Despite his reputation for methodical and realistic, the political crisis over the increase in immigration in the United Kingdom has led Rishi Sunak to think that it is possible to empty the sea with a bucket of water. The promise of Brexit – take back control, in this case of the borders – turned out to be a mirage that has provoked an internal confrontation among the Conservatives. Half a million people entered the country between June 2021 and the same month in 2022, according to the net balance published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). And the figure that will be published in the coming days, according to some leaks that appeared in the media, may end up touching the million new inhabitants (between 650,000 and 997,000).
The government of Sunak has gradually begun to admit the reality: the vast majority of the new inhabitants have arrived legally. The problem – for those Conservatives who insist on seeing the issue as the main electoral problem they face – is not with those who arrive on the shores of southern England in flimsy boats. The real challenge for the prime minister is not irregular immigration, which he prefers to call illegal immigration.
Almost at the same time that Sunak traveled to Finland first and later to Japan to the G-7 summit last weekend, a group of recalcitrant Tories, the hardest wing of the party, launched the first conference of the National Conservatism in London. It is an internal current financed and promoted by the ultraconservative American foundation Edmund Burke.
The concerns of that foundation — family, homeland, God — squeak about the moderate conservatism that has ruled the United Kingdom for so many decades. And the star of the conference was Interior Minister Suella Braverman, with an extremely tough speech on immigration. A way to reinforce his future commitment to the leadership of the party, in the hypothetical case that Sunak is unable to overcome the catastrophe predicted by the polls, and the realization that immigration has created internal divisions in the Government itself.
In the same week in which the businessmen again demanded that the Executive relax its hand and increase the quota of work visas, to alleviate a shortage of labor in many sectors, Braverman raised the tone of his speech: "We cannot allow ourselves to forget how to do things. There is no reason why we cannot train our own truck drivers, butchers or fruit and vegetable pickers," the minister assured a dedicated audience. "It is not xenophobic to say that a massive and accelerated immigration is not sustainable when it comes to providing housing or services [to the new arrivals]," defended a woman of Indian origin and features who defends precisely for this reason her supposed right to have a harsh speech. "It is not prejudiced to say that too many people have come here illegally and are claiming asylum. We don't have enough means to accommodate them," Braverman says.
The promise that the Tories incorporated into their 2019 election manifesto—which continues to bind the current prime minister—stated that, at the end of the mandate in 2024, the net balance of immigrants would fall, compared to the figures that were handled then (the balance was at that time of 226,000 people). Sunak has now tried to get out of that trap. "We are considering a number of alternatives to reduce the numbers of illegal immigration. We will explain more on this matter in the near future," the prime minister told the BBC, who at all times refused to confirm whether he was still committed to the election program.
The great paradox is that the balance of immigrants arriving in the United Kingdom, from the European Union, was negative until that same June 2022. The number of EU residents in British territory fell by 51,000.
In 2022 alone, the United Kingdom welcomed 463,000 foreign students, attracted by the fame and prestige of university education. A large part of them will remain in the country for several more years, or permanently. And they have the right to bring their relatives with them.
Boris Johnson's government opened its doors to all residents of the former colony of Hong Kong who wanted to flee the restriction of freedoms imposed by Beijing. More than 100,000 people took advantage of the offer last year.
And finally, hundreds of thousands of people from Ukraine and Afghanistan have used perfectly legal avenues to acquire their British residency.
Rwanda and floating prisons
Human rights and refugee aid organisations share the harshness of their criticism of Downing Street's migration policy with the Anglican Church itself. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has come to describe as "morally unacceptable" the new Illegal Immigration Law, which cuts short the possibility of claiming asylum those who arrive irregularly in British territory.
Sunak has reached agreements with countries such as Albania, where some of the mafias that transport migrants through the waters of the English Channel come from and almost a quarter – 10,000 of the 46,000 – of the people who arrived by that route last year on the coasts of southern England. But the reality is that barely a thousand Albanians have been deported to their country. And many of them, convicted and imprisoned on British soil for minor crimes, after receiving an economic stimulus from the Government (about 1,700 euros) and a reduction of their sentence.
London and Paris have improved their post-Brexit relations, and there is a willingness on both sides to increase police checks on French beaches to curb the number of boats making the crossing from the mainland to the island. But French President Emmanuel Macron continues to refuse to allow the return of intercepted migrants to his country, noting that it is a matter that can only be agreed between the UK and the EU.
Sunak maintains the pact with Rwanda to deport the irregulars to that country, but the reality is that not a single plane has yet taken off for Kigali: the first one that tried it was stopped in its tracks in June last year by the European Court of Human Rights. The forecasts, in any case, indicate that the African country could barely accommodate a few hundred people.
At least 160,000 people are still waiting in the UK for their asylum application process to progress. "Women and children who remain in limbo awaiting a decision, trapped in low-quality hotels and residences that cost the public purse more than five million pounds a day [about 5.7 million euros], and unable to work or move on with their lives," said Enver Solomon, the executive director of the UK Refugee Council.
Sunak's latest proposal is to house the new arrivals in a kind of floating hotel — floating prison, to his critics — anchored in the port of Portland, in the coastal city of Weymouth, in southern England. With capacity for about 500 people, the Government intends to accommodate adult males there. Another bucket of water that will not serve to alleviate the trap in which the Conservatives trapped themselves with the promises of Brexit.
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