By Charlie Protheroe
Rishi Sunak’s priorities for the year ahead are admirable, if a little predictable. After all, what politician doesn’t harp on about the need to reduce inflation, debt, and NHS waiting lists, while growing the economy? The odd one out is the pledge to cut illegal immigration, because it is fully within the government’s power to achieve. The fact it seems less immediate to many peoples’ daily lives could lead some politicians to overlook it. But they’d be wrong.
Perhaps unlike some in Westminster, British taxpayers have long known that migration levels cannot outstrip the capacity of our infrastructure. Open borders immigration in all but name is unfeasible if schools are unable to provide an acceptable ratio of pupils to teachers. Any economic benefits pale into insignificance when the NHS is so stretched that even A&E requires a painfully lengthy wait.
If anything, the infrastructure of the UK is in a more perilous position now than at any other point in recent memory. Every aspect of life is hampered by strikes, fewer teachers are being employed than pre-pandemic, and we face a wait of over an hour and a half for an ambulance even for a heart attack. The finite resources of the state (despite spending having ballooned in recent years) are already stretched and many ways of alleviating the strain are outside the government's control. One of the few levers they can pull is cutting down the 45,756 that crossed the Channel in small boats in 2022.
Taxpayers are funding systems that are providing ever decreasing value for money – the government should do all it can to reverse this. Dealing correctly with illegal immigration is not symptomatic of being “little Englanders” but reflects instead the reasonable expectation of a working immigration system. Some on Twitter seem to believe it’s utterly unreasonable to expect Border Force to control the border. However, it is simply impossible to have an effective immigration system without having a process for those who break its rules. The UK is in dire need of keeping immigration (currently at over one million per year) in line with the capacity of the basic infrastructure of the state. Fixing the approach to illegal immigration is at the heart of this.
Equally, a government that cares at all about the wellbeing of the migrants themselves will also do all it can to actively dissuade them from attempting this deceptively perilous journey. We are perhaps so familiar with the idea of swimming the Channel that we have forgotten how dangerous the journey is, especially for women and children. If we are not doing all we can to stop them embarking on the crossing, we cannot judge ourselves as faultless when it goes wrong.
Taxpayers can therefore be pleased that the government is prioritising cutting down illegal immigration by increasing the speed of processing and the number of boats intercepted as well as deportations. However, it is unsustainable to rely on short term solutions.
First, the government needs a clear long-term strategy for refugees. There are numerous routes the government should explore: from the Rwanda scheme, to international cooperation to create safe havens for refugees closer to their country of origin, to updating the now very outdated international agreements on refugees. This will not only fulfil the moral obligation we have to help those in need, but also bring Britain’s (and the world’s) response to this very modern crisis into the 21st century.
In the meantime, a much-touted stop-gap solution is granting asylum seekers the right to work. Some think tanks on the centre right, such as the Adam Smith Institute, have been very supportive of this. But what motivation is there to follow a set of complicated and arduous immigration rules if one can get to the same place by simply claiming asylum and settling down? The asylum backlog is considerable, at huge costs to taxpayers, and this policy would only make it worse. We must help refugees and should never turn away or fail to house and feed those who flee war and persecution. However, the assumption is that asylum seekers will return home when it is safe to do so, and our system should reflect that – hence the state provides housing and food for their stay. We can look ourselves in the eyes as a society and know we have done enough. To grant the right to work to asylum seekers is simply to create even more incentives to come here illegally.
The long-term solution to illegal immigration will always revolve around incentives. The level of immigration to this nation is testament to its safety, economy, and freedoms. Being successful will always increase people’s desire to move here (and it helps that we speak English of course). However, we must start asking ourselves tough questions about how the benefits of our system are distributed. As admirable as the idea is, is such universal access to the NHS still feasible? Is there a way of making services more linked to contributions? Should we be stricter on when one receives a right to remain in the UK?
Crossing the Channel in a dinghy is no small feat of courage or money but it is done because the UK is worth the risk. In many ways, the first three of Rishi Sunak’s priorities will encourage more illegal immigrants – who would not want to go somewhere with a cheaper cost of living, better healthcare system, more efficient government, and stronger economy? Especially now, illegal immigration needs to be brought back under control. But unless this government pulls its head out of the sand and starts a long overdue debate around what motivates migrants and what can be done about it, Rishi Sunak will become just the latest Prime Minister to promise and fail to deliver a solution to one of the greatest concerns of British taxpayers.