When immigration minister Chris Philp announced last summer that he was in the process of agreeing a 'new operational plan' with his French counterparts to stop the cross-Channel traffic in irregular migrants, it seemed as though the government was finally getting a grip on the crisis.
In a statement to camera he declared:
'We had a very constructive meeting with our French colleagues in Paris this morning. We have reaffirmed our unshakeable shared commitment to making sure this route of crossing the Channel is made unviable…we have worked on a joint operational plan, with the objective in mind of completely cutting this route. We’re going to work at pace in the coming days to make that plan a reality.'
A couple of weeks later, in early September, he gave a bit more detail in the Commons, telling MPs of a 'joint intelligence cell' that had already resulted in successes. He said the Government was 'currently working to return nearly 1,000 cases where migrants previously claimed asylum in European countries'
Philp also flagged up the appointment of Dan O’Mahoney as clandestine Channel threat commander, tasked with a mission to 'collaborate with the French to build on joint work'. One of O’Mahoney’s early actions was to set up an official Twitter account to provide 'updates on how we’re saving lives by making dangerous Channel crossings unviable'.
Philp concluded his Commons statement by pledging:
'This Government will not rest until we have taken the necessary steps to completely end these crossings.'
Nine months later, how is it all going? Well, the number of migrants who have been returned to other European countries on grounds that they already claimed asylum in them is precisely zero. The number of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats has in fact soared. More than 4,500 are known to have landed so far this year – two and a half times the number at this point last year.
At the weekend, the UK Border Force vessel Valiant actually sailed into French waters to pick up a boatload of migrants and ship them to the British mainland. Far from completely ending the crossings, as promised by Philp, the UK state appears to have set up a free ferry service to assist them.
Instead of action, the British public is once more being fed on a diet of lame excuses. Home Secretary Priti Patel has claimed social media videos on platforms such as TikTok are making it harder to stop the flow by advertising the route into the UK. Tory MPs and ministers have started complaining that it is all the fault of France. Peter Bone cited 'the complete failure of the French government to properly look after asylum seekers in France' as the root of the problem.
Boris Johnson has been on the blower to president Emmanuel Macron to plead for more action to stem the 'concerning rise' in the crossings, while Kent County Council is tearing its hair out about a sharp increase in unaccompanied child migrants who have to be taken into its under-pressure care system.
Oh, and clandestine threat commander O’Mahoney has lived up to his title by going to ground. His Twitter feed that was going to keep us looped into progress has put out a grand total of three tweets since February – two of which are retweets from other agencies – the last on April 29.
Meanwhile Patel has implied the old spectre of a shadow home office policy run by civil servants behind the backs of ministers and in contradiction of official government policy may have returned, berating it for the current taxi service when telling the Commons:
'I have been very clear with my department and with the commander who oversees these Border Force operations that they should not be going into French territorial waters – that is absolutely wrong and there is now an investigation into that.'
In other words, it has been a complete shambles. Grist to the mill for a halfway competent opposition then, you might think.
Well, think again. The Labour front bench has said almost nothing about this abject failure to enforce national borders or rebuild public confidence in the asylum system.
In fact, Labour MPs have been far more interested in berating the Home Secretary for being too harsh on migrants by housing many of them at Napier Barracks in Kent, where they were exposed to privations of the sort routinely put up with by UK service personnel in previous times.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds may not have impressed as the sharpest tool in the box, but it is stretching credulity to imagine he is so devoid of political antenna as to be accidentally missing the array of open goals he has been presented with on this issue.
Much more likely is that Labour simply isn’t interested in harrying the Government to impose tough and workable controls to deter migrants. Neither are any of the other parliamentary parties. Meanwhile the Reform UK party of Richard Tice has made only tentative comments on the issue, failing to grab the agenda as it did last summer when led by south coast film-maker extraordinaire Nigel Farage.
So Patel gets a free ride and asks us to pin all our hopes on the forthcoming Sovereign Borders Bill that will reduce the appeals options open to asylum-seekers whose applications are turned down. Quite how that will result in any more people being sent back to their countries of origin – or the first safe European country in which they set foot – is unclear. Such removals have plunged from 15,000 a year in 2012 to just 2,000 in 2020.
The result is that there are now estimated to be 42,000 failed asylum seekers living in the UK, a number equivalent to the population of Dover, though not to be confused with the actual populace of Dover who have borne the brunt of this chaos.
The public deserves an honest explanation from the Government about why its action plan has failed so disastrously and what changes to policy and legislation are needed to put things right. It seems clear that a commitment to offshore processing, such as that being explored by the Danish authorities, would dramatically reduce the pull factor for those trying their luck. But that might place the UK in conflict with a thicket of outdated international agreements that govern this stuff.
One thing seems obvious: if the Government won’t take effective action and Labour doesn’t care then a party will come along soon enough that will get serious political traction by promising to do so. Perhaps it will be Tice’s Reform, perhaps an altogether wilder grouping. This gruesome status quo won’t hold for very much longer.