Tony Smith is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.
On July 3 I wrote in these pages that in order to turn the tide on migrant boats entering UK waters illegally we would need a new agreement with France, which would enable us to return the migrants safely and securely immediately whence they came.
This week immigration minister Chris Philp is seeking precisely that with his French counterpart. Meanwhile numbers have continued to rise with over 4,000 now having made the journey this year, and new intake records being broken almost every week.
As a former practitioner with over 45 years’ experience in the immigration and borders business I have been inundated with requests for media interviews. Why do they come? How do they come? How can we stop them? Why don’t we let them in? Why don’t we let more in?
In my time in the Immigration Service (and the UK Border Force, which it later became) I was criticised from both ends of the political spectrum for working in the field of immigration and border control.
Many a taxi driver said to me (hopefully in jest) that it was “all my fault” that we were overwhelmed by immigrants. Others (less so in jest) saw me as having some kind of character flaw for being so nasty to innocent people, by denying them entry or by making it hard for them to enter and stay illegally in the UK.
In my many media appearances on this topic over the past few weeks I have appeared with several commentators from across the political spectrum – some wanting complete border closures: others wanting the complete abolition of borders.
I was Director of Ports of Entry in the Blair years. In 2002 we saw a record intake of over 80,000 asylum seekers. The vast majority were coming across the English Channel on ferries, trains, or concealed in vehicles. Since then we have concluded several bilateral agreements with France to enhance immigration controls on those routes. This was a top priority for that government, just as it is for this one.
By 2005 we had reduced asylum intake to 25,000. It went lower still before creeping up again in recent years, to around 35,000 last year. Even then the Home Office never really recovered from the 2002 crisis. The Department was criticised year on year for “failing to get a grip” of the asylum backlog, despite a three-fold increase in resources and a massive spend on asylum accommodation and infrastructure across the country.
Asylum applications are notoriously difficult to assess; the easy option is to grant asylum (or at least exceptional leave to remain). Even when refused, the route to removal is a tortuous one riddled with endless appeals, judicial interventions and – even then – non-compliance with the documentation and reporting processes.
According to UNHCR there are now 79.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world at the end of 2019. 26 million are outside their country of origin in places like Turkey (1.6m) Pakistan (1.5m) Lebanon (1.15m). Hundreds of thousands are in other countries close to unstable states, such as Iran and Ethiopia.
Meanwhile despite pleas from UNHCR, the Western World has consistently reduced its contribution to refugee resettlement schemes. In 2019 countries previously renowned for a more generous approach to refugee resettlement reduced the numbers to a trickle – 21,000 in the USA, 9,000 in Canada, 3,000 in Australia. In the EU the UK took 5,774 refugees through resettlement routes – more than any other EU country.
Yet we hear of far more “generous” approaches to asylum in other countries. The fact is the number of asylum applications in mainland EU countries far exceeds their political will to accept refugees. They have no choice, because the external EU border is porous and a great many irregular migrants have managed to penetrate it. Once there, many want to choose which EU country they would like to live in. Encouraged by the borderless Schengen zone, many will drift North and lodge asylum applications in those countries they see as more attractive (eg Germany, Scandinavia, France).
Because the UK is not (and never was) in the Schengen zone the final hurdle is the English Channel, and how to penetrate that. Given enforcement measures by successive governments of all colours they have found it evermore difficult to do so – at least until they discovered this latest loophole of getting out onto the waters and getting “rescued” by a British vessel.
I have heard many commentators argue that it is lawful for asylum seekers to cross borders without papers or permission, to make their claims. In fact, the correct terminology is “irregular” rather than “illegal” migration; but it cannot be right that International Conventions can effectively trump border controls altogether as people seek new lives in other countries. Not least because this fuels international organised crime and human smuggling chains who will continue to prey on vulnerable people by exploiting “irregular” routes.
Many of those in Calais have already been refused permission to stay in an EU country; but as far as they are concerned that is only the start of the process, not the end of it. Those who argue for major UK resettlement offices in France miss the point.
First, if there is hope that by getting into France you have a greater chance of getting into the UK, then more will come to France. Hardly desirable from their point of view, given their own asylum backlogs. Second, we already know that many won’t take no for an answer; and while they remain in France, they will continue to try to penetrate the UK Border by irregular means including this one.
There is certainly a global debate to be had about legal resettlement routes. The frustration of the UNHCR and refugee lobby is palpable. By refusing to open legitimate resettlement programmes for those displaced in source and transit countries, the Western world is simply encouraging irregular migration across multiple borders.
As the transition period comes to an end and we depart the Dublin Convention, we must firstly negotiate safe third country agreements with our neighbours to stop irregular migration and asylum shopping. Anything less is clear evidence that we have lost control of our borders; something we know is unacceptable to most people living here already.
Assuming we are able to do so, the UK could then show the way for the rest of the world to encourage the proper resettlement of some of the 26 million refugees who are already displaced around the world by expanding the UK refugee resettlement scheme.
However, it would be impossible for any government to do so without first demonstrating very clearly to the public that this is “controlled” migration to people who are genuinely deserving of protection; and not “uncontrolled” or “irregular” migration to the UK, over which we have no control.
First and foremost, we must stop the boats and “take back control”. Anything less will continue to undermine public confidence in our border controls and play directly into the hands of the smugglers.