Priti Patel, so long the darling of the hard-right Conservative Party, is having a tough weekend.
Once again she is grappling with the same issue that has dominated her tenure as Home Secretary – how to prevent people from seeking refuge by traveling to the UK in small boats.
Patience in Downing Street ran out on Friday amid the latest figures showing 1,185 people crossing the Channel in a single day in November – a record daily number for this century.
After lobbying Conservative MPs on Thursday, Boris Johnson ordered a review of the issue. Led by Stephen Barclay, it aims to bring together different ministries to solve an issue that is at the heart of the voting intentions of many Conservative voters.
Stung by the investigation, sources close to Patel appear to have accused officials in his own department of blocking policies and legal changes.
The Mail on Sunday reported that she had become so frustrated with obstructions from officials and legal advisers that she could still write to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to list her department’s shortcomings.
But Patel also helped put the issue high on the government’s agenda with 11 high-profile statements it would prevent small boats from reaching the UK.
“I am absolutely determined to do everything in my power to stop these dangerous Channel crossings which put vulnerable lives at risk,” she said in October 2019.
A year later, she said progress was being made. “We are already seeing fewer migrants leaving French beaches,” she said.
Statistics told another story. More than 23,500 have crossed the English Channel in small boats this year – nearly three times the 8,420 that made the trip in 2020, which was a record then, and more than 10 times more than the year Patel became Minister of the Interior.
Patel was accused of desperation last week when she told reporters in Washington that the EU’s open border policy was to blame. “The real problem with illegal migratory flows is that the EU has no protection at open borders,” she said.
The number of people coming to the UK by small boats has increased, but the actual number of people trying to claim asylum has declined.
There were 37,235 asylum claims in the year ending June 2021, down 4% from the previous 12 months and less than half of what it was in the early 2000s.
Refugee activists often point out that Britain receives a fraction of asylum claims from Germany and France and less per resident than the EU average.
Officials concede that the government will have to cooperate closely with France if this issue is to be resolved.
So far, Patel has made two multi-million pound deals with French authorities to pay for increased surveillance of the 93 miles of French coast that was used to reach the UK.
A £ 28million deal in November 2020 was followed by a £ 54million deal in July to fund a doubling of French police patrols on their north coast. The UK has also repeatedly called for joint patrols of border forces and the French Navy to be deployed in the English Channel, but this was rejected.
But critics say even with increased cooperation and resources, the length of the coastline and the cost-effectiveness of the route – officials claimed last week that smugglers can earn £ 300,000 per boat – mean those wishing to enter in the UK will not be put off.
Refugee activists have claimed that opening safe and legal channels for asylum seekers to apply to come to the UK would prevent many who seek to enter the UK via small boats.
For almost anyone fleeing desperate circumstances hoping to find family members in the UK or seeking safety there, there is no application form and no process that can facilitate safe and legal travel. The Home Office expects people to physically reach the UK before an asylum claim can be made.
However, government sources claim that such a policy would lead to a rush of applications from bogus candidates, not from people fleeing persecution.
The government has said it is ready to use a controversial policy of pushing back ships back to France once they are intercepted in British waters. But there are no reports of its use in the UK, and the government’s own internal legal advice indicates that if they use this tactic, they are likely to be prosecuted.
The policy risks violating international maritime law, which could have criminal implications for border force officers involved in British and French courts. A union representing leaders has already sought legal advice on a possible judicial review of the policy.
The Nationality and Borders Bill, due to become law in the spring, will give the government the power to deal with asylum seekers abroad to deter illegal migration to the UK.
Patel hopes to emulate the approach taken by Australia where asylum seekers are processed nearly 3,000 miles from her mainland on a remote island in the central Pacific.
British government officials said they were in secret negotiations with several countries around the world, including Albania, over a deal. The Albanian Prime Minister issued a categorical denial, saying it was “fake news”.
The cost could also be prohibitive. Home Office sources have claimed it could cost a person £ 100,000 to send someone to accommodation abroad – which could spark yet another adverse reaction.