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Asylum Seekers: Channel Crossings

Volume 832: debated on Thursday 7 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how many people arrived as asylum seekers in the United Kingdom after crossing the channel by small boat during the year to date and what was the comparable figure for 2022.

My Lords, our published data shows that, so far, a total of 7,349 people made asylum claims in the United Kingdom from 1 January to 30 June 2023, having made a dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossing of the channel by small boat. The figure for the same period in 2022 is 12,374. This represents a decline of 41%.

I think the Minister would concede that the weather has played a large part in the movement of numbers, and in most recent days the numbers have been pretty high. Is it not the case that, of those arriving in small boats in the last year, only 1% have had their asylum claim actually decided, and that the number of people forcibly returned who failed the asylum test has gone down very much compared to recent years? What do a Government do when their policies manifestly fail? They blame the lawyers, as the Immigration Minister did a couple of days ago when he threatened lawyers with life imprisonment if they gave advice to asylum seekers. We have surely sunk to a low level when it has come to that.

On the three points the noble Lord raises, first, I do not accept that the decline is entirely down to the weather. One will have seen that, even in the comparator week of 2022 to this week of September, small boat arrivals are very significantly down, by a sum in the region of 20%. As to his second point, on returns, there is very good news to tell. So efficient now are our returns of Albanians that the number of Albanians crossing the channel has reduced in excess of 90%. As to his final point, on lawyers, abusing our asylum process by providing accounts to individuals to falsely claim asylum is a problem. Noble Lords will have seen the reporting in relation to that. Any responsible Government would agree that this is a dreadful crime which prioritises those who have no claim over those who would have a good claim. This Government take very seriously their obligations towards stopping that kind of abuse by those few practitioners who behave in this fashion. That is why we have set up the enablers task force, which will bring together all the information, allowing for the prosecutions of these people.

My Lords, we are told by the Government that 46% of asylum seekers reach here by small boat. Can the Minister tell us how the other 54% arrive?

The Minister used the phrase that their journey was “dangerous, illegal and unnecessary”. I wonder if he would be kind enough to consider retracting the word “unnecessary”, because it suggests some prejudice as to what we do not know about why people are coming in these waters under such danger, and under great hardship.

The journeys are unnecessary, and I stand by that. If they are leaving from France or Belgium, they are in a safe country—a signatory of the refugee convention. They can make their refugee asylum claims in those countries. The journey across the channel is dangerous and illegal and they should not do it; it is unnecessary.

My Lords, last month’s High Court judgment said that the Home Office’s national transfer scheme for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children was failing. The judge said that neither the Home Office, nor Kent County Council, knew where many—possibly hundreds—of the children were, let alone if they were safe, as required under the Children Act 1989. Will the Minister agree to return to the House to explain what it is now doing in the light of that judgment?

The House will recall that yesterday evening and yesterday morning we canvassed these topics previously. I can reassure the noble Baroness that the House is considering the judgment of Mr Justice Chamberlain in that case, and steps are being taken to ensure that the national transfer scheme operates efficiently. As the noble Baroness will appreciate, once the Illegal Migration Act 2023 is in force, the numbers crossing the channel will be lower and the numbers of UASC entering through the channel route will be reduced. Therefore, the problem should ameliorate.

My Lords, the Minister rightly drew attention to the agreement to return Albanians to their home country. The Government themselves claim that 30% of previous arrivals were from Albania. If we take those Albanian returns out, the statistics that have been enunciated this morning are very different from the ones that the Minister was seeking to present, given that the latest stats I have are that, last year, only 10% of those arriving were processed but of those some 86% were granted asylum. That puts a very different picture on the rhetoric that is coming from the Government at the moment.

As I say, the history of effecting returns has been difficult hitherto, as it was under the previous Labour Administration. However, I am glad to say that returns are now being effected very successfully to those countries with which we have an agreement, such as Albania, as identified by the noble Lord. Further work will be done in relation to that. Of course, once we have the outcome of the Supreme Court litigation, and the avenue of removal to a safe third country is available, one would anticipate that the number of removals will increase.

My Lords, could my noble friend the Minister please elaborate on when he expects the Illegal Migration Act to be in force, because it makes lawful the Home Office accommodation of children who obviously are not going be returned under that Act? Could he outline to noble Lords whether there will be statistics about where children actually end up once the Act is in force? Will we know whether they are in hotels, or whether they are under the care of the local authority?

I have no doubt that the Home Office will provide statistics, as it does at the moment, on a regular basis. As to the indication of when the provisions of the Illegal Migration Act in relation to transfer come into force, that depends on a number of variables, not least the position in relation to the litigation. However, I am sure that I will be able to revert to the House in due course with news on that.

Could my noble friend expand on the answer that he gave the noble Lord, Lord German, about the 54%? A number of us were slightly baffled by what he said—could he expand on that?

Of asylum claims made in the 12-month period ending June 2023, 46% were made by those who were entering illegally via a small boat. The remainder were made up of other types of illegal entry—for example, in a lorry, or those who have come to Britain by a lawful route with their tourist, work or study visa and then claimed asylum when they were here, or overstayed a visa when they were here legally. I hope that explains to my noble friend how that figure was arrived at.

My Lords, further to previous questions from my noble friend Lord Blunkett and the noble Lord, Lord Howard, the Minister has spoken of doing more to disrupt the actual supply of small boats, which are often flimsy and extremely dangerous. The Minister facilitated a visit for me to see this first hand, which I was very grateful for. Last night, he said that the Home Office is speaking with the French about what to do about this, because it is a real problem. On a practical level, why is it that we cannot do more to disrupt the supply of these small boats, which are not manufactured in France? Can the Minister update the House on what is happening with that?

I agree with much of what the noble Lord says. Clearly, disruption upstream of the criminal gangs is really important. Minister Jenrick visited Turkey in the last few weeks and the Turks have agreed, with the UK Government, to facilitate work to disrupt the criminal gangs. I understand that a lot of the boats are made in Turkey and a lot of the parts come through there, so that will be a vital part of the battle against the gangs. My right honourable friend the Minister for Security visited Iraq with the same objective. This is an important part of the strategy in fighting the upstream element of the gangs. Working with the French is something that is ongoing, and is one of the benefits of the agreement that the Prime Minister made earlier in the year. I am very grateful for the question.