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A new EU returns policy will significantly reduce small boat crossings


5 min read

Today, the ONS has published figures showing net migration has risen to a record high of 606,000 in 2022, a 20 per cent rise on the previous year’s figures.

This will undoubtedly reignite the debate about how migration can be better controlled in our post-Brexit system, especially to reduce small boat crossings.

Small boats have become a big headache for the government. According to Home Office data, there were no recorded small boat arrivals before 2018. Since then the number of individuals arriving has grown from 299 in 2018 to 8,466 in 2020 and all-time record high of 45,766 last year. The Home Office estimates this may grow to over 80,000 by this year’s end, with the vast majority claiming asylum. 

No evidence has been produced to show the Rwanda plan would have a significant deterrent effect

Everyone agrees that the journey across the Channel puts lives at risk while fuelling criminal networks and their growing profits. The disagreement is mostly about the best approach to bring numbers down substantially.  

The government’s plan to stop small boats is based around deterring migrants from making the journey. Key to this strategy is relocating asylum seekers arriving by small boat in the United Kingdom to Rwanda and having any claim decided there instead. Immigration minister Robert Jenrick describes this policy as offering a “significant deterrent” that will bring arrivals to an end. It is claimed that individuals would avoid small boat journeys to the UK if they knew it would mean removal to Rwanda instead. 

This plan has run into problems of both theory and practice. No evidence has been produced to show this plan would have a significant deterrent effect. There has been no impact assessment nor any estimate for what it might, in theory, achieve. For critics, it has been unconvincing to be repeatedly reassured the plan will work by those that did not see the problem coming and have overseen it grow to record highs. 

The main practical problem is no removals to Rwanda have happened as the government awaits a decision from the Court of Appeal about whether it can begin at all. Of course, there can be no deterrent effect of the policy if its use is not credible or possible. 

Nor is the traffic all one way. Under its arrangement, the UK will receive migrants from Rwanda to process their asylum claims here. No figure has been given on how many could arrive. However, it is rarely reported that Rwandans are already claiming asylum in the UK and most succeed – which will raise concerns for some about safety for a country not on the UK’s safe list.

An alternative approach looks to address the main causal factors.  

One view is small boat crossings started because other modes of irregular migration became too difficult. In effect, the small boats problem is a product of unforeseen consequences from otherwise successful enforcement, especially around lorries. 

The problem with this is it does not explain what happened in 2020. Irregular migration by any route was fairly stable and low. When the Calais Jungle camp was cleared of up to 7,300 people in 2016, no small boats would arrive for another two years. What changes is in 2020 where small boats become the main form of irregular migration and overall figures surge threefold. Greater securitization is a factor, but not the main issue given the timing.  

My research found the primary factor is the UK’s lack of an EU returns policy. Britain left this arrangement (called the Dublin III Regulation) under Brexit, although non-EU countries can be members like Norway and Switzerland. 

This policy allowed the UK to return migrants seeking asylum to the first safe EU country they arrived at first. It was far from perfect. Not everyone liable for return were sent back and the UK would receive individuals as well. Overall transfers were relatively low and this has fuelled a belief that leaving this plan did not have a major impact. 

But the effects are increasingly clear. There were no small boats recorded while the UK was a part of the EU returns policy until we transitioned out of it. This makes sense. Anyone caught entering or living in the UK without leave to remain might be returned in a system where many were sent back so numbers remained low. Home Officials refer to these migrants as “clandestine” as they remain hidden to avoid removal. 

When there was no more returns arrangement, it meant that those travelling across the Channel no longer needed to remain hidden because it was far more difficult to remove them. Greater numbers could – and have – travel less clandestinely.  

In 2016, I predicted leaving the returns policy would lead to a big rise in irregular migration and more lives put at risk. It is deeply concerning to see this has come true. Warnings were made repeatedly over the years in Parliament and questions asked if any impact assessment had been made. None had. 

This work points to the deterrent effect of the EU returns policy. Albanians travelling by small boat are another example. Numbers have dropped significantly from over 12,000 last year to under 200 in 12 months. The main causal factor was the UK had launched a new returns agreement with Albania. In only a few months, the impact has been significant. 

My research shows that a primary factor in reducing the number of small boats is renegotiating a returns policy with the EU which will significantly reduce numbers.  


Thom Brooks, professor of law and government at Durham University

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