When Rishi Sunak outlined his five priorities for the country in 2023 following a tumultuous period for the Conservatives, he made it clear that tackling the surge in small boat crossings featured at the top of the list.
Immigration will always be a core issue for the party – not least since many MPs identified it as one of the defining reasons why the UK voted to leave the European Union.
The problem for Mr Sunak is that since that decisive vote in 2016, there has been a huge rise in those seeking to enter the UK by “irregular” means – primarily through small boat crossings in the Channel.
Analysis by Sky News shows a record 45,728 people crossed the English Channel to the UK on small boats in 2022 – up more than 60% on the previous year.
As the numbers grow, so does the pressure on the government to come up with solutions to the problem.
What has the government done so far to tackle the crisis?
The government has sought to deal with the surge in the arrivals by temporarily housing asylum seekers in hotels.
But there have been calls to end the arrangement due to eye-watering costs, with the cost of housing asylum seekers coming in at about £6million a day.
As well as concerns about the financial outlay, there have also been disturbances, most recently in Knowsley in Merseyside where refugees were subjected to attacks and abuse outside the Suites Hotel.
Tory councils threaten legal action over government plans to house asylum seekers at military bases
Rishi Sunak defends detention of children in new Illegal Migration Bill
On Wednesday, immigration minister Robert Jenrick confirmed reports that “thousands” of asylum seekers will now be housed in disused military bases to accommodate their “essential living needs and nothing more”.
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People have been arrested on suspicion of violent disorder following a protest in Merseyside. Four sites have been chosen: RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire; RAF Wethersfield in Essex and Northeye in East Sussex, which was formerly the site of a Royal Air Force Mobile Radio Unit before operating as a Category C training prison from 1969 to 1992.
In addition, barracks in Catterick Garrison, which lie in the prime minister’s own constituency of Richmond, North Yorkshire, will also be used.
While some MPs will welcome the alternative to hotels, there is already signs of strong resistance in some quarters.
Anticipating Mr Jenrick’s announcement, Braintree District Council said it was planning to apply for a High Court junction against the proposed use of the Wethersfield airbase in Essex “imminently”.
Uncomfortably for the government, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly previously raised concerns about the policy in his role as the area’s local MP – although Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told Sky News his Cabinet colleague now “fully supports” it.
Sir Edward Leigh, the Conservative MP for Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, has also said his local council would start legal proceedings to fight the plan for RAF Scampton, which was previously home to The Red Arrows aerobatics display team and the Dambusters.
Image: A view of RAF Scampton, one of the proposed sites to house migrants. He asked Mr Jenrick: “How will he protect the safety of 1,000 people living right next door to 1,500 migrants, and a primary school? He can’t guarantee anything.”
Elsewhere, Mr Jenrick said the Home Office was “continuing to explore” using vessels to house migrants while their claims are being processed.
Deal with Rwanda
At last year’s Tory conference, Home Secretary Suella Braverman famously remarked that it was her “dream” and “obsession” to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.
It is a dream that has yet to materialise.
Despite announcing the policy last year, no flights to Rwanda have taken off due to legal challenges from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
However, Ms Braverman recently said she had been “encouraged” by “constructive” discussions with the ECHR about securing a higher legal threshold for any injunction that could be used to stop future deportation flights.
The government also wants the ECHR to take into account a recent ruling from the UK High Court that ruled the Rwanda scheme was lawful.
Ministers have also sought to clamp down on illegal migration through a parliamentary bill.
The government’s Illegal Migration Bill, which is currently making its way through the Commons, includes measures to “detain and swiftly remove” migrants and asylum seekers who enter the country illegally via the dangerous Channel crossings, while cutting their options to challenge or appeal deportation.
A key concern is that the measures apply to families with children. Those under 18 will be able to lodge an appeal but they risk being deported once they reach adulthood.
Mr Sunak defended the measures at a session of the privileges committee on Tuesday, saying that while the intention of the policy was “not to detain children….we don’t want to create a pull factor to make it more likely that children are making this very perilous journey”.
What plans to deter migrants have been floated in the past?
Responding to Mr Jenrick’s statement in the Commons, Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper reminded the government that many of the ideas expressed today were not new.
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Labour’s Yvette Cooper said that housing migrants in military sites will not stop hotel spending. In the past, the government has toyed with the idea of housing migrants on disused ferries, cruise ships, oil rigs and Ascension Island and St Helena in the South Atlantic.
Wave machines, nets to trap boat propellers and powerful sonic weapons with the ability to induce vomiting were also explored as possible deterrents.
What are other countries doing?
Australia, Denmark and Israel have all enacted policies designed to deter migrants.
Australia announced in 2001 that it would send refugees to centres in Papua New Guinea and the Republic of Nauru.
Nauru still houses refugees, but centres on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea were closed after its supreme court ruled the centres were “illegal”.
In Israel, the government introduced a “voluntary” policy in 2015 that saw an unnamed country – thought to be Uganda and Rwanda – take refugees.
Migrants were given a choice to return to their country, accept payment of £2,700 to go to east Africa or be put in jail if they stayed in Israel.
And in Denmark, the government that was elected in 2019 vowed to push through a “zero” refugees policy that aimed to process asylum applications outside the EU.
In 2021, it started revoking residence permits from Syrian refugees – the same year that Denmark signed a three-year memorandum of understanding with Rwanda, fuelling speculation that a processing facility would be opened in east Africa.