Illegal immigration figures are going the wrong way, and it could get much worse for Rishi Sunak - analysis by Mark White

​Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak pledged last year to Stop the Boats

Mark White

By Mark White

Published: 02/04/2024

- 12:04

The Prime Minister is running out of time. And there’s nothing to suggest the months ahead will see any reversal of this early trend

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Labour politicians are already jumping all over the latest Channel migrant figures, claiming Rishi Sunak's Stop the Boats policy is now "in tatters".

The Government can and will push back, rightly pointing out that we are only three months into the new year.

But however the Prime Minister and Home Secretary might seek to categorise the latest arrivals, there's no getting away from what is a staggering reversal in the progress the Government had been making in reducing Channel migrant numbers.

And this matters because, with each passing week, we grow ever close to the general election, and a more forensic examination of the five key pledges Rishi Sunak asked to be judged on.

There's little doubt, in the minds of many across the country, stopping the boats is one of the most important of those pledges.

The impact of high levels of migration, and the requisition of many hundreds of hotels for use by asylum seekers, is being felt in communities across the nation.

I was at Lydd airport in Kent in April 2022, when the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his bold plan to send many Channel migrants to the East African nation to have their asylum applications processed there.

This would, we were told, act as a key deterrent, helping break the people smugglers' business model.

But almost two years on, not a single aircraft carrying asylum seekers has left the UK bound for Rwanda.

The latest migration bill, which the Prime Minister hopes will finally pave the way for those flights to begin, is expected to become law later this month.

But even then, no one believes any flights will be able to leave before the Summer.

And that will only happen if the policy doesn't get bogged down in fresh court challenges, a distinct possibility.

Given this excruciatingly long legal process, Rishi Sunak needs some tangible progress on illegal migration he can take to the electorate when that general election is finally called.

By the end of last year, ministers could do just that. They could point to a not insignificant 36 per cent reduction in Channel migrant arrivals over those past twelve months.

And that's exactly what we saw, the Prime Minister and other Government figures claiming at news conferences and in interviews that their Stop the Boats policy was largely responsible for that reduction, even though many maritime experts believed the weather last year was the bigger factor at play.

But in just three months, we've seen a spectacular reversal of that trend, and then some.

From a 36 per cent reduction in arrivals, the figures to the end of March show a 43 per cent increase in those crossing illegally from France.

A total of 5,435 migrants have arrived since the beginning of the year, well in excess of the 3,793 who had crossed the Channel by small boat at this point in 2023.

Rishi Sunak might well respond by telling us to judge him on the numbers who cross by the end of the year.

But the problem is, he’s running out of time. And there’s nothing to suggest the months ahead will see any reversal of this early trend.

Indeed, internal assessments by the Border Force union at the end of last year, pointed to the likelihood that the number of Channel migrants in 2024 would overtake those who arrived in 2023 by a significant margin.

As we head ever closer to that general election, the opposition parties will seek to exploit the government’s seeming inability to make any meaningful impact on Channel migrant crossings.

And that’s the problem with those pesky pledges. They sound good as targets for Government action. But they can just as easily be exploited by those who want to point to government inaction.

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