When Vote Leave promised to ‘take back control’, one of the issues at the top of the list was immigration. Leaving the EU meant ending freedom of movement and gaining the freedom to implement a points-based system which better reflected Britain’s national priorities.
This did not necessarily mean a draconian system – evidence suggested voters’ attitudes towards immigration actually got more liberal after the referendum – but that would be up to Parliament.
Yet only months after the electoral triumph of what has been called a ‘Vote Leave’ government, this narrative of control is being undermined by the toxic drip-feed of stories about migrant boats crossing the Channel.
Priti Patel clearly grasps that this is a problem, which is why we’re getting tough-sounding stories about calls to institute Royal Navy patrols and thwarting bids by ‘activist lawyers’ to prevent deportations. This morning she hit out at social media companies for allegedly failing to take action against people smugglers publicising their businesses online.
But it is less obvious what can actually be done. Patrolling the Channel invites the same problem as we see in the Mediterranean, wherein refugees located by the Italian Navy often put themselves into the water knowing the Italians won’t leave them there. Likewise footage of dingies arriving on the beach and their occupants disappearing inland may spark outrage, but the Home Office can’t really prevent that without erecting some sort of Atlantic Wall on the Kent coast.
Theresa May’s strategy was a more ‘defence in depth’ approach, with the Home Office drafting landlords and employers to help locate illegal entrants once they were in the UK – the ‘hostile environment’. The problem with this, setting aside the political challenges posed by the fallout from Windrush, is that without an effective detention and deportation system it risks just forcing people into the black economy.
This is all without getting into the possible difficulties posed by the above-mentioned ‘activist lawyers’, the courts, our membership of the ECHR, and so on, which Natalie Elphicke MP touched on in her article on the subject.
Usually Australia, which has been running ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ since 2013, is held up as the example to follow. But it enjoys some advantages Britain does not: it is outside some of the aforementioned legal structures; would-be ‘boat people’ face a much longer journey; and it has in Nauru a very handy offshore detention option unavailable to the Home Office (unless Sealand were interested).
Some of these problems are soluble. It should be fairly straightforward to legislate on the issue of traffickers exploiting social media, and Tim Loughton’s suggestion of using cruise ships as offshore detention facilities could be very timely given that the industry is facing a billion-dollar question about what to do with its mothballed vessels. Smoothing the legal pathway to deportation could also be including in whatever replaces the Government’s now-abandoned Constitution, Democracy, and Human Rights Commission.
But ultimately the Home Secretary is in a difficult position because the real keys to a lasting solution – new agreements with France and the other countries to which illegal entrants ultimately need to be deported – are not her department. But managing the day-to-day fallout is.