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Migrant mathematics: the real calculation behind Sunak’s refugee crackdown

While overseeing record net migration, the Prime Minister is making a show of zero tolerance towards asylum seekers.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“Make no mistake, if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay,” Rishi Sunak Mail-on-Sundayed to the Mail on Sunday over the weekend (5 March 2023). The Prime Minister was deploying some tough talk ahead of new legislation intended to deport anyone arriving on a small boat to Rwanda or elsewhere, and to ban them permanently from returning to the UK.

It’s unclear that this will work in practice. Despite support from the courts, the Rwanda scheme has so far been an expensive dud (it has cost £140m, and not a single migrant has actually been sent there yet). And circumventing the European Convention on Human Rights – which gives asylum seekers in the UK the right to seek sanctuary here – wouldn’t be straightforward in terms of political, legal and diplomatic barriers.

Morally, too, the idea looks draconian and cruel. People fleeing war, persecution and, yes, financial hardship currently don’t have a legal route to Britain unless they fall under a specific scheme, like those for Ukrainian refugees. They cannot seek asylum here without travelling “illegally”, and therefore cannot be “legitimate”, to use the Home Office lexicon.

[See also: How many people migrate to Europe and the UK? Use our migration tracker to find out]

What is clear is that this plan – and the rhetoric around it – is one side of a government trade-off meant to appease migrant-sceptic Tory voters and MPs. A hard line on small-boat crossings is red meat to the less discussed eat-your-greens reality that the UK is now taking in more migrants than ever.

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The government has already announced a fast-track system for asylum seeker applications that’s essentially an amnesty, with the “vast majority” of cases going ahead without an asylum interview. Ministers are also planning to lower visa restrictions for more jobs here within weeks, according to the Sunday Times: the government has ordered a review of points-based immigration rules to allow more foreign workers into hospitality, retail and construction.

British voters are known among seasoned pollsters to most dislike the idea of “uncontrolled” immigration (and what could suggest less border control than people tumbling out of dinghies on to the Kent coast?), and value “skilled” workers over the unemployed (or illegally employed), like asylum seekers, who are not allowed to work.

What we are seeing is the government quietly relaxing rules in some areas, while at the same time loudly demonising asylum seekers. This is a tactic borrowed from New Labour, which took a zealous anti-asylum stance while welcoming in the most migrants since the Second World War – chiefly from eastern Europe.

Tony Blair’s government repeatedly tried making life harder for people seeking sanctuary in Britain – for example, swapping their benefits for “essentials” vouchers in 2000, which led to refugees going hungry. It also barred children of asylum seekers from mainstream schools. Much like today, New Labour home secretaries drew a contrast between legitimate and “bogus” claims, accusing people of being “asylum cheats” and “playing the system”.

Today, Brexit means immigration has mainly risen from countries outside of Europe, but the calculation is the same. Demonise one group of incomers to show a general tough-on-foreigners stance, while welcoming a far bigger group of others for economic gain.

Read more:

Migration tracker: How many people migrate to Europe and the UK?

Can Rishi Sunak’s immigration plan resolve the Tories internal battle?

Revealed: UK police and Home Office ran immigration raids on care homes during Covid-19

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