© Sara Morris / The Retouching Shed

How to fix the channel crisis

David Normington was the chief official at the Home Office the last time it wrestled with an enormous asylum backlog. With more people attempting to cross the channel, he says politicians must zoom out—and base policies on real evidence
March 1, 2023

More than 45,000 people climbed into small dinghies last year and risked the perilous Channel crossing in order to claim asylum in the UK. This compares with 1.1m migrants who, it is estimated, came to the UK in the year up to June 2022—and with the peak of 84,000 asylum seekers during the last migrant “crisis” in 2002. 

It would be relatively easy to absorb into the country the 30,000 or so out of the 45,000 who are likely to be successful applicants, and in time most would become fully contributing citizens, like other refugees before them. So why have these people arriving by boat become such a focus of public and media attention? Why did the prime minister make “stop the boats” one of his five New Year promises to the British people?

The answer is relatively simple. The arrival of migrants in small boats by illegal means is an all-too-visible symbol of the government’s apparent loss of control of our borders. We expect our governments to provide and safeguard the basic architecture of the state, including a secure and defined frontier. When that border is being crossed time after time in broad daylight, we lose confidence in the capability and competence of the government. The current government knows this, just as the Labour hierarchy did in the early 2000s. It is why Rishi Sunak, like Tony Blair in 2002, has made fixing it a personal priority. 

The government’s performance in tackling the small boats problem has generally been calamitous. As prime minister and home secretary, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel preferred headline--grabbing announcements to the quiet diplomacy and competent administration that the situation demanded. While they were calling in the navy and finalising a so-called “world-leading” deal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, the numbers arriving by small boats grew from an estimated 300 people in 2018 to hit a total last year that is 150 times higher. 

The Home Office systems for dealing with asylum seekers, fragile at the best of times, virtually collapsed on their watch. The backlog of asylum cases was below 20,000 in the years up to 2014; by 2017 it was 29,500. It is now around 160,000—and still growing. 

Such was the backlog of asylum claims by September 2022 that, when the new home secretary Suella Braverman failed to purchase enough hotel rooms to house arrivals, the Home Office’s temporary holding facility at Manston became seriously overcrowded. Children and families were held in unsafe conditions. There were reports of an outbreak of diphtheria and other diseases. If another symbol were needed of the government’s loss of control, here it was, day after day on television screens and on social media.

Against this background it might seem brave—or foolhardy—of the prime minister to make an unequivocal promise to “stop the boats”. So what are the chances of the situation being under control by the time of the next general election in 2024? While history does not repeat itself, are there lessons to be learned from the previous crisis, when the Labour government did eventually reduce illegal arrivals and get control of the asylum system?

A difference in risk

It should be said, first, that this is a much more intractable problem than in the early 2000s. At that time, people came in the backs of lorries, in containers or hidden in the tiniest of spaces under trains and other vehicles. This still happens to some extent, but the evidence that these routes are largely closed can be seen in the very fact that migrants are resorting to small boats as their means of getting across the Channel. There are often no other options, and they are desperate.

The government appears not to have understood this. Most of these asylum seekers make a totally different assessment of risk from the rest of us. Many of them have escaped oppression in their home countries. They have endured journeys of terrible hardship and put their money and their lives in the hands of criminal gangs and traffickers. A dangerous journey in a small boat across a rough sea is, to them, one final risk worth taking to get to the UK. 

If migrants are desperate enough to climb into small boats, declaring it illegal is unlikely to stop them

The attempts by the government to find increasingly extreme deterrents are, therefore, unlikely to work. Even if they know about the Rwanda policy in general terms, for example, today’s asylum seekers are not going to be deterred by the theoretical threat—or, if it comes to pass, the practice—of deporting a few hundred people a year to Africa. Similarly, the prime minister’s recent promise to make crossings in small boats illegal and, therefore, an automatic reason for deportation is, in all probability, futile. If migrants are desperate enough to climb into small boats, declaring it illegal is unlikely to stop them. 

If this sounds defeatist, there are things that can be done, but the answer will rarely lie in dramatic announcements. Instead it requires determined, consistent and effective management of the asylum system so that claims are processed efficiently and those whose claims are refused are deported swiftly. There must also be an international charm offensive to build relations with countries, such as France and Albania, on which the success of the UK’s efforts both to deter the boats and to return asylum seekers depend. Judging by his statement to parliament before Christmas and his early actions as prime minister, Sunak appears to understand this better than his immediate predecessors, who patently did not. 

Get on top of the backlog

The first priority is to get on top of the backlog of asylum cases. This will not be easy. It will take time—particularly if arrivals continue to grow for the time being—to reach the point where the number of cases being decided exceeds the number of cases being added. The prime minister has promised to recruit and train staff and to improve the productivity of those considering claims, but this is not a tap that can be turned on quickly. 

The government is also proposing to fast-track 12,000 of the backlog by waiving the requirement for those asylum seekers to have a face-to-face interview. Even so, without further interventions, the likelihood is that the backlog will grow further. When I arrived in the Home Office as permanent secretary in January 2006, the backlog of claims stood at 450,000—though the department’s systems were so poor that we never knew whether the number of files matched the number of people. (It is quite likely that there was some double counting.)

No options: a group thought to be migrants crossing the English Channel in a small boat No options: a group thought to be migrants crossing the English Channel in a small boat © PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

We did everything then that the government is promising now—setting up a new division dedicated to tackling the backlog, providing more resources, investing in training and development, improving the quality of the decision taking, changing processes and technology. It took four years to reduce the backlog by two-thirds, and by then the cases that remained were often difficult to decide due to lack of evidence or because the individuals could not be traced.

An absolute key to success is effective leadership from both politicians and civil service managers. Reading accounts of the inside of the Home Office today, including by the chief inspector of borders and immigration, one gets the overall impression of a demotivated workforce, badly paid and undertrained, with high turnover and poor administrative systems. The result has been a disastrous decline in productivity, dating back at least to 2015, long before the pandemic. Between 2011 and 2012 there were around 380 caseworkers each deciding about 14 cases a month; by the period 2021 to 2022, more than 600 caseworkers were each deciding about five cases a month (just two initial decisions, when appeals are discounted). Unless the underlying causes of this decline are addressed, there is no prospect of the backlog being cleared.

Deport unsuccessful asylum seekers

The second priority is to speed up the deportation of those whose cases are refused. This is vital to the success of the prime minister’s efforts to tackle the small boats because elements of these plans, including the Rwanda policy and the proposed changes to the law, depend on the ability to deport swiftly. 

The bad news for the government is that enforced deportation is probably the most difficult aspect of the whole system. People need papers to return to a safe destination and many countries are not very cooperative in providing those documents quickly, or at all. Those refused asylum often use every legal means to appeal their cases: it is not unknown, for example, for injunctions preventing deportation to be served on the Home Office as flights are about to take off. The government seems intent, in forthcoming legislation, on severely restricting the legal means for asylum seekers to appeal their cases. This is likely to be fought in the courts, on the grounds that it is against natural justice to remove all rights of appeal against administrative decisions by Home Office staff. As such, even if the government can pass the legislation this year, it seems unlikely to provide a quick fix.

Furthermore, failed asylum seekers are liable to disappear, so it is vital to have detention spaces where those awaiting deportation can be held. There is never enough such space. What there is fills up quickly. There are constant pressures to find or build more, but we have seen recently the resistance in communities to having detention spaces in their towns and villages. At the end of the process there can be distressing scenes as those being deported are dragged onto flights, often in handcuffs, kicking and screaming. Flights can take off with just a handful of the numbers originally planned. 

The worse news for Sunak is that the government—increasingly reliant on policies that involve deporting people quickly—has pretty much lost control of the process for deportations. 

The total number returned to their country of origin includes both enforced and voluntary returns, the latter being cases where individuals agree to leave, often with financial assistance. The total figure stood at 45,700 in 2010, and stayed broadly at that level until 2016. It then declined sharply to 19,800 in 2019 before the pandemic, and then to 9,500 in 2021. Voluntary returns have fallen every year since 2015 (with a possible increase very recently) whereas enforced returns have declined every year since 2012. Deportations should increase in number as the pandemic effect recedes, but it will take a huge effort to reverse this long-term decline. It is not just Covid that is to blame. 

This part of the puzzle matters. On the other side of the Channel, those looking to reach the UK may not know the finer detail of government policy, but they do see that, once their friends and relatives get to the UK, the chances of them being refused asylum and getting deported are very small at present.

Painstaking diplomacy

The third priority is far more effective diplomacy and international relations—something to which the government has arguably not given enough attention since we left the EU but which Sunak looks willing to repair. One of the keys to turning around the crisis two decades ago was a strong relationship with the French government. France agreed to the UK positioning its border checks at Calais and Coquelles, worked in partnership on enhanced security around the Channel ports, and closed down the huge Sangatte migrant camp. Most of those measures remain in place and a traveller from France to the UK may still see young men occasionally being dragged from under lorries and the backs of vans by French security officials. 

Just as French cooperation was needed then, there is today no prospect of stopping or reducing the number of small boats without French help. Patel knew this and her successor Braverman must too. Behind their negative rhetoric, they have between them negotiated and funded enhanced security patrols on the French beaches and joint exercises to tackle the smuggling gangs. It is estimated that the French authorities are now stopping more than 30,000 people a year from leaving French waters, although many are then released to try again and again. 

Good long-term relations with France might also eventually open up collaboration on more radical solutions, including allowing the UK to return failed asylum seekers to France or maybe even to consider some asylum claims in France rather than in the UK. The small boats are a problem for the French too, particularly for citizens living in towns and villages on the French coast. 

It is worth remembering that in earlier times it was not a foregone conclusion that France’s politicians would agree to UK officials being stationed in the country to check passports. At the time it was agreed, it was a huge step, the result of painstaking diplomacy. The same is needed now if we are to go beyond the limited new arrangements negotiated by recent home secretaries.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Uwe Deffner / Alamy Stock Photo

The desirability of having returns agreements with safe countries extends well beyond France. The government’s policy is that people coming from safe countries of origin or who have a connection to a safe country are inadmissible for asylum. The embarrassment is that (with one exception) it has no returns agreements with any safe countries, so its ability to send asylum seekers back to those countries is nil. The UK lost all its rights to return failed asylum seekers to the 27 countries of the EU, and to some others, when we left the bloc and failed to negotiate new arrangements as part of the Brexit deal. It was a lamentable failure and the consequences are all too plain. 

The one exception is Albania, whose citizens made up between a quarter and a third of those crossing in small boats in 2022. Albania is a safe country. Most of the Albanian arrivals are young men who are unlikely to qualify as genuine asylum seekers. It ought to be possible—with the cooperation of the Albanian government—to consider their cases, detain, re-document and return them within three months of their arrival or earlier. If they were instead to get caught up in the backlogs and deportation failures, or if there is not enough space to detain them pending deportation, or if the government’s public pronouncements continue to annoy Albania, then this would be another area of failure. Ensuring this does not happen must be a priority for the prime minister, the home secretary and their officials.

Effective management and painstaking diplomacy do not create headlines. Politicians of all parties are always going to search for simple solutions that somehow no one has thought of before. But beware of snake oil sellers.

Consider, for example, the government’s radical and expensive Rwanda proposition. Asylum seekers’ claims will be considered on arrival by the Rwandan government and, if accepted, they will be given leave to remain with no right to return to the UK. As well as being unlikely to deter would-be refugees or, as the government would have it, “break the smuggling gangs’ business model”, this plan is also cruel. Once Albanians have been subtracted from the arrivals and sent home, the majority of the rest—maybe 70 or 80 per cent—are likely to have a genuine claim for asylum. It is difficult to understand how the government can morally justify giving these genuine refugees a one-way ticket to Africa.

Create safe routes

A popular alternative proposition, including from some refugee agencies, is that the government should create more secure routes from outside the UK so that people with an indisputable need for asylum have a safe alternative to resorting to small boats. Here there is the germ of a good idea that actually could undermine the smugglers’ business model and would certainly be more humane. There are, after all, already safe routes in place for those fleeing the war in Ukraine, for those from Hong Kong with British National Overseas status and for Afghans who worked with the British pre-Taliban. (Although, to the government’s shame, this last route seems not to be working. The Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme offers a pathway for those who supported the UK and international community effort in Afghanistan but, so far, not a single Afghan has been resettled through it.)

However, if safe routes are to be expanded more generally, there need to be convincing answers to three questions. Who would be eligible? Where would they apply for asylum? How many would come? The danger is that more safe routes would simply become a draw for even larger numbers of asylum seekers than those currently camped on the French coast, and act as an incentive to people to come to the UK who had not previously thought of it. No government is likely to be willing to take such a risk.

To sum up: if one weighs in the balance the determination of some migrants to get to the UK whatever the risk, the broken asylum system with its huge backlogs and failing deportations, the lack of returns agreements with safe countries (except Albania) and the shortage of workable new ideas, then there seem to be formidable hurdles in the way of the government stopping the boats anytime soon. 

On the most optimistic view, the government may be able to return some Albanian arrivals during 2023 (deterring others) and improve Home Office performance in processing claims and increasing deportations by 2024. That could enable it to claim by the general election that the number of people arriving in small boats is declining. But a lot has to go right for that to happen—and the government needs to be on guard against a reduction in Albanian arrivals being replaced by arrivals from other countries, lured by the smugglers.

There is one final warning for the government from the early 2000s. The Labour government of the day did eventually reduce the number seeking asylum to below 20,000 a year and got the backlog of case files down, but while it was doing so, the numbers of people arriving in the UK through legal migration started to grow. 

This was exacerbated by a government decision in 2004 not to put restrictions on the entry of citizens from the new member countries of the EU in central and eastern Europe and the Baltic states. In a very short time, larger-than-expected numbers of migrants started arriving. Many came from Poland: in the 2001 census there were 58,000 Polish-born people in the UK, most of whom had come as refugees before or during the Second World War; by 2011 the number was 579,000. Public concern shifted from asylum seeking and the Labour government was blamed for what some saw as unfettered immigration. Later, in the Brexit referendum, the scale of immigration from the EU—the result, as many saw it, of the bloc’s free movement policy—became a reason to vote Leave. 

As well as being very unlikely to ‘break the smuggling gangs’ business model’, the Rwanda policy is also cruel

Is history about to repeat itself, in the form of an emphasis on asylum at the expense of attention on wider numbers? It is arguable that, until recently, the government has been so focused on the people arriving in small boats that it has lost sight of the numbers coming legally to live, work and study every year. 

The Conservative government came to power in 2010 promising to reduce net migration—the number arriving minus the number leaving—to under 100,000. Setting aside the Covid period, that has not been achieved in any year since the promise was made. The latest published figures show that net migration was 504,000 in the year to last June—an all-time record. It is, however, not EU immigration driving that: more EU citizens are currently leaving than arriving. 

They are being more than replaced by arrivals from outside the EU. To be fair, 2022 is likely to have been an exceptional year, with the numbers boosted by Ukrainians, British Overseas Nationals from Hong Kong and the general bounce back in arrivals, particularly of students, post-Covid. Nevertheless, since Brexit, the underlying trend of immigration looks to be continuing  sharply upwards.

A necessary conversation

It is difficult to have a debate about the scale of immigration without it becoming politically toxic on both the left and the right, not to mention stirring up elements of xenophobia and racism. But a national conversation is needed on what we, as a nation, believe is a sustainable level of migration in the long term, and on an approach to asylum seeking more in line with Britain’s kinder traditions of welcoming refugees who are fleeing oppression and persecution.

When I worked in the Home Office, there were many debates in Whitehall about the rights and wrongs of immigration policy. On one side—as is still the case now—were those, often in the economic and business departments, who saw legal immigration as an unadulterated good, boosting the UK’s economic growth. On the other side were the rest of us, who heard the cries of some communities that change was happening too fast; worried about the pressures on housing and public services like health and education; and were concerned about the resentment and anti--immigrant feeling in some sections of the population. 

Neither side was wholly wrong. In a thriving economy we will need to be able to welcome migrants for the skills, knowledge and enterprise they bring and for the way they enrich our cultural, artistic and national life. In a civilised society we must also meet our responsibilities to those fleeing oppression and persecution. At the same time, we ignore at our peril the pressure that excessive immigration puts on population numbers and the very real impact of that on communities, public services and public attitudes. 

It is a startling fact that the last year in which there was net emigration from the UK was 1993. Early 1990s estimates of population growth underestimated the UK population in 2023 by nearly eight million—the majority of that growth driven by immigration levels that no one would have predicted at that time.

There are signs that the government is now more focused on mass immigration, but inevitably it seems again to be looking for punitive solutions, which may do more damage than good to our fragile economy. The home secretary is said, for example, to be considering new restrictions to discourage international students—a -short-term fix that would undermine universities’ finances, deprive the country of some of the best brains available and target groups in which the majority will eventually go home anyway. If we want a more sustainable level of immigration and asylum—one that rises or falls according to economic need and the international situation, rather than growing with virtually no pause, as it has done for almost 30 years—then the thing to look at is radical reform of the labour market.

We need to wean the economy off what is arguably its overdependence on migrant labour. That means root-and-branch reform of education and training so that more UK citizens are equipped to fill the skills shortages that bedevil our economy. It means more support for more UK students to go on to postgraduate studies alongside the thousands who come from China and elsewhere to take advantage of education in our world-class universities. It means long-term workforce plans in health and social care and other shortage sectors, to train more of our own people for jobs that can often only be filled at the moment by looking overseas. Finally, we need more incentives—better childcare, better wages and conditions, further reform of universal credit and pensions—to persuade people to stay longer in, or return to, the workforce, including the 300,000 aged between 50 and 65 who have not returned since Covid. 

These are long-term policies, which governments are not very good at, particularly in the year before a general election. However, their advantage, politically as well as economically, is that they involve positive measures to invest in the talents, skills and enterprise of the British people, so that over time we are not so reliant on recruiting talented people from overseas, often from countries that can ill afford to lose those skills. 

If this better balance in immigration policy could be achieved, we might also be able persuade the public that accepting 20,000 or 30,000 genuine asylum seekers each year—and perhaps letting them work while they wait for their asylum claims to be decided—is the responsible act of a civilised country. This may seem like a pipe dream, but it is surely a better one than the home secretary’s dream of putting refugees on a plane to Rwanda and leaving them there.