “Now, this government would expand that regime ten-fold at massive human and financial cost.”
The Home Office declined to comment until after the legislation has been introduced.
According to the Refugee Council, it would cost as much as £980mn a year to detain eligible refugees arriving in comparable numbers to last year.
Far more cost-effective and humane, said David Cantor, director of the Refugee Law Initiative at the University of London, would be to determine asylum claims swiftly and allow refugees to work once in the UK.
“At a certain point you are scraping the bottom of barrel and don’t have much left that is sensible or workable,” he said of Sunak’s plans. “This government or the next might want instead to plan a system that is both efficient and fair.”
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