If the tenor of debate about asylum seekers arriving via small boats is somewhat less fevered than in previous Augusts, that is because it is not the main theme of the Tory leadership race. The severity of the cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine and an alarming drought mean that minds are focused elsewhere. Thankfully, there have not been recent drownings following the tragic sinking in which more than 30 people died in November.
But the politics surrounding this issue remain as dispiriting as ever. The outcry surrounding the government’s deal with Rwanda to send asylum seekers there – a proposal that would have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago – proved insufficient to deter ministers from going ahead. It emerged on Thursday that a new attempt at a deportation flight is under way, after the first was cancelled in June following legal action. In September the government will defend the scheme in a high court challenge brought by charities and the Public and Commercial Services Union. So far, nothing either Tory leadership contender has said suggests that they plan to do anything other than press on with this inhumane and impractical operation. With a huge backlog of asylum claims, which stood at 125,000 in July, the whole system remains in a state of disarray, including its indefensible practice of detaining people in de facto prisons.
Had Priti Patel aimed for Downing Street herself, no doubt her performative toughness on immigration would have formed a central plank of her campaign. But Liz Truss is proving an adept mimic of her colleague’s belligerent tone, giving the deliberately offensive answer “the jury is still out” when asked at a hustings last week whether the French president is the UK’s “friend or foe”.
Leaked military intelligence suggesting that the UK is being targeted by Albanian organised crime groups, which are already thought to have a stranglehold over parts of the English drugs market, ought to be the cue for change. Compared with the 23 Albanians who arrived between January and June last year, the 2,165 who came in the same period this year is a significant shift that merits attention. But a unilateralist approach is doomed to fail. Cooperation with our European neighbours, including the French, is essential and it is irresponsible to pretend otherwise.
The obvious danger is that ministers and their allies, including in the press, will instead use the increase in the number of Albanian arrivals to further muddy the waters between people smugglers – who are paid to transport people over borders – and traffickers working for criminal networks engaged in selling drugs and weapons, or in prostitution. While there are examples of Albanian criminals who have returned after being deported, and increased cooperation with Albanian authorities makes sense in the current context, such cases should not be cited as if they are typical, or be allowed to obscure the wider picture of human need and distress. Similar numbers of Afghans and Iranians arrived in the UK during the first half of this year, and asylum seekers of one nationality should not be used as scapegoats. Each claimant is entitled to have their case heard on its merits.
Given that the proportion granted the right to remain stands at 76%, it should be clear to all that most of those who reach the UK come as refugees. As Labour proposed last month, the National Crime Agency should be better equipped to disrupt trafficking gangs. But the existence of such activity in no way excuses the UK government’s overall approach towards the obligations set out in the UN convention on refugees. Irregular migration is a global challenge. A Little England mindset adopted for narrowly political purposes will always fall short.