Britain’s Leader Unveils Tough Plans to Tackle Illegal Crossings by Migrant Boats

LONDON — Under growing pressure to curb the arrival of migrants in small boats on the English coast, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday announced plans to tackle Britain’s big backlog in asylum claims and to fast-track the return of most Albanians seeking refugee status.

Outlining a tough package of measures, Mr. Sunak said that some asylum seekers who make the dangerous journey across the English Channel would be housed in disused vacation parks, former student halls and surplus military sites, rather than hotels, which cost the government 5.5 million pounds (about $6.8 million) a day. And he promised to propose laws to bar those entering Britain through unofficial routes from remaining.

In one of his first big policy initiatives as prime minister, Mr. Sunak put particular focus on rejecting asylum claims from Albanians, saying their nation would be treated as a safe country, ensuring that most applicants could be swiftly returned.

“We have to stop the boats, and this government will do what must be done,” Mr. Sunak said in a statement to Parliament designed to appease the growing anger within his Conservative Party over the issue of small boats arriving with migrants.

The crossings have become a big political embarrassment for supporters of Brexit, like Mr. Sunak, who claimed that leaving the European Union would allow Britain to reclaim control of its borders.

In his announcement, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak put special focus on rejecting asylum claims from Albanians, saying their nation would be treated as a safe country, ensuring that most applicants could be returned.Credit…Toby Melville/Reuters

Instead, more than 40,000 people have made the perilous Channel crossing this year, mainly from France, partly because other routes have been closed as the authorities have cracked down on people-smuggling by truck and shipping container, prompting migrants to make the same journey in small, sometimes unseaworthy, boats.

Understand the Political Situation in Britain

  • A Political Test: Rishi Sunak, who took over as prime minister with the hope of restoring stability to a government in turmoil, is facing formidable political and economic challenges.
  • Selling Austerity: With an elite pedigree and a privileged lifestyle, Mr. Sunak must now persuade ordinary Britons that they should support his government through a painful ordeal of tax increases and spending cuts.
  • A Haunting Presence: Saddled with budget and cost-of-living crises, the British prime minister also has to deal with the outsize personality of Boris Johnson, his predecessor.

Of those arriving this way, about 13,000 were Albanians Mr. Sunak said, adding that the vast majority of their compatriots will, in the future, be returned.

“Last year, Germany, France, Sweden all rejected almost 100 percent of Albanian asylum claims,” he said. “Yet our rejection rate is just 45 percent.”

As Britain’s creaking migration system struggles to cope, the overall backlog of asylum claims has reached about 150,000. On Tuesday, the government committed to eliminating more than 92,000 of those by the end of next year by hiring extra staff and clarifying its rules.

The cost of the logjam in human misery has been considerable this year, as thousands have been housed in severely overcrowded conditions before being moved to hotels. One man who was suffering from diphtheria died after being held for a week at the Manston processing center in Kent, England.

But the financial cost is also being counted in hotel bills for those awaiting a decision on whether they can stay. Mr. Sunak said that places for 10,000 people had been identified in disused buildings and that expanding their use could accommodate asylum seekers at half the cost of hotels.

Migrants in Dover, England, in August after they were picked up in the English Channel.Credit…Stuart Brock/EPA, via Shutterstock

In October, the home secretary, Suella Braverman, told lawmakers that the asylum system was broken. But that has heaped pressure on Mr. Sunak to tackle an issue that upsets significant numbers of voters, particularly those inclined to support his Conservative Party, according to opinion polls.

The announcement on Tuesday was the latest in a succession of efforts to toughen policy in the hope that it would deter people from making the Channel crossing.

This year, Boris Johnson, then prime minister, announced plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing, but that scheme has been challenged in the courts, and so far no migrant has been flown to the African nation.

Mr. Sunak remains committed to the Rwanda policy but has also taken a more pragmatic approach by improving cooperation with France. On Tuesday, he also announced a new unit dedicated to processing cases involving Albanians and an agreement to embed British border guards at the airport in Tirana, the Albanian capital.

Once the small-boat crossings had ended, Mr. Sunak said, Britain would be prepared to create more legal routes for asylum seekers.

A British government plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing has drawn protests, including this one at the Royal Courts of Justice in London in September.Credit…Tolga Akmen/EPA, via Shutterstock

But he sidestepped questions about whether his proposal to prevent those making the illegal crossings from remaining in the country would breach international obligations.

Support groups for asylum seekers condemned the announcement.

“Without safe routes, they have no choice but to take dangerous journeys,” the Refugee Council, a charity, said in a statement. “The prime minister failed to set out any concrete plans to expand these routes through a resettlement program or an expansion in family reunion visas.”

“Instead, this government wants to treat people who come to the U.K. in search of safety as illegal criminals,” the statement added. “This is deeply disturbing and flies in the face of international law and the U.K.’s commitment as a signatory of the U.N. Convention on Refugees to give a fair hearing to people who come here in search of safety and protection.”

There was also concern about an announcement by Mr. Sunak to make it harder for asylum seekers to claim protections enshrined in anti-human-slavery law — legislation that British officials fear is being exploited.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May, the architect of that law, asked Mr. Sunak in Parliament on Tuesday whether he agreed that “that we must do nothing to diminish our world-leading protections for the victims of this terrible, horrific crime” of slavery.

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, dismissed the announcement as an attempt to distract from the problems rather than to solve them.

“The gimmicks go on, and so do the crossing,” he said. “We need to bring this to an end. That means a proper plan to crack down on the gangs — quick processing, return agreements, serious solutions to a serious problem.”

Others were skeptical that the British border and immigration authorities, which struggle to retain staff and have a poor record on asylum processing, would deliver on the prime minister’s pledges to speed things up.

“Despite promises to increase decision-making numbers, targets have been missed, and the staff attrition rate in 2021 was a staggering 46 percent,” said Diana Johnson, chairwoman of the House of Commons home affairs select committee.

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