2024 General Election

The vast majority of movement across UK borders is controlled – so why do Sunak and Starmer say we’ve ‘lost control’ of our borders?

Despite Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer’s claims, UK borders are highly controlled. A detailed system tracks arrivals, yet only 30,000 people arrive irregularly. The debate on border control exaggerated issues, missing the complexity and humanitarian aspects.

The vast majority of movement across UK borders is controlled – so why do Sunak and Starmer say we’ve ‘lost control’ of our borders?

O ne of the few things Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have agreed on in this election campaign is that the UK’s borders are “out of control”.

On the contrary, the UK’s borders are incredibly controlled – a complex system for tracking how people arrive, how long they stay and what visas are needed. In the last year, 125.5 million people arrived in the UK.

The vast majority have the proper visas and documentation to visit, live or work long-term (or, if British nationals, return home), and we have detailed information about who they are, where they came from and how they arrived.

By contrast, just under 30,000 people came irregularly by small boat across the channel – a tiny fraction in comparison.

In recent decades, a massive security architecture has been built at the borders. Since 2014, the UK government has financed multiple barriers around the port of Calais, estimated to exceed 1 billion euros by 2027.

The UK’s New Plan for Immigration details the fully digitised process of visa controls that apply to people coming from most parts of the world. Following these investments, the only way to avoid this massive system of control is to arrive clandestinely, which usually means by small boat.

Facts aside, the hysterics over border control during the final head-to-head debate made it difficult for either leader to mount a real defence of their own plans to stop these relatively few irregular arrivals.

Sunak’s repeated claim that anyone who arrives in the UK illegally would be “on a plane to Rwanda” fails to address the unworkable reality of that policy. In addition to the still unresolved legal questions, Rwanda does not have the capacity to accept more than a few hundred people a year, while the number of small boat arrivals means the target population is still in the tens of thousands.

Starmer, who has vowed to abandon the Rwanda policy, has instead said that people with no right to be in the UK will be returned to their countries of origin. Sunak took a new angle of attack in the debate, ridiculing Starmer for the implication that he would make arrangements with the leaders of countries to return migrants: “Do you know where these people come from? Do you know where they come from? Iran, Syria, Afghanistan … Are you going to sit down with the Iranian ayatollahs? Are you going to try and do a deal with the Taliban? It’s completely nonsensical. You are taking people for fools.”

This was met with one of the most sustained rounds of applause of the night from the audience, though it is not clear what they were applauding.

It is true that Britain has no official diplomatic connections with the governments of Syria or Afghanistan, and ties with Iran are extremely strained. Yet Sunak’s jibe was not about the practical difficulty of making an appointment with those leaders, but the impossibility of returning human beings to those regimes.

This was a fairly explicit acknowledgement that the people he proposes to pack off to Rwanda are, actually, refugees – a group entitled to international protection due to the persecution they face in their home country.

The government has already granted refugee status to the vast majority of applicants from these countries. Refugees from Afghanistan and Syria have asylum recognition rates of over 95%, and for Iran the figure is over 80%.

The government has offered a limited number of bespoke schemes to provide access to the UK for people of particular nationalities (such as Ukraine and Hong Kong). These have included the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (which has a target of bringing 20,000 Afghans to the UK over a “number of years” from 2022, initially those who worked with British forces in Afghanistan) and a programme for 20,000 Syrians, which operated from 2015 to 2021.

Smashing the gangs

Rather than acknowledging this contradiction himself, Starmer laid out an unworkable policy of his own. He has promised to “smash the gangs” that are responsible for bringing migrants to the UK. This approach repeats the errors of the war on drugs: tackling criminality with a shortsighted focus on supply. Starmer compounded this mistake with a long anecdote about a successful prosecution of a network of terrorists.

The direct amalgamation between terrorism and desperate people trying to reach safety may or may not have been intended. It fell to the moderator, Mishal Hussein, to point out that terrorism was “a very different kind of threat”.

Any attempt to reduce the risk people face crossing the Channel needs to start from a much more sober assessment of the situation. By global standards, a relatively small number of migrants want to get to the UK, often because they have family here already. Yet there is no “queue” to jump (as Sunak would have people believe). Even attempts to offer a small number of children with family in the UK a safe way to arrive have failed.

Across western Europe, borders have never been so controlled. But no border, not even a sea border, can be controlled absolutely. People desperate enough to try to cross UK borders should not face death.

As conflict and human rights abuses remain prominent around the world, specifically in places where neither Sunak nor Starmer would be willing or able to negotiate returns, wealthy countries like the UK must help out, with good grace.

In the short term, that will mean the UK’s participation in EU schemes to ensure that at least some refugees can reach safety, with a small degree of dignity. The careful, consensus-based politics that will be needed to achieve that goal are not served by wild accusations of out-of-control borders.



▪ This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 2 July 2024. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Unsplash/Henry Ren. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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