Only 0.3% of migrants arrested for crossing Channel under ‘cruel and pointless’ new law

Priti Patel told parliament that making all small boat crossings a crime would deter asylum seekers

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Sunday 30 October 2022 14:39 GMT
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Rishi Sunak vows that Channel crossings will stop if he becomes PM

Only 0.3 per cent of migrants have been arrested for English Channel crossings after the government created a “pointless and cruel” law making them illegal, The Independent can reveal.

Being intercepted at sea while journeying to make an asylum claim was not a crime until June, when it became an offence to arrive in British waters without permission.

While backing the law in parliament, Priti Patel told MPs the measure would “deter illegal entry” but the number of crossings has continued to surge to new records.

Newly reappointed home secretary Suella Braverman has pledged to tackle the issue, while Rishi Sunak vowed during his leadership campaign that: “Boat after boat full of illegal migrants … must stop, and if I become your prime minister it will stop.”

Opponents of the government’s approach argue that no asylum seekers should be criminalised for crossing the Channel and the UK should offer more safe and legal alternatives.

Ministers have repeatedly described asylum seekers on boats as “illegal migrants” or “economic migrants”, but officials questioned by parliament’s Home Affairs Committee this week admitted that 85 per cent of decided applications from 2021 had been granted.

Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesperson, said the government should offer sanctuary “instead of closing down safe routes and introducing pointless cruel laws”.

He told The Independent: “It is clear that the Conservatives’ new laws aren’t just heartless and expensive, they are completely unworkable.

“We need to stop the dangerous Channel crossings and tackle the evil smuggling and trafficking gangs, but everything this government has done has only made the problem worse.

“It’s time the home secretary accepted the evidence that the best way to prevent refugees from attempting these perilous journeys – and keep them out of the hands of criminal gangs – is to provide safe and legal routes to sanctuary.”

Former home secretary Priti Patel said the policy would ‘deter illegal entry’ (PA Wire)

Figures obtained by The Independent show that 90 people were arrested for illegal entry in a period when almost 26,000 migrants arrived on small boats.

The Home Office said that 69 arrests had also been made for facilitating dinghy crossings, which has had a maximum sentence of life imprisonment since the new laws came into force on 28 June.

Ministry of Defence figures show that at least 576 boats have reached England since then, meaning a maximum of 12 per cent of vessels saw an alleged facilitator arrested.

The law has previously been used against asylum seekers who steered the boats they were travelling in towards England, despite them not being part of smuggling gangs and in some cases being threatened or coerced into the role.

Home Office figures show that there have also been 29 arrests for facilitating lorry journeys, 30 for entering Britain in breach of deportation orders, and three for overstaying visas under the Nationality and Borders Act.

The Nationality and Borders Act attracted protests (Getty Images)

Parts of the law were opposed by the House of Lords, which repeatedly tried to remove the widened illegal entry offence and secured a government promise that it would only be used in “egregious” cases.

Home Office minister Baroness Williams said in April that would include “migrants endangering themselves or others” or “causing severe disruption to services such as ferry routes or the Channel Tunnel”.

Last year, Ms Patel told parliament that the package of laws would “deter illegal entry to the UK, and, importantly, will break the business model of the smuggling gangs and protect the lives of those whom they are endangering”.

Channel crossings have continued to surge to new records, with more than 38,000 migrants arriving in small boats so far this year and over nine in 10 claiming asylum.

Numbers show no sign of slowing despite a raft of policies the government claimed would act as deterrents, including the Rwanda deal, Royal Navy patrols, advertising campaigns and the threat of pushbacks at sea.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants accused the government of launching a “wholesale attack” on refugees’ rights and said asylum seekers should not be criminalised for Channel crossings.

Suella Braverman is back as home secretary after Rishi Sunak reappointed her (PA Wire)

Caitlin Boswell, policy and advocacy manager, said: “Their punitive approach is putting refugees through hellish legal turmoil and, as these figures show, is doing nothing to prevent perilous crossings.

“Their broad-brush attempts to criminalise so many for boat-steering are flawed and dangerous – we know most people who’ve steered boats here are victims, not perpetrators of exploitation, and have been coerced into this role by smugglers.”

The charity Detention Action said the government was using criminal offences as “another blunt tool” on complex migration issues.

“Recent statistics show that the majority of people crossing the Channel are seeking asylum and will likely be recognised as refugees,” deputy director James Wilson added.

“Once again, this government has wasted time and resources on a policy it cannot enforce, when it could have been processing asylum claims and creating safer, alternative routes.”

The Home Office defended its approach, saying there was “no single solution” and it was using “every tool at our disposal to deter illegal migration”.

“Our Nationality and Borders Act is beginning to break through this exploitative business model, with more than 200 people already arrested since it became law,” a spokesperson added.

“We are working tirelessly to crack down on these evil people smugglers risking the lives of vulnerable people for profit, while continuing to support those in genuine need.”

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