Rishi Sunak’s Goldilocks migration strategy: ‘Stop the boats’ and ‘start the legal’ passage
There is a grim logic in Rishi Sunak’s decision to pair his ‘stop the boats’ pledge with a “safe and legal” routes plan. Stop the boats was one of five new year priorities Mr Sunak set for his government. Safe and legal will offer pathways to Britain for up to 20,000 asylum-seekers.
It is an attempt to craft a Goldilocks migration strategy – not too soft, not too hard, but just right – to appeal to voters ahead of the next general election. Will it work?
It will certainly help Mr Sunak navigate the deadly political minefield that is migration, legal and illegal. Opinion polls conducted in late February and early March indicated that “stopping the boats” was the second-biggest concern among voters who plumped for Mr Sunak’s Conservative Party in the 2019 election. They ranked it well above cutting NHS waiting lists and accident and emergency response times.
Accordingly, the government’s Illegal Migration Bill takes a tough tone, uses unyielding language and proposes zero tolerance measures. It is meant to recover political ground lost in the ‘get-Brexit-done’ period. That was when Mr Sunak’s boosterish predecessor Boris Johnson failed to secure a post-Brexit migrant returns arrangement in his deal with the European Union (EU). His failure to do so was one of the main reasons that just under 50,000 arrivals were ferried across the English Channel last year in small boats. (The majority of them claimed asylum on arrival.)
Alas, that problem will remain, new Bill or not. For all that Mr Sunak had a chummy get-together earlier this month with his Gallic alter ego, former banker and technocrat Emmanuel Macron, it’s not likely smugglers will stop sending small boats loaded with uninvited migrants across the Channel. And there is not much prospect of a bilateral returns deal with France. Paris believes, as well it might, that any deal must be negotiated between the UK and the EU as a whole.
Clearly then, Mr Sunak and his government will find it hard to keep their ‘stop the boats’ promise. But to audaciously pretend otherwise may be half the political battle won.
So to Mr Sunak’s attempt to placate two separate groups of rebels within his Conservative Party by simultaneously pushing both soft and hard migration measures.
One rebel group is made up of moderate members. Often called “One Nation” Conservatives, they might be better described as compassionate conservatives (with a small ‘c’), people with a heart just as much as a head. As distinct in their instincts and arguments from the Cruella de Vil group of rebels, the compassionate conservatives have put down amendments to soften the Illegal Migration Bill by barring removal from the UK of children seeking asylum and obliging ministers to expand the number of safe and legal routes for people fleeing danger and persecution to reach the UK.
Meanwhile, the hard-eyed Cruella de Vil brigade is seeking to force Mr Sunak to toughen the Bill so it can withstand any lily-livered interventions by the European Court of Human Rights such as blocking future deportation flights to Rwanda.
But the essential problem with Britain’s migration policy will continue unless the distinction between economic migrants and those fleeing persecution is constantly reinforced and honoured.
It is in the interests of both Britain and economic migrants to allow people such as Albanian builders temporary entrance via ‘safe and legal’ routes. The UK needs builders. The Albanians want to leave their poor country and earn comparatively good money in the UK for a specific period. In the absence of legal routes, they get into boats. The UK government said they “were the top small boat arriving nationality applying for asylum in 2022”.
Persecuted people also deserve ‘safe and legal’ routes, ie the chance to seek asylum in the UK embassy or consulate of the first safe country they can.
That’s how it used to be and it is time to swing back to humane, legal and workable refugee and migrant policies.