In some of the least surprising news of last week, The Guardian report that the Home Office have been effectively making up statistics concerning small boat crossings. They report:
The Home Office has admitted it has no evidence to back up one of the key justifications for its crackdown on small boat crossings.
As home secretary, Priti Patel, the Tory architect of attempts to tackle Channel crossings, told parliament in 2021 that “70% of individuals on small boats are single men who are effectively economic migrants”.
With the number of boat arrivals continuing to increase, Suella Braverman backed up her predecessor’s assertion in December last year by telling MPs: “There is considerable evidence that people are coming here as economic migrants, illegally.”
However, when asked to respond to a Freedom of Information request for evidence to support Patel’s claim, the Home Office admitted it had none.
The response by the Home Office, dated 20 March 2023 – a year after the request was sent – states: “We have carried out a thorough search and we have established that the Home Office does not hold the information requested.”
The apparently misleading statement from the former home secretary to parliament appears not to have been corrected.
This is, of course, deeply unsurprising. As the Guardian go on to report, ‘the Home Office’s own data confirms that most of the people who reached the UK by small boat in 2022 – at least six in 10 – would be recognised as refugees.’ This has been continued as both Rishi Sunak and immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, have been rebuked by the Head of the UK Statistics Watchdog for quoting inaccurate figures about asylum seekers. Again, in loose talk concerning the statistics, Suella Braverman insisted that ‘if Labour were in charge they would be allowing all the Albanian criminals to come to this country’. The Guardian note, ‘Of the 45,756 people who arrived by small boats last year, 28% came from Albania.’
It bears remembering these things next time you hear the Home Office quote statistics on migrant crossings and when you hear them make unsubtle remarks about “Albanian men”. The other question to ask yourself is simply, why would they feel the need to inflate the stats? If the issue really is as bad as they claim, if we really are being overrun, why the need to inflate the figures and not quote them as they really are? If all the people arriving really are coming for illegitimate reasons, why not simply quote the stats as they are?
The answer, of course, is that things are really not as bad as they claim. The answer, of course, is that they are using these higher, scarier (made up) figures to justify their stance on the boat crossings themselves. They are using these as a means of suggesting serious and draconian measures – such as offshoring to Rwanda people whose cases we have no intention of hearing – are legitimate responses. Desperate times call for desperate measures and all that.
But there does seem to be a Tory reflex on these sorts of questions. When it comes to those who might misuse the welfare state, their answer seems to be to make these things as hard as possible – effectively penalising those who are legitimately claiming support – in order to stop the chancers, who will almost certainly find ways around the tougher system. The only people hit by such measures are those who legitimately need help. They have taken a similar flex on asylum seekers. In a bid to stop “criminal gangs”, they have effectively made it impossible for people to come and claim asylum. They have also not managed to stop people-smugglers, who continue and those in Calais remain undeterred. Even if they did “stop the boats” (which they haven’t and nothing they have suggested as yet will), the people-smuggling gangs will simply find other means of exploiting the system. All the while, those who need to get here and actually require help suddenly find matters considerably harder and they are unable to access help.
There are solutions to these things. If our concern really is loss of life and people-smuggling gangs, we can stop them overnight with safe chartered crossings. This would kill the market and stop people seeking dangerous means of crossing. We could legitimately deport anyone who arrives by dinghy if we provided an actual means of getting here that was safe and accessible. We would also have grounds to deport people back to France – and the French would be minded to agree to it – if we also provided a chartered means of getting here whereby we promise to hear cases in the UK if people take it. The French would have a vested interest in getting people to access those safe routes. If we really were concerned by false claims, and truly believed claims were false, we would actually deport those whose cases failed here too. But we typically don’t do that, often because – and here’s the perversity of it – to deport such people would be “too dangerous”. But instead of deporting them because it’s safe, or granting them asylum because it’s too dangerous, we determine to do neither and leave people in limbo.
And in all of this, you have to ask yourself why? Because if we are committed to the 1951 Refugee Convention to which we are signatories, if we are concerned about the plight of refugees, if we are against criminal gangs, why would we take these particular approaches that seem to address none of these things? Given what the government are saying, and their willingness to base it on made up statistics, and to enforce thing that seem to fly in the face of these things, what are we to conclude about it all?
Answers on a postcard.