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Home Office admits there is no proof for a key claim regarding small boat crossings

Photo by Outsite Co on Unsplash

The Home Office has admitted it has no evidence to back one of the key justifications for its crackdown on small boat crossings.

As home secretary in 2021, Priti Patel told parliament that “70% of individuals on small boats are single men who are effectively economic migrants”. In December last year, with the number of boat arrivals continuing to increase, her successor, Suella Braverman, backed the assertion, saying to MPs: “There is considerable evidence that people are coming here as economic migrants, illegally.”

Human rights groups say such claims help create a false narrative that individuals arriving by boat are not genuine asylum seekers so are less deserving of sympathy.

However, when asked via a Freedom of Information request for evidence to support Patel’s claim, the Home Office admitted it had none. Its response – dated 20 March 2023, a year after the request was sent – states: “We have carried out a thorough search and we have established that the Home Office does not hold the information requested.” But the former home secretary’s statement appears not to have been corrected.

Sophie McCann, migration advocacy officer at charity MSF UK, said: “The government has failed to provide any evidence to support claims that the majority of those trying to reach the UK are so-called economic migrants. These kinds of statements are deployed to demonise and dehumanise people seeking safety here, stirring up divisions, with real and dangerous consequences. We know that many people who reach the UK are fleeing war, persecution and other hardships… and lots have survived violence, torture, and trafficking.”

The Home Office’s own data confirms that most of the people who reached the UK by small boat in 2022 – at least six in 10 – would be recognised as refugees. Despite this, the British government has closed or severely restricted most safe routes to the UK, leaving people with no choice but to risk the Channel crossing.

The failure of the government to justify its “economic migrant” argument comes days after Rishi Sunak and immigration minister Robert Jenrick were rebuked by the UK statistics watchdog for using inaccurate figures about asylum seekers.

Human rights groups say the Home Office has attempted to manipulate the debate by calling arrivals from Albania economic migrants or criminals, rather than refugees. Braverman caused outrage last November by saying: “If Labour were in charge they would be allowing all the Albanian criminals to come to this country.”

Of the 45,756 people who arrived by small boats last year, 28% were Albanian. Charities argue that asylum seekers from Albania travel to the UK primarily because of poverty and corruption, and that many are “viciously exploited” after arriving. The Home Office responded by describing Albania as a “safe country”, adding that its nationals formed the biggest share of small boat arrivals last year.

McCann added: “The UK has a moral and legal responsibility to provide protection to people seeking sanctuary here, yet this government continues to desperately introduce punitive and deliberately cruel policies.”

Elsewhere, opposition to one facet of the government’s crackdown on small boat crossings – its plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda continues to mount. An open letter signed so far by more than 800 health professionals, including leaders from some royal colleges and the British Medical Association, expresses “grave concerns about the health implications of ongoing plans to forcibly remove individuals seeking protection in the UK to Rwanda”.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “There is clear and published evidence that since January 2018, 76% of arrivals have been adult males and the vast majority would have travelled through safe countries to the UK. Individuals should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. An unacceptable number of people are risking their lives by making dangerous crossings, often economically motivated … Our priority is to stop this illegal trade.”

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