One of Rishi Sunak’s five priorities for 2023 is to “stop the boats”—the “surge” of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Eastern Europe arriving in the UK by illegally crossing the British Channel from France. If Sunak wants to solve this crisis, he should take a lesson from the Greeks.
At the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis, over 1 million refugees entered Greece by sea in just one year. In 2022, the UK’s “crisis-causing influx” was 40,000. How did a country of 10 million, still recovering from a sovereign debt crisis, dealing with problems orders of magnitude larger than the UK’s, achieve what a population of 67 million and the sixth-largest economy in the world has failed to do so far?
The answer is simple. Greece (and the EU) struck a deal. They negotiated with their neighbour, Türkiye (Turkey), to work together to stop the flow of refugees by sea. And it worked. If Sunak is serious about stopping the boats, he needs to do the same with France.
In-the-know readers may be quick to point out that the UK already brokered a deal with France, in November 2022. Whilst a step in the right direction, that deal falls short of actually solving the problem. The key to the success of the Greece-Türkiye deal was that it created a mechanism that allowed Greece to return asylum seekers arriving by sea to Türkiye. In tandem with this mechanism, the deal also allowed Türkiye to send one Syrian refugee to Greece, through safe and legal routes, for every refugee that Greece returned. Through these two provisions, asylum seekers were incentivised to stay in Türkiye with the hope of entering the EU through legal means. After the deal was signed in March 2016, arrivals in Greece by sea plummeted from tens and hundreds of thousands a month to a few thousand, and then just hundreds.
The UK-France deal failed to learn from Greece’s example on multiple fronts. Although the additional funding provided by the UK to help France patrol its shores will help stop asylum seekers crossing the channel, there is no mechanism by which the UK can return people who have already arrived back to France.
The costs of the current Rwanda program are shocking. Expensive chartered flights set the cost of relocating each asylum seeker at £13000. A quick search on Bing shows that ferries to France can be found for as little as £30. Furthermore, this £13000 per refugee is in addition to the £140 million we’ve already paid Rwanda to accept a mere 1000 asylum seekers over the next 5 years. And 1000 is an upper bound, the actual number could be as low as 200. On the low end, that brings the cost of the current program up to £140,000 per person. On the high end, it’s £700,000. Not only would the price to transport the asylum seekers to France be far lower, we also wouldn’t have to invest in building migrant centres, providing accommodations and improving foreign facilities to meet Western standards like we are with the Rwandan program. Therefore, a new deal with France, based on the Greek model, would provide a much more cost-efficient way of removing illegal arrivals from the UK.
Any prospective new deal with France has to provide the UK with a more actionable threat and provide asylum seekers with a reasonable alternative choice. Currently, the threat of deportation to Rwanda is not actionable. Such deportations are mired in legal challenges and delays because frankly, Rwanda is not considered a safe third country for asylum seekers. Furthermore, asylum seekers also lack a reasonable alternative to illegally arriving in the UK by sea, further undermining the current deterrent. Unless arriving from Hong Kong or Ukraine, there exist close to no legal passageways for someone to claim asylum in the UK. This means a fresh deal with France must also be paired with the opening of more legal ways of entry. This could include allowing asylum seekers to be processed in France, thereby streamlining their entry into the UK.
At the end of the day, the solutions to this “crisis” are actually quite simple. Send asylum seekers back to France, whilst opening up new legal ports of entry. Of Sunak’s five priorities for 2023, the British public believes that “stopping the boats” is the least important. Yet the Government is insistent on pursuing it, and some in power even deem it their biggest priority. In doing so, they are getting in the way of actually reinvigorating the country and changing its trajectory. Therefore, we should do whatever it takes to strike a new deal with France.
Let’s stop the boats, so that we can stop talking about the boats and move on to issues that actually matter, like planning reform and fixing the NHS.