My Lords, never has a debate on migrants coming to our shores been more timely. What happened last night in French waters—the terrible, tragic loss of at least 27 people—should shock us all. I am sure that, in today’s debate, we will be able to discuss this hugely important issue in a meaningful and calm way—no politician should be trying to make political gains out of such a tragedy.
What is surprising to me is that, since November 2018, according to the House of Lords Library, there has been no debate on migrants coming to the UK in this House. There have been some Questions, eight in all, and two repeated Statements—one very recently. But the fact that we in your Lordships’ House have not discussed what is a very serious problem with our border control is somewhat surprising. Out there, beyond the Westminster bubble, in the last few months, this is what more and more people have been discussing.
All of us in your Lordships’ House, and the vast majority of people in the UK, are welcoming of genuine asylum seekers; that is why we gave a welcome to the Ugandan Asians fleeing Idi Amin, some of whose offspring have attained positions of responsibility throughout the United Kingdom. We are currently welcoming those who have had to leave Hong Kong for safety, and of course we will be taking in many from Afghanistan who are directly at risk because of their support for British forces there. We have resettled up to 25,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and some 3,000 of the most vulnerable children from the Middle East and Africa. So I reject utterly the idea that the United Kingdom is a racist country and that we do not welcome those who are fleeing their war-torn countries. But I realise that there are some who think that even debating the issue makes us somehow complicit in intolerance. Indeed, one Member of your Lordships’ House said to me rather sadly, the other day, “Oh, I do wish you weren’t having this debate; it will lead to even more prejudice”. I do not think that that noble Lord would be saying that today, after yesterday’s tragedy.
It is important to lay down some facts at the beginning. More than 23,000 people have crossed the channel and come into the UK in small boats, either at Dover or along the nearby beaches, since the beginning of 2021, and more than 33,000 have done so since 2018. There is no doubt that this is a very dangerous journey, and clearly those who come this way are determined to get to the United Kingdom. Despite most of them having come through safe EU countries to France, they still want to come to the United Kingdom, and the people smugglers are very sophisticated operators, knowing exactly how the system works here. It is a fact that 98% of those arriving will claim they are asylum seekers, and most have no papers to show where they have come from, or are told by the smugglers to destroy their documents. That in itself is, I believe, dangerous to our security.
I am sure some noble Lords will have seen that Lithuania, which took in 4,000 people via Belarus, discovered that 24 of them had direct links with ISIS. It does not take much to work out that, with our much larger numbers, the chances of there being no sleeping terrorists coming here is nil. A Government’s first duty is of course to protect the safety and security of their citizens. Can the Minister say what is being done to check, as far as possible, the backgrounds of some of these people?
Many will want to come here because they have a relative here or feel that English is a language they can more easily learn, or because there is already a diaspora here from whatever country they have come from. But we cannot ignore the pull factor, which I found a lot more out about when I visited the Dover operation of our Border Force, three weeks ago.
It was a beautiful, sunny, windless day; Border Force was kept busy all day, going out to meet the small boats and transfer the migrants to safer boats. I have to say that the Border Force officers are exhausted. They are working extremely hard under terrible conditions, all hours of the night—this does not just go on during the day. They very much need support. We saw the migrants arriving, coming up the long walkway from the boat and going into the large tent. Incidentally, we were also taken to see the brand-new £3 million reception centre, just completed, which has modern facilities for the Border Force staff—which are greatly needed—and the migrants. On arrival, all their wet clothes are put into a plastic bag with their own personal number on it, which goes with them when they are moved on. They are given trainers, tracksuits, blankets, socks and other items, including basic toiletries. Then they all have a Covid test and any immediate medical issues are dealt with.
Each boat usually has one family or child on it. Border Force told us that this is a deliberate policy by the smugglers. But 99% of the 800 or so who arrived the day we visited were young, single men. They have a very short interview and are asked why they have come—nearly everyone says, “Claiming asylum”. They are then checked to see whether their fingerprints match anyone who has already been in the country and has been deported. Then they go off in coaches to nearby hotels, where they are not locked in and could leave if they wished to disappear. It is quite worrying that there seems to be no public record of how many over the past months have just disappeared; many will end up in what we still have in this country—modern-day slavery, on low wages.
It is important that we all understand how we treat these new arrivals, because it is very different from how other countries, such as France, do. I find the pictures of tents being broken up by French police pretty horrifying; we would not do that. Everything I saw happening in Dover showed our humanity and our determination to treat these people fairly. But let us not think that that does not play a part in the determination of many migrants to come here. Migrants who claim asylum can ask for somewhere to live, a cash allowance or both; all utility bills are paid if they can successfully claim to be destitute. Some 60,000 are housed in asylum accommodation, at a cost of around £4 million a year.
The migrants we saw arriving a couple of weeks ago are now likely to be in hotels all over the country and could be there indefinitely before going to what is called dispersal accommodation. We are now seeing places in the Midlands and the north of England taking hundreds in the dispersal policy. Once they claim asylum, these migrants are entitled to just under £40 per week on a card that allows them to get cash. In France, the card cannot access cash; it can be used only in shops.
I think we all accept that asylum is meant to be for people fleeing persecution to safety and sanctuary. But we need to ask what those people on little boats are fleeing from in the many EU countries they have come through to get to Dover or Dunkirk. As the Member of Parliament for 30 years for a constituency just over the river with a huge caseload of constituents having problems with immigration and the Home Office, I am only too aware of the shortcomings of that department. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, when he first went in as Home Secretary, saying right away that the Home Office was not fit for purpose. I am afraid that not an awful lot has changed, certainly in the immigration section.
The system takes far too long and means that, by the time someone has been interviewed and their case finally concluded, they may well have had a family here, with children at school, and deportation becomes almost impossible. I am afraid that some of the new people coming in are clogging up the system, so that those who have been waiting are now having to wait even longer. We must get a system where someone coming here illegally and refused asylum can be deported immediately. We must send a signal that we are not an open door and that we will not continue to allow the industry of lawyers to make millions from the whole asylum and immigration system, mostly from legal aid, paid for by the public.
I am looking forward—although I am sure that many in your Lordships’ House are not—to the Nationality and Borders Bill coming here, which has elements in it designed to stop the abuse of, for example, convicted violent criminals not being able to be deported because someone interprets the Human Rights Act in a way that allows them to stay. We need that Bill here as soon as possible, particularly after what happened last night.
But immediately—now, this minute—we need to see France and the United Kingdom genuinely co-operating. We need France to allow British police and security to work with the French police on their beaches. Clearly, French police are sometimes standing back and allowing boats to be launched in front of their patrols, and yet we have paid millions to the French—I really do not know what it is being spent on, but I am sure the Minister does. We should know, by the way, what that money is actually being spent on and whether it is value for money. It is very interesting that the European Union is defending the Polish border from those trying to come in from Belarus. I believe that the EU has a responsibility to do more in the rest of its member states.
I am conscious that many noble Lords want to speak, and I am genuinely looking forward to listening to what more they think could be done. For too long, the mainstream media, with a few exceptions, have tried to ignore the issue. When Nigel Farage first took this up, about 18 months ago, and filmed what was happening at Dover, he was roundly condemned, but he pointed out then that a disaster was waiting to happen. If more had been done then, and allegations of racism were not made against anyone who dared to speak out, we might not have seen this loss of life. It might not have happened, and we might have already moved to do some of the things that we will now try to catch up and do.
The warning is still there. All our words today will not make the slightest bit of difference unless rigorous and determined action is taken to stop these boats coming. Most of all, we need the Government to be open and transparent with statistics and to tell the public the truth about what can be done and what cannot, and why not. The pandering to those who do not believe in borders must stop.
Yesterday’s tragedy was a wake-up call: much too late, but at least it has happened. What we need now is no more warm words but full co-operation between this Government—our country—and the rest of those European countries to make something change. We cannot go on like this or we will see other disasters, even bigger, in future.
My Lords, the timing of the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, was appropriate in getting the date for this debate, but apart from her wish to have better co-operation between Britain and France, I am afraid that I part company with pretty well all of her arguments. I do not see refugees coming here, fleeing for safety, as a terrorist threat to this country; nor do I see the evidence that she has put forward for all the other awful things that will befall, or have befallen, us.
We are a country that has traditionally had humanitarian principles. We are a country that has had a sense of decency. We are a country that has believed that the vulnerable of this world—those suffering from persecution—are entitled to safety. They cannot all come here. Only a small proportion come here, but those who do we should welcome and give them a chance to resume their lives. I am disappointed at the negative thrust of what we heard.
I will say briefly that what happened was a tragedy, and of course many people have said that it was only a matter of time before there was an awful accident in the channel—but perhaps it is a wake-up call. I argue that three things point the way forward. Yes, we have to improve our relations with France; not in some of the words that have been used but with a proper, warm, genuine and sincere relationship with the French, such that we can co-operate with them. Yes, they have committed faults, but we have committed faults, and we cannot get an agreement with them if we start blaming them, as if everything is their fault. Let us remember that the French take three or four times as many refugees as we do, so, for all the argument, they are playing a better part than we are. Let us also remember that the majority of the people who arrive by boat, or their predecessors who came in the back of lorries, are given refugee status by the Home Office, so someone must believe that they have a proper fear of persecution and are entitled to safety.
Secondly, we need safe and legal routes for people to come here. When the Government closed their borders on child refugees in northern France, they did an enormous service to the traffickers, because the one way in which they get business is if there are no safe and legal routes for people to come here. I am talking about people who want family reunion and who have a connection with this country, through language or education and, above all, family ties. What could be more important than a child or teenager—yes, perhaps a young man—wanting to be with a brother, an uncle or their parents? Surely that is the basis for a decent society. The Government closed that door and, in the Nationality and Borders Bill, seem to be even more intent on closing it in the future. That will not help at all.
Thirdly, we surely need to move towards a Europe-wide policy. We cannot do all of this as one country without agreement with others. People fleeing for safety is an international issue—and there will be more of them, because of climate change. We can deal with that only through proper co-operation, not just with France but with all the other countries that are affected. If we had a Europe-wide approach, there would not be this pressure to move from one country to another; there would be decent common standards, and we could move forward sensibly.
The comment in the noble Baroness’s speech that I particularly take exception to is that these people represent a terrorist threat to this country. Nothing could be more damaging than to say to local communities of somebody who has fled the war in Syria or fled from Iran, Iraq or wherever, “Watch that person because they are liable to kill you”. That is surely the most awful accusation to make against our fellow human beings who are fleeing for safety and who want nothing more than to resume their education and their lives, which have been so messed up. Please let us look at the humanitarian traditions of this country and apply them to the difficult situation that we now face.
My Lords, the tragedy was predictable and predicted. I really hope that nothing is off the table, but at the centre of it should be a commitment to and delivery of safe routes, including resettlements, with a good big target for that; expansion of the family reunion rules; humanitarian visas to enable people needing protection to travel safely; recognising, as does the refugee convention, that many asylum seekers have no option other than an irregular journey; and efficient decision-making, not blaming the asylum seekers for clogging up the system.
It distresses me how easily language is adopted. People are not “illegal” and neither is seeking asylum. The narrative is that the channel is full of people who should have known better, should have produced documents—leaving aside whether they are likely to have them—and should have booked a ticket on a regular flight. Are there flights from Iran, Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan? The narrative is also that they should have gone through one of the UNHCR or IOM schemes, which are good but inevitably too small.
We are told by the Home Secretary that 70% of those in the boats are young men who are economic migrants. My understanding is that these young men are often at particular risk or seeking to join family members, or they have travelled because they are more able than others in their family to cope with the appalling conditions in the miles and months on the way. They are not hulking young men. By the time they reach France they are often very skinny—or so I gather from the charities who want donations of small- size jeans.
I also understand that the number crossing the channel by all means in aggregate is broadly as it was. It is not a good number, but there we are. To quote directly from Home Office figures published today:
“In the year ending June 2021, Germany received the highest number of asylum applicants (113,625) in the EU+”— which is the EU plus the EEA and Switzerland—
“followed by France … When compared with the EU+”— as the Home Office calls it—
“for the year ending June 2021, the UK received the 4th largest number of applicants … This equates to 8% of the total asylum applicants across the EU+ and UK combined over that period, or the 17th largest intake when measured per head of population.”
We are 17th because so many stay in the countries they travel through or reach on the way, which are closer to their country of origin. Of course, this is not a matter only for the Home Office. There are also issues of climate change and unresolved conflicts, and upstream investment is essential.
I am not sure what the legal basis is for turning back small boats. We are told there is one, and my big question today is to ask the Minister to explain—if I say this is not an exam question, she will understand the reference to yesterday’s debate—the legal basis for turning back small boats.
Those who are so desperate as to pay smugglers are not accessories to the crime, although by being called criminals that is what they are badged as. How about advocating at home the benefits that refugees bring? They bring skills and diversity to our gene pool, which is good, like diversity in most things. Internationally, with France and globally—because we are global Britain, after all—we should be seeking co-operative, constructive partnerships in responding to refugees. I acknowledge that the EU was not notably successful at this when we were a member, but let us look to the future.
What are we doing with policy? The new plan for immigration has drawn such criticism from the UNHCR, to which the Government look to identify the refugees we will take.
I hope that the table will hold everything—everything according to the Prime Minister—and that it will turn into a new drawing board.
My Lords, this debate takes place under the sombre cloud of the tragic death of 27 migrants off the French coast yesterday. I join noble Lords in offering my sympathy, prayers and condolences to them and all their friends and relatives.
But, if our sorrow is sincere, we must redouble our determination to find ways to stop and discourage people attempting these dangerous crossings. The approach of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is to provide a safe and legal way to apply for asylum from abroad—for example, by applying to an embassy or some specific tribunal abroad.
But this simply would not work. Anyone who was refused or knew they would be refused asylum if they made such a claim would still have exactly the same incentive as now to enter the UK illegally by boat or on the back of a lorry, so it will not stop the boats attempting this perilous journey. If anything, it will add to the problem, since many more people will apply for asylum if such a simple route is established, with plausible claims that cannot be disproved, especially if we accord such claimants the same rights to legal aid, appeal and judicial review, and in the refugee convention, immigration Acts, human rights Acts, modern slavery Acts and so on. If we can dispense with these for claims made abroad, it is not clear to me why we need to retain such rights for claims made within the UK, and vice versa.
Those rights for claimants and the concomitant responsibilities that fall upon British taxpayers have grown up as the courts have explicated the 1951 Geneva convention and the 1969 protocol using subsequent human rights legislation. But those conventions were negotiated before cheap mass transit, mass communications and rising living standards in developing countries. Remember, it is the better off who migrate from developing countries; the very poor cannot afford to and cannot pay the smugglers. My first career was working in developing countries on development projects, and it was always the middle classes who were able to escape, not the poorest. All those things have made mass migration possible in a way that was not envisaged when those conventions were negotiated.
If anyone doubts the potential scale of those who would seek asylum if they could, without running any risk to themselves, look at the response to the United States diversity visa lottery. Every year, the US offers 50,000 visas to a different selection of countries that have no tradition of migration to the United States. In the last year for which I have the figures, 13% of the Albanian population, 7% of the Uzbek population, 8% of the population of Ghana, 14% of the population of Sierra Leone and 15% of the population of Liberia applied for those visas—in all, 20 million people from this small selection of countries to which they were made available. Similar numbers would undoubtedly want to live in Europe and the United Kingdom, if we gave people the chance to enter, at no costs to themselves, the lottery of our asylum seekers—and it is essentially a lottery.
I sincerely hope that the Nationality and Borders Bill will provide a way of removing the chief magnet that draws migrants across the channel at great risk, which is the virtual certainty that, once here, they will never be deported. But I fear it will not. This will be possible only if we, together with other like-minded countries, insist on renegotiating and, if need be, resiling from the Geneva convention and replacing it with something relevant to an age of mass movement. If we are not prepared to take this or whatever action is necessary to remove the magnet of certainty once you get here, yesterday’s tragedy will be just the first of a never-ending series of disasters, and we will be to blame.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, for securing this debate, especially at this time. I was helped this morning by the “Thought for the Day” from my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, in which he said that this is a time to dig deeper into our emotions and face the grief we feel at the loss of humanity. It is that sense of grief, our common commitment to the preservation and dignity of life, as well as to a passion for justice for those suffering the ills and evils of the world, which unites us. The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, demonstrated that.
Our shared grief is the proof we do not really need of the humanity and vulnerability that unites us. These common concerns, which underpin both our aim to stop migrants making dangerous journeys and our grief today, are the same concerns and moral instincts that require us to sit back and face the reality that a policy that does not go beyond deterrence is not sufficient.
I confess, notwithstanding everything that we have just heard, that I am not persuaded that deterring people from making dangerous crossings in the interests of protecting lives—as forthcoming legislation, among other things, proposes to do—without at the same time providing adequate and safe alternatives for migrants will work. I fear that in seeking to preserve life, it may not only fail to do so but also harm our underlying commitments to the dignity of life and the promotion of justice.
Many of those migrants, as we have heard, have so little to lose, will have suffered so much in their homeland and are so close to the finishing line that Britain will always be worth aiming for, no matter how difficult we make it for them. They will not be deterred by yesterday’s events—in fact, we know from today’s crossings that they are not—nor by our efforts to make things even more difficult for them. As we know, family connections, linguistic considerations and their trust in the deep traditions of British tolerance, sanctuary and human rights will always make Britain a worthy prospect for them. They are right to be hopeful that their applications for asylum will be successful; of the 400 people in Coventry hotels awaiting the result of their applications, we expect at least 60% to be successful. We would therefore need to stoop very low and become very hostile to make a journey to Britain truly unappealing to them.
We want to see an end to these crossings and the smugglers thwarted and, where possible, brought to justice, but we need solutions that tackle the problem in a more holistic way. We know that displacement is a global problem that will only become more severe as climate change does its damage. Therefore, I ask the Minister to use her good offices to call on the Home Office to be ambitious with the new UK resettlement programme and to bring the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme into operation as soon as possible, ironing out the difficulties with the scheme that I know from conversations some local officials are experiencing.
Secondly, we need at least to explore a regulated model, such as a humanitarian visa system, to allow people to enter directly from France. Thirdly, as we have heard, all this is too complicated a matter to deal with through the lens of domestic policy, too complicated for Britain to deal with alone. What role is the FCDO playing in re-engaging with the EU on this issue?
Yesterday’s events, to borrow a phrase used in 2015, are the result of a crisis of politics rather than numbers. They stem from a failure to acknowledge that we cannot deal with this issue in isolation through the mere securitisation of our borders. Doing justly by those suffering the world’s ills means working collaboratively to tackle the underlying causes of migration, all of which are staring us in the face.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, on securing this debate on a very important matter. I agree very much with what she had to say, and I agree very strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, had to say. They have both introduced an element of realism that has to be set against other considerations.
The facts are that people smugglers are making fools of us and millionaires of themselves. The numbers arriving in small boats have trebled this year, compared with last year, and are now 25,000—with five weeks to go until the end of the year. On present form, the numbers could treble again next year. Meanwhile, accommodation for them is overwhelmed and the court system is underpowered. The contrast between the slogan “Take back control” and the present situation could hardly be starker.
I am sure that we all agree that those who are genuinely fleeing persecution and reach our shores by legal means should be granted protection. However, those now arriving in Kent have often passed through several safe countries and clearly believe that their chances are better in the UK, either because the whole system is perceived as looser or because of the advantages of language, family and opportunities for illegal work. We certainly know that there is, at present, little prospect of them ever being returned to their countries of origin.
There must be questions about how genuine some of those asylum seekers are if they or their families can afford to pay thousands of dollars to the people smugglers. Furthermore, a continuing and increasing flow of arrivals by sea can only undercut public acceptance of genuine refugees from elsewhere. Meanwhile, it is all costing £1.5 billion a year.
We hear talk of safe and legal routes. Those cannot be made directly from the whole world, so there would have to be some kind of sifting operation somewhere. Where would that be? Would it not be overwhelmed by applicants? For sure, large numbers of failed applicants would be left in that country and it is therefore unlikely that host countries would be willing to have such a facility on their territory. Such a proposal is clearly ill-considered, and it seems to me that “safe and legal routes” is no more than a convenient soundbite.
What should be done? I suggest four steps. First, arrivals should be placed in secure accommodation and certainly not in four-star hotels until their cases have been decided by fast-tracked procedures. Secondly, asylum should be automatically refused to those who refuse to identify themselves in a proper way. Thirdly, a much stronger effort should be made to return asylum seekers to their own countries if they fail. That should include the proposals in the Government’s Bill to restrict the grant of visas to those countries that refuse to take back their own citizens. Lastly, we should, as I am sure the whole House would agree, seek an agreement with France and possibly Belgium to accept the immediate return of those who arrived by small boats. It would not be simple, but I know that President Macron has said that he is determined that the channel should not become a graveyard.
None of that would be simple, but allowing the present situation to continue or even worsen would result in even greater numbers and, I fear, a seriously negative reaction from the British public.
My Lords, in following the noble Lords, Lord Green and Lord Lilley, I want to question one of many points from each of them. The noble Lord, Lord Green, contrasted the people coming across the channel with what he called genuine refugees. Can the Minister confirm the government figures that I have seen that say that the majority of people coming across the channel are granted refugee status? So the noble Lord’s comparison should not be made. The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, quoted the number of applications for US visas from a significant number of countries. None was on the list of the main countries from which the people crossing the channel have come. His figures are therefore entirely irrelevant to this debate.
I want to make three points in the brief time available to me. The first is about practicality. A lot of our discussion in this debate focuses on what we can do to stop the boats. Of course we do not want anyone crossing the world’s busiest shipping channel in inadequate, flimsy vehicles. However, I go back to a bleak January day in 2016 when I went to the memorial service for a 15 year-old Afghan boy called Masud who died in the back of a lorry while trying to get across the channel to join his sister here in the UK.
In the year to that death, about a dozen refugees died trying to cross the channel in the back of boats, on trains and through other vehicles. At that time— five years ago—there were almost no crossings. Those routes, through a combination of Covid and government action, have essentially been closed off, so people have taken to the boats. If the Government could somehow just snap their fingers and stop the boats, desperate people who have ties to the UK, such as the Afghan soldier documented in the Times this morning, would still seek to come here. The odds are that those routes will become more and more dangerous, and, as several noble Lords have said—I associate myself with essentially everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—at great profit to nasty, illegal criminals.
There has been a lot of discussion about so-called pull-factors. It is worth looking at what we actually do to the refugees who arrive here seeking to exercise the right to which they are entitled. We often detain them indefinitely, in a way that no other European country does. We often reject their applications when we should not. Three quarters of rejected claims are appealed, a third successfully. I have seen the great difficulty in taking on those. I have no doubt that many more should be upheld.
Unlike many other countries, we do not allow people seeking asylum to work while their claims are being processed. According to the latest figure, from September, 67,547 claims are awaiting decision—up 41% year on year and the highest figure on record. Refugees, who are often victims of human rights abuses and have had to flee in the most desperate circumstances and in the most awful conditions, are trapped in limbo for years. They are living on an absolutely inadequate sum of money in frequently horrendous accommodation. There is no pull-factor there.
Finally, we must consider how many more people might seek to come because of our actions and policies. I will highlight two points. The first is the recent slashing of official development assistance. The other is the failure of the COP 26 climate talks, of which we were chair, to secure any funds, beyond a contribution from Scotland, for what is known as loss and damage. These funds are reparation for the climate damage caused by our actions that is impacting on people’s lives and making it impossible for them to live in their own country.
My Lords, it is difficult to follow the noble Baroness because she made so many good points. I have been following the cross-channel movement of people ever since I worked on building the Channel Tunnel 30 or 40 years ago. At that time, all we were doing was trying to keep rabid foxes out. Sadly, the situation has got much worse than that. What happened last night was a horrible example of the dangers of crossing in small boats, but, as other noble Lords have said, it was not the first such incident and it probably will not be the last.
There was a time when people smuggled themselves on passenger trains and freight trains and virtually killed the traffic across the channel at that time. They then moved on to trucks; we have heard about that. There was that terrible incident a couple of years ago when 39 people were discovered asphyxiated in a truck in Essex, having come across and been there for several days. Now, boats are used. However, it is not even comparable with the number of people who have come across the Mediterranean—not just from Libya, but from other places as well—into the European Union. There have been problems between Turkey and Greece, of course, and now between Poland, Ukraine and Belarus.
These people have one thing in common. They are coming to seek a better life from war-torn, demolished famine areas. One cannot blame them. Why do they want to come to the UK? Many noble Lords have talked about that but apart from English becoming a bit of a world language, we also do not require people to carry ID cards, and certainly do not enforce it. I can understand why the French authorities and local police are not very enthusiastic about looking after refugees and probably want shot of them. However, we must find a solution. Having worked with French authorities all those years ago, I am convinced that if the Government and the French Government tried, there could be a very good joint policy and implementation to sort this out in a humanitarian way that does not involve people going across in small boats or smuggling themselves in lorries, but gives those who are justified in seeking asylum what they want. The others would be sent back where they came from.
However, at the moment, we seem to enjoy having a verbal war with the French. It may be fishing one day and agriculture the next. There are now joint statements from the Prime Minister and the President of France that they will work together, which is nice to see but they must deliver, at Calais and the other places along the coast, as well as in this country, and come up with a policy that is fair to everyone.
The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, commented that the only people who can afford to pay the smugglers are the middle classes. He may remember that a couple of years ago, when we had our medical crisis and there was a shortage of doctors, the Government started recruiting doctors and nurses from other countries where they were desperately needed. That is unfair. We should be training our own doctors and nurses and not poaching them from other countries. If some of them are having such a rough time in Syria, for example, that they seek asylum here, so be it, but we should not be poaching them.
The deaths in the channel yesterday of decent citizens forced to believe that the risk was worth it, and the Afghan soldier who assisted UK and US special forces and presumably missed the cut in Kabul, being forced to such perils to reach a country which he had assisted, were beyond the pale.
Where there is a will, however, there will always be a way. From time immemorial, loopholes in any system will be exploited, and bettered in this case by criminal gangs that are merciless in their evil trade. Therefore, let us do the job properly and seal the borders to put an end to this tragic loss of life, or have a strategy that is appropriate to a humane United Kingdom. I recognise that the Government are in a bind on all this, but the targeting of traffickers is paramount. How many traffickers have been brought to justice here or in France—any? Why do we not de-risk the endangering of lives and have applicants processed at source? Are there any processing units in the regions from whence the flow of migrants comes? If not, can the Government consider this? If not, why? I take the point, made by the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, that those who are legitimate would at least then have a safe passage to the UK in the event of being successful.
I am curious to know how many of the boat people crossing the channel out of the total meet the ability-to-stay threshold. If the Minister does not have that figure to hand, will she kindly undertake to write and to place a copy of the letter in the Library?
While the suggestion that France could intervene more is to be encouraged, blaming France, with all the current negative issues that surround the relationship, is probably wide of the mark. To suggest that we patrol French beaches is unrealistic. The Government would not have it if the situation were reversed. It is also clear that it is incompatible with international law to return migrants in open seas. Will the Minister confirm this?
It is believed that many of the boats being used are bought in the UK, fitted with new outboards and taken to France in the back of a car. Is the Minister aware of this, and have Customs and the Border Force been alerted to it? I am informed that the Queen’s warehouse in Dover questions whether many of them must be kept as potential evidence, but the Home Secretary has had a stop placed on these disposals. Perhaps this might be reviewed to reinstate the practice that goods used in crime can be auctioned off and the proceeds given to a charity that can demonstrate a need for the craft for the benefit of the community. For example, the Maritime Volunteer Service is expanding its safety patrol coverage of harbours and waterways.
Now is the time to look at the human tragedy of this situation and call for international collaboration to break the business model of the traffickers, recognising the positive components to managed migration, but equally addressing the drivers of involuntary migration and creating more legal avenues to assessment procedures. A good place from which to review a long-term strategy is to assume that people would prefer not to leave their loved ones, homes and culture. From southern seas to closer to home, migration is a global phenomenon and requires an international strategy to address its economic, social and political causes.
My Lords, here is a puzzle. Around 56 years ago, I came here, not in a boat, and not as a refugee. I had a job and a labour permit to be here. There has been nothing but constant complaints about immigration since—Powell and all that sort of stuff—but at the same time I have seen domestic political and social life transformed by the presence of immigrants. Look at the Cabinet, for heaven’s sake. Which other European country has a Cabinet with such a Chancellor, Home Secretary, Business Secretary and so on? We have a serious prospect—not that I wish it because I love the Prime Minister, as does everybody else—of the next prime ministerial contest being between three or four immigrants, and nobody will bat an eyelid, yet we had a Conservative Member of Parliament complaining about grinning pickaninnies not all that long ago.
Immigration is a success story. Perhaps we have to go on complaining because otherwise we cannot tolerate it, but it is a success story. The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, said that the better off come here, and thank God for that. How else would we have got the lovely Chancellor we have? We would not have got him had it not been the better-off Ugandan Asians who came here. Seriously, there are positive aspects to what we have done. It is an achievement of British political life that we have a successful, diversified community, which we did not have before.
As many noble Lords have said, it is not over yet. We are still president of COP 26 and, as some noble Lords have said, we made commitments and accepted a solution to the coal question that will sink islands into the sea and create more refugees over the next 10 years. This is not a local British problem; this is a global problem. People from low-lying countries are going to migrate to safer countries, and we have to have a global approach to the solution, not just a European one.
One of the things that we should do as part of our presidency of COP, and generally as “global Britain”, is to start a global solution process to co-operate, not just here but across countries. Obviously, people from poor countries want to come to rich countries. What else would they do? It is rational, economic behaviour; of course they do not want to go to another poor country and the other poor country will not want them. We have to take a positive attitude towards this issue, because we have taken a negative one and it has gone on. Let us take a positive attitude; let us share responsibility with NATO countries—or whichever countries they are—for the immigrants.
For example, the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, cited Albanians and others. One-third of Europe’s population migrated to the United States in the 19th century. The United States is what it is today because one-third migrated. We have to change our minds as to what the positive role of immigration is. The costs are borne by the immigrant and the benefits accrue to the country receiving them. I will just say: take it positively, treat it as a global problem and share the costs.
There is one more thing. If you do not want people to drown in the channel, say that they can be admitted only if they come on a train. It is very simple. At the station—in Victoria, or wherever it is—we would have a proper process by which they could be looked at and their identity examined. That would make it very safe. Avoid the channel and take the Eurotunnel.
It really is not a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai, because he raises the bar far too high. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, for this appallingly well-timed debate, to which I would just like to contribute three sets of facts. First, overall refugee numbers are currently running at about half of where they were 20 years ago. We are not the preferred destination in Europe. We are, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, well down the list of preferred destinations.
Secondly, yes, small boat numbers are up, partly for the reason the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, adduced—the fences, patrols and heat sensors around the train tracks and marshalling yards mean that people are now driven to the even more dangerous sea route. But the principal reason clandestine numbers are up is that official resettlement routes are shut. Our schemes, in practice, no longer exist. We have closed the Syrian scheme, we have scrapped the Dubs scheme, we have left Dublin III and we have not got an Afghan scheme up and running. The largest group crossing the channel in the last 18 months, by nationality, were Iranians. In the last 18 months, 3,187 Iranians came. In the same period, one got in by the official route. How many came from Yemen in these 18 months? Yemen is riven by civil war and famine. None came by the official route —not one.
My third set of facts is as in the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. The Home Secretary says that 70% of channel crossers are
“economic migrants … not genuine asylum seekers”.
That is plainly not true. Her own department’s data show that, of the top 10 nationalities arriving in small boats, virtually all seek asylum—61% are granted it at the initial stage and 59% of the rest on appeal. The facts suggest that well over 70% of asylum seekers coming across the channel in small boats are genuine asylum seekers, not economic migrants.
That is hardly surprising because the top four countries they come from are Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria—not Ghana, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lilley. These people are fleeing persecution and destitution, and the sea route from France is the only one open to many of them. Why not have a humanitarian visa, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said? The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, gave the answer to the objection of the noble Lord, Lord Lilley. Those who had a valid claim for asylum would not be at peril on the sea.
Unless we provide a safe route, we are complicit with the people smugglers. Yes, we can condemn their case and we mourn yesterday’s dead, but that does not seem to stop us planning to break with the refugee convention. Our compassion is well controlled because it does not stop us planning, in the borders Bill, to criminalise those who survive the peril of the seas and those at Dover who try to help them. Of course, we can go down that road. But if we do, let us at least be honest enough to admit that what drives us down that road is sheer political prejudice, not the facts, because the facts do not support the case for cruelty.
Like others, I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, for tabling this debate. It is important because the reluctance of parliamentarians to understand the public’s dismay at the flagrant loss of control of national borders is a democratic problem.
This discussion comes a day after a tragedy of unspeakable horror, but that horrendous incident must not be used to chill a frank national discussion, reviewing all sides of the debate and all opinions. Why has this issue of record numbers crossing the channel by boat led to popular fury and frustration? It is not, as some assume, proof of widespread anti-immigrant sentiment. Let us note that 99.9% of the British public have a track record of humane generosity in, for example, welcoming any number of Hong Kong citizens fleeing authoritarianism. There are many examples, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, explained.
I remember when some at the Home Office crassly interpreted the Brexit vote through the prism of racism and thought the hostile environment policy would be popular. Instead, leavers and remainers united in rejecting the cruel consequences meted out on the Windrush generation—still a top-down, shameful scandal—so let us not think this is racism. No, what is infuriating citizens about these channel crossings is not numbers or migrants. It is because they are told by too many in power that there is no alternative.
Over the last 20 months, the Border Force has looked helpless before a ceaseless flow of boats arriving on the shores of Kent, throwing up its hands with a series of “What can we do?” excuses. The Home Secretary talks tough, and tougher, but the public can see no change. This just seems like an abandonment of even the pretence of border control. It also makes a mockery of Brexit voters’ very firm expression of popular sovereignty—to take back control—if you cannot take control even of your national borders.
I do not pretend that practical solutions are easy but nothing should be off the table. I was impressed by an article by Sherelle Jacobs earlier in the week which weighed up a range of options. What we cannot conclude is that no matter what we do, nothing can stop the ceaseless crossings. I noted that a lot of people said today that nothing can be done unless we work with the EU—not happening. This fatalism and lack of choice make a mockery of politics, legislation and democracy.
Some here, and I might sympathise with this, think that the UK should offer to take greater numbers of asylum seekers legally. But then we need to convince the majority of our fellow citizens about this policy, not impose it on them as a humanitarian fait accompli. Priti Patel accuses would-be economic migrants of disguising themselves as asylum seekers. Perhaps that is true, by the way, as many pro-refugee NGOs have moralised migration so much that the only way you can justify it now is on the basis of suffering. This narrative where the only valid migrants are ones who show their scars and say they are fleeing persecution does them no favours. There is a valid case for economic migration; I am the daughter of economic migrants, in fact.
Those boats are not full of an indistinguishable mass of people. Some are economic migrants, some are good people and some are bad people—and some might be terrorists. It is naive to dismiss any worries about security by making them all out to be angels; it is actually condescending. Those nuances and the disputes get buried, if we moralise this discussion.
Controlling our borders is not interchangeable with closing our borders, but democratic decision-making is dependent on the borders that are secure. The problem is that those charged with controlling our borders seem to have given up on the mission. In his valedictory speech, the outgoing head of the UK Border Force, Paul Lincoln, declared:
“Bloody borders are just such a pain in the bloody ass.”
This seeming indifference to borders by a senior civil servant reminded me of the famous description by the noble Lord, Lord Reid, of the border agency as “not fit for purpose”. Now it seems that we are worse off, because we have a Border Force chief who lacks purpose altogether. If Mr Lincoln does not believe that enforcing the integrity of Britain’s borders is crucial, just thinks that it is a nuisance, and does not understand why borders matter, we are in trouble.
Let me state here: borders matter, because they are the basis on which national sovereignty—that is, democratic accountability—is realised. Maintaining the integrity of a community’s borders is essential for the conduct of democratic life. Borders are not just barriers; they delineate the geographic space within which a political community is constituted. It is where citizenship is forged and our rights are afforded. In our role as equal citizens—whether from different migrant backgrounds or not—we, as voters, control politicians, and that is realised through citizenship. We take on board our duties and responsibilities for our country and our fellow citizens that way. To quote the anti-fascist philosopher, Hannah Arendt,
“rights and duties must be defined and limited, not only by … fellow citizens, but also by the boundaries of a territory”.
Those bonds of citizenship, in which we take responsibility for the society in which we live, become stripped of meaning if there is no distinction between citizens and non-citizens. Citizenship becomes meaningless if you do not even know how many citizens live in a country.
My Lords, other noble Lords have spoken about the terrible tragedy in the channel, and I identify with what has been said, but I want to look more widely at this issue. Even if we can solve the question of highly dangerous crossings, it is good to recognise at the outset that the issue of asylum seekers and refugees is not one of those problems that will be solved in the short term and will, therefore, have to be managed. It is not going to be solved in the short term because, for the foreseeable future, there will continue to be truly desperate people fleeing oppressive regimes, areas of violent conflict and acute starvation, a situation which will be accentuated in future years because of the effects of climate change. People are desperate enough to undertake hazardous journeys over long distances because the alternative, quite simply, is worse. So the problem will have to be managed humanely and fairly, with common sense and a sense of perspective.
We can be very grateful that the UK is acting humanely where it matters first and most of all—actually rescuing people in danger of drowning in la Manche, the English Channel. That is and must remain the first priority. Then, the refugees, whether they are genuine asylum seekers or economic migrants, must be housed humanely while their cases are processed. It was very reassuring to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, that that is the case—it was good to hear.
My particular concern is that the responsibility to care for and later settle those who are allowed to remain should be shared fairly by the country as a whole. At the moment, as is inevitable, refugees arrive predominantly at Dover and are the responsibility of the people and councils in that area. What extra financial and other support are they receiving? Are the people in those areas, and those local authorities, satisfied that they are getting the amount adequate for the task that they have to perform? This is a national responsibility, and I believe that the country as a whole wants to have a share in this and not just push it off on to a few areas. Those areas need wider support.
Then there is the question of resettling those who have been allowed to remain and those whose cases are still being processed. At the moment they are going predominantly to the north-west and the north-east. In the north-west, for example, there are 1.6 asylum seekers and 0.7 people with refugee status per thousand of the population. In the north-east it is 1.4 and 0.2. In stark contrast to this, in the south-east there are only 0.1 and 0.2 per thousand of the population. The argument in favour of this disparity is obvious—the south-east is heavily overcrowded. However, fairness demands that local authorities in the north-west and north-east, as well as those in the Midlands, are given all the support they need for this resettlement work. Much of the UK’s wealth, as we know, is in the south-east. I stress again that this is a national responsibility, so how much support are the north-east, the north-west and the Midland region, in particular, receiving to help with this resettlement, and are the local authorities in those areas satisfied with the help they are getting?
The last thing I want to say is that we need to keep this issue in perspective. In Lebanon, 19.5% of the population are refugees. In Jordan, the figure is 10.5% and in Turkey, it is 5%. Within Europe in 2020, Germany was hosting well over 1 million refugees. According to UNHCR statistics, at the end of 2020 in the UK there were 132,349 refugees, 77,245 pending asylum cases and 4,662 stateless persons. This is not an insignificant number, and I do not in any way underestimate it, but we need to keep it in perspective. It is not going to go away in the short term; it needs to be managed humanely, fairly and with common sense. This is a shared responsibility and we need to make sure that it is equally shared between different parts of the country.
My Lords, I really welcome this debate and I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, for bringing it before the House. Of course, my thoughts are also with all those affected by the terrible tragedy in the channel yesterday. She talked about the serious problem with our immigration control. There were 84,132 asylum applications in 2002; in 2019, there were 35,737, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said. In the year ending
The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said that people want to come here because English is easier to learn. I found any foreign language other than English the most difficult language to learn, and other people probably think the same. Surely English is a lot of these people’s second language, and that is why they want to come here. Or, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, they have family members here or some other connection to the UK. She said that they are not locked in—it was a comment also made by the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington—but they are given free accommodation, free food and £39.63 a week, which they do not get if they run away. Of course, if they did run away, they would have no chance at all of being granted asylum in the UK. By the way, they get £43.50 in France. She talked about the cost to the UK taxpayer. Would it not be a good idea if we allowed them to work, and then they would become taxpayers?
The noble Baroness talked about the shortcomings of the Home Office, especially in the immigration section. I absolutely agree. In 2004, 88% of applications were refused at initial decision; in 2019, it was only 48%. There were 125,000 work-in-progress applications at the Home Office in June 2021, double what there were in 2014. She talked about lawyers making money; of those 125,000 outstanding applications, only 5,900 were awaiting appeal. Again, we are looking at the very small bits rather than the big issue.
The noble Baroness also raised French co-operation. In 2020, the UK had six asylum applications per 10,000 of population. In the EU as a whole, it was 11 applications per 10,000. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, if you put us in a league table with other EU countries, we come 17th at accepting applications.
I fully understand why people voted for Brexit. It was a democratic decision and I completely accept it. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, that one of the benefits was supposed to be taking back control of our borders, yet EU citizens can still use the automatic gates—not only that, but the Government threw open the automatic gates at airports to another 10 countries. I know that you can take back control of your borders and then decide to throw them open, but I do not think that was quite the idea. One of the consequences is that we do not have Dublin III or the Schengen Information System, which showed us whether someone had made an application for asylum in another country, so there are downsides to Brexit. People must accept that this is the case.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said that the majority of those seeking sanctuary are granted asylum by the Home Office because they are genuine asylum seekers. My noble friend Lady Hamwee said that most people crossing the channel have no choice, because they cannot claim asylum in the UK unless they are in the UK. The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, said that only the middle class and well-off can afford to migrate—that seems to contradict the argument that these people are economic migrants. He said that, once here, they will never be deported; I absolutely agree. The National Audit Office estimates that the number of illegal immigrants in the UK is between 600,000 and 1.2 million. As well as the large numbers involved, the fact that the range is between 600,000 and double that shows the lack of government control over immigration.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry said that we need to put the people smugglers out of business. We do that by having safe and legal routes and resettlement schemes. The noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, talked about people smugglers. Clare Moseley, who works for Care4Calais, said on the Radio 4 “Today” programme this morning that people traffickers are a symptom, not a cause of the problem. It is because there is no other way to claim asylum in the UK other than to come here illegally—there are no safe and legal routes at the moment, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said. We need safe and legal routes from the worst parts of the world, where people are really suffering.
The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said that we need a humanitarian solution. The other alternative he mentioned—sealing the borders—is not possible. Looking at the length of the French and UK coastlines, you cannot seal the borders; we need a humanitarian alternative.
As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, let us celebrate the success of immigration. Look at the diversity of the Cabinet. I think I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, say in the past that this island is becoming overcrowded. I am not sure how many people are leaving; I am not sure that 680,000 people coming into the UK is a net figure—there must be some people leaving as well. If our island is becoming overcrowded, let us turn the tap down on the 94% of immigration that is not asylum seekers.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, talked about sharing the resettlement between areas of the UK. We need to share the resettlement of asylum seekers across the globe. That means the UK takes its fair share. That is not what is happening at the moment.
I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, for securing this debate. As has been said, it comes at a time when we have just seen a human tragedy in the English Channel—a reminder of the dangers of the channel and the fact that people’s lives are at risk every day in these makeshift, flimsy, small boats.
The number arriving in small boats remained relatively small until about two years ago. While clamping down on those coming in the back of lorries has been a factor, Brexit meant our exiting the Dublin III regulation, so the UK no longer has an agreement with any EU member state to return individuals who had set foot in those countries first prior to claiming asylum in the UK. Not only did we exit the Dublin III regulation, the Brexit deal failed to agree any working alternative or alternative safe and legal routes.
In addition, there is both underresourcing and significant staff change at the Home Office, as noted in the most recent report, I believe, of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders. There just are not enough staff to process the asylum applications and this contributes to longer and longer wait times. Some 87% of cases were dealt with in six months in 2014; that had fallen to 20% by 2019.
The reason for this situation is a cut in resources for legal and general support for Home Office officials deciding cases. Everything, frankly, is down to bare bones. A better-resourced system could vet better and more quickly and progress cases through the system either to granting asylum or to enforced removal. A lack of resources means poor case management and mistakes being made and delays created. It serves neither those making claims nor, indeed, the general public.
No doubt, those involved in human trafficking are aware that first, the UK has no extradition treaty to replace Dublin III and, secondly, that once here, individuals will be in the creaking system for some time, perhaps for more than a year or, indeed, several years.
I want also to repeat some of the figures that have already been quoted because, while asylum cases have increased recently, as have been said, asylum cases peaked at just over 84,000 in 2002, falling to just under 18,000 in 2010 before rising again to just above 35,500 in 2019. However, as has been pointed out, that figure is well below the 2002 one.
As has already been said, asylum seekers made up about 6% of all immigrants to the UK in 2019. While I think the figure mentioned was of 98% of those arriving by boat in the English Channel being recorded as claiming asylum, they are, in fact, largely people coming from war-torn countries rather than economic migrants, as we are sometimes led to believe.
According to other statistics from the Library, to which reference has already been made, the percentage refused at the first stage was at a high of 88% in 2004, falling to 59% in 2014, and again to 48% in 2019. So 52% of all asylum applications are approved or accepted at the first stage. However, as of June this year, 125,000 cases were logged in the system, and that is the highest since records began in 2011, and more than twice the figures for 2014. The thing to note is that any problem with caseload is less than that of other countries, which appear to be handling them rather more efficiently. In 2020, there were six asylum applications for every 10,000 individuals in the UK; the EU 27 average is almost twice that, at 11 applications per 10,000.
This is a serious problem. First, it does not best support asylum seekers, because those in genuine need of protection and support are left in a state of uncertainty longer than necessary. Secondly, those who are not bona fide asylum seekers are not best served by delaying their return, creating false hope. Thirdly, it badly lets down the public and their legitimate expectations of the system and arrangements.
The Home Secretary has been in post for more than two years, and has repeatedly committed to stopping channel crossings in small boats by making the route unviable. I am not sure whether she thinks she has been particularly successful. The reality is, of course, that we have seen unprecedented numbers making the journey in small boats, with a very high figure indeed for this year alone. The Home Secretary’s approach has, frankly, failed to deliver, and perhaps it is time it needs a change of approach.
The Government need an effective deal with the French authorities, they need to establish safe and legal routes and they need to reopen the Department for International Development, the department that addresses why people flee their homes in the first place. There seems some confusion in government quarters as to whether or not the Government believe that the arrangements they have with the French authorities are giving value for money. We are told of the figure of £54 million. At times, we read of Ministers saying the French are not doing everything they should, but at other times we have Ministers telling us how many trips across the channel have been stopped by the French authorities. I should be interested to know from the Government’s response today whether they believe they are getting value for money in what they are paying to the French or not, as there seems to be a degree of confusion in the comments made.
The reality is that we need meaningful action to support genuinely vulnerable people, to improve the somewhat chaotic and perhaps less than humane asylum system and, of course, to bring criminal gangs to justice. We need binding targets to process cases more quickly, so that people in need of help are not left in limbo, in a state of uncertainty. We need to push for action on international deals and agreements, including to stop gangs in France and elsewhere profiting from people’s desperation. I wonder whether sufficient attention, despite what the Government maintain happens, is actually given to dealing with those gangs, who are the cause of the trouble, as opposed to various schemes to stop their victims—because that is what they are—who are left crossing the English Channel in small boats. It is far better, I should have thought, to deal with the problem at source, which is the criminal gangs who encourage those trips to be made and make considerable sums of money out of it.
We need improved support for victims of modern slavery and human trafficking and tougher sentences for perpetrators. We need to re-establish our country’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on international aid to help to tackle the forces driving people from their homes in the first place. For as long as we do not address that problem, we will get these large movements of people, some fleeing persecution and no doubt some on economic grounds seeking a better life. Finally, we need action to establish safe and legal routes, such as by re-establishing the Dubs scheme to help unaccompanied children to escape war zones. In their response, the Government might wish to comment on whether they agree that the action that I have suggested needs to be taken or whether they disagree with what I have said.
My Lords, I will first address the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, which I thought were very positive. The basis of our skills-based immigration system is that, if people have the skills to come here, we will welcome them. Immigration has contributed to our economy. We are a nation of immigrants. He is and I am. I presume that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, counts herself an immigrant. I am not quite sure about the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, who is from Northern Ireland, but the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, does as well. A good proportion of the people speaking in this debate are immigrants, as are half the Cabinet.
Secondly, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, for securing this important debate on the issue of migrants arriving in the UK on small boats, which is a different point from that which the noble Lord, Lord Desai, makes. We will go on shortly to further discuss the dreadful boat tragedy that we learned of yesterday.
These crossings are dangerous—people have lost their lives attempting them—and they are wholly unnecessary. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, my noble friend Lord Lilley and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, said, France is a safe country with a fully functioning asylum system, as are the other countries of Europe through which these people typically pass on their way to the UK. There is no need for those in need of refuge to make these hazardous journeys across the channel, because a safe route to asylum exists in Europe. The motive of those endangering themselves in this way therefore cannot exclusively be one of seeking sanctuary from persecution. These crossings are driven by organised criminals, who sell the dream of a better life in the UK at the expense of the safety of the people they bring here, and who do not care whether the men, women and children they cram into fragile and unseaworthy craft live or die, so long as they get their money. The Government are determined to stop these crossings and to bring to justice the evil criminal gangs who profit from them.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said, nearly 70% of arrivals are men and the majority of the children are also male. Iranian nationals account for the most arrivals over the past two years, followed by those from Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Eritrea. Noble Lords will note that we have had a Syrian resettlement scheme over the last few years.
The point made by my noble friend Lord Lilley that the middle classes are the only ones who can afford to come is important, in terms of vulnerability and neediness, because the people who can afford to pay people smugglers are the ones most likely to get here. You do not see many older ladies or female children. That the majority are male and between the ages of 18 and 34, although they might be skinny when they get here, is surely an indicator of vulnerability.
In recent decades, the institution of refuge has been abused by those who want to come to the UK for other reasons and who view asylum as a means to gain entry which would otherwise be denied to them. The phenomenon of using small boats to cross the channel, which we have seen grow since 2018, is merely the latest and most outward manifestation of a problem that the Home Office has had to deal with for many years: large numbers of people, mostly without documents—as the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said—travelling from the safe countries of Europe and seeking asylum in the UK.
To suggest that all these people have no haven in European countries and that they are driven into these perilous crossings by desperation is just not true. Those making those arguments, I would suggest, are being disingenuous. As the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, said, these crossings are made for the same reason as applies to those hiding in lorries and containers or using fraudulent travel documents on passenger services: to evade our immigration system.
The noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Dubs, asserted that we had closed the door and that this was why this situation has happened. I was just thinking of the various routes that we have or have been replaced. In terms of Dubs, we met our commitment of 480 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, might shake her head, but these are facts. We have issued 39,000 family reunion visas since 2015. We have had the Syrian resettlement scheme, which resettled more than 20,000 people in the last few years. That has been replaced by the global resettlement scheme, so to respond to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, we will now resettle vulnerable people from all over the world. Our assessment will be based on vulnerability and not on from where they come, though the two may of course be linked. We now have the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which is an extremely generous scheme. There is the BNO scheme, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, talked about, and, of course, we have the ARAP scheme for those who helped us in Afghanistan. To say that we have closed the door is just not true.
We are clear that access to our asylum system should be based on need and not the ability to pay people smugglers. That is why we have introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill. I am pleased to hear that the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and my noble friend Lord Lilley are looking forward to it; I look forward to working with them. It is the most comprehensive reform in decades to fix the broken asylum and illegal migration system. This country has a long tradition of welcoming those in need of sanctuary, but not everyone who wants to settle here can do so and those who do so must come here legally.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said, based on her experience of visiting Dover, the brave and highly trained officers of Border Force, day in and day out, set out to sea in cutters and coastal patrol vessels to manage the small boats used by migrants to cross the channel. Their mission has been one of search and rescue rather than enforcement, because we have a legal duty to preserve safety of life at sea. That is why HM Coastguard and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution are involved in responding to these crossings: a life in danger at sea is a life that we will try to save if at all possible. Border Force has also developed safe and legal maritime tactics to turn around migrant vessels and prevent crossings. This maritime deterrent will form part of a wider set of tools designed to dissuade people from using this route, preventing embarkations and ultimately saving lives.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked me about legality. I say to her that this is nothing new. Border Force has existing powers under the 1971 Act to intercept vessels in UK territorial seas, and an officer is not liable in any criminal or civil proceedings if the court is satisfied that the act was done in good faith and there were reasonable grounds for doing it. All operational procedures used at sea are delivered in accordance with domestic and international law and obligations.
We are clear that these crossings will be truly ended only when they are seen to be ineffective by those who would make them. That is why we are pushing for the unconditional return of all those arriving by small boats to their country of embarkation as soon as possible. That is the reason for the inadmissibility rules that have now come into force: they make it easier for us to return those who have arrived by small boats. We are now focused on agreement with France and other members of the EU to accept back those who have arrived in the UK by small boats, without condition.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, asked me about the money we had given to France and what was happening to it. A bilateral arrangement was reached between the UK and France on
In the meantime, those who arrive, claim asylum in the UK and are destitute have to be accommodated and supported while their cases are considered. That is a legal requirement but also a moral and practical one. We have a particular responsibility for the care and welfare of vulnerable unaccompanied children, and from this week local authorities have been notified that the national transfer scheme has been temporarily mandated to ensure that unaccompanied asylum- seeking children receive the critical care, support and accommodation that they need upon their arrival.
I will go into further detail on that for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and others. In 2020—this goes to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr; he and I are always disagreeing on this—the UK received the second highest number of asylum applications from unaccompanied children, 2,773, out of all the EU-plus countries. They accounted for approximately 16% of all reported UASC claims made.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, asked about family reunion. We provide safe and legal routes to bring families together through our family reunion policy, which allows a partner and children under 18 of those granted protection in the UK to join them here if they formed part of the family unit before the sponsor fled their country. As I said earlier, more than 39,000 family reunion visas have been granted since 2015.
I have talked about the support that the UK has funded. The funding arrangement that was agreed by the Home Secretary increases the number of French law enforcement officers patrolling the beaches, improves the surveillance technology and allows more crossing attempts to be detected sooner. It strengthens security infrastructure, making it more difficult for crossings to be attempted, and supports migrants into the French asylum system, giving them a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous and unnecessary crossings.
A noble Lord asked me about French interceptions. In 2020, the figure was 6,079, and this year it has been nearly 21,000. That is a lot of interceptions. We need to recognise the difficulties that the French face here. They are active in their efforts to prevent these crossings, but they are increasingly being met by violence from people smugglers and migrants, emphasising that not all those who are making these crossings are vulnerable victims. As French preventive efforts bite, we have seen the people smugglers operate from ever-greater stretches of coastline, using bigger boats, carrying more migrants and taking greater risks. The French activity is undoubtedly having an effect, but this is a lucrative criminal industry and the opponents are resourceful, industrious and determined. That is why we are redoubling our efforts to provide support.
An asylum system should provide a safe haven to those fleeing persecution, oppression or tyranny. We want to be fair to those who are genuinely in need of international protection and firm against those who are not. I have talked about our proud record, but, as the title of this debate suggests, we now need to stop the dangerous, illegal and unnecessary small boat crossings of the channel, control our borders and return those with no right to be in our country.
In terms of financial support for councils which take migrants, local councils and health partners who resettle families will receive up to £4,500 per child for education, £850 to cover English language provision for adults requiring this support, and £2,600 to cover healthcare.
Sorry, this is slightly out of sync, but 273 asylum-related returns were concluded in the year ending June 2021, which, considering Covid, shows that we are making returns. The measures in the Nationality and Borders Bill will assist with this.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, asked about preventing terrorists using this route to get to the UK. In fact, a noble Lord in this House suggested that we should allow the blanket no-checks arrival of people from Afghanistan, and I made it very clear then that that was not a good idea. Security is the number one reason for border control. All our processes and procedures are predicated on the need to safeguard the UK from those who pose a security threat, and that is why we need to ensure that everyone seeking to enter the UK by any means is checked thoroughly against security databases upon arrival. People arriving by small boats are subject to stringent checks immediately upon arrival in the UK, and again as they are processed into the asylum system.
The Government’s commitment to reforming our immigration and asylum system is being delivered, as I said, through our new plan for immigration and its centrepiece, the Nationality and Borders Bill. The plan has three objectives: increasing the fairness and efficiency of our system so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum; deterring illegal entry into the UK; and removing more easily from the UK those with no right to be here. Despite other disagreements in this House, I do not think that there is disagreement on that point: that people who should not be here should be returned. Our long-term plan will prioritise bringing over the most vulnerable, deterring illegal migration and creating an effective sanction where there are no relevant mitigating circumstances. We will remove those with no right to be here.
Finally, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, once more for securing this debate.
I apologise for breaking the Minister’s stride and I know that it has been a long day for her. Is she minded to address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, which is particularly relevant, given the upcoming immigration Bill? Have the Government finally addressed the recording of people leaving the country, or are they still addressing only those entering the country? Do we know who and how many are leaving?
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for not answering that point. I was trying to get through everything. As I understand it, we are developing technology to ensure that we identify not only people coming in but those leaving. We also have exit checks. I will end there, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey.
Perhaps I might be allowed to ask just one question concerning people claiming the need to come to this country who have money. Does the Minister agree that it is possible to understand how a person might have money to pay for the journey but have a genuinely well-founded fear of persecution? Iran is the obvious example, where there is a thriving middle class. One can earn a good living there if one keeps one’s head down. However, if one is the wrong sexuality, religion or outspoken, one of course wants to leave and would have to money to do so.
I take the noble and right reverend Lord’s point but the point that my noble friend was making is that, in the main, you can afford to get here only if you can afford to pay the people smugglers. That was not any slight on those who can pay but the fact is that you can get here only if you can afford to pay. There is a secondary point to that. If you cannot afford to pay, the people smuggler might say, “Don’t worry, you can work for me when you get to the UK.” You could then find yourself being enslaved.
I apologise. There is also a means by which people pay over a long period—say, three years. They are not paying a bulk amount of money for entry. They pay over three, four or five years and the extortionists receive the money from the family or elsewhere from the country of origin.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. Perhaps I may say gently that I am not an immigrant. I was born and bred in Northern Ireland, which in 2021 has been part of the United Kingdom for 100 years. I thank everyone for their contributions. It shows that we are going to have interesting debates on the Nationality and Borders Bill. I look forward to that and am sure that others do so, perhaps for different reasons.
I am not going to go through the speeches as I do not have time. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, went through my speech in great detail and perhaps we need to have a cup of coffee so that I can respond. The importance of this debate to me is that it tells the public out there, who are very concerned about what is happening, that we are listening to them as well. That is why my noble friend Lady Fox was right about the public. We have to take them with us.
I thank everyone for their contributions. I am sad that we are debating this issue today, following such a tragic incident, but hope that this is the beginning of a genuinely open debate on something that will not go away in the near future.