Small BoatsLazy Minds
None of the solutions to the Government’s concerns about migrant boats crossing the Channel require the UK’s withdrawal from the ECHR, writes Brad Blitz
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Reports that Rishi Sunak is considering withdrawing the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) suggest nothing but opportunism.
The Prime Minister is apparently motivated by a desire to curb the growing numbers of irregular migrants reaching the country’s shores on small boats. Yet, even if one were to believe the headline figure of 65,000 new migrants arriving in the year ahead (as provided to former Home Secretary Priti Patel by a private source) – when only 1,180 arrived in January – there are other ways to manage this without dismantling the human rights system that has protected us for 70 years.
One point of contention is who is arriving in the boats, with Albanian men singled out – in part because a number have claimed to be victims of modern slavery. This is, by all accounts, a serious charge.
Under UK law, modern slavery encompasses a number of criminal offences, including the trafficking of individuals for economic, commercial or personal exploitation. However, it is not enough simply to advance a claim. There is an important evidentiary process and individuals seeking protection must submit a request via a first responder organisation before their claim can be assessed by the National Referral Mechanism.
Statutory and non-statutory first responder organisations include the police, Home Office, UK Visas and Immigration, Border Force, Immigration Enforcement, National Crime Agency, as well as local authorities and specialist agencies including the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority. In addition, a number of charities, migrant and refugee support organisations are also entrusted to refer cases including the NSPCC, Salvation Army, Migrant Help, Barnardo’s and Refugee Council.
Even if one were to believe that the problem for the Home Office lies with the number of Albanian men entering the UK through irregular channels – and, again, this presents an inaccurate picture both of this migrant population and the scale of the problem – there are other ways to address the Government’s concerns.
Firstly, the UK Government is empowered to intercept vessels before they enter the UK’s waters. Doing so, however, requires cooperation between Britain and its continental neighbours who have provided Albanians with visa-free travel. Such cooperation is necessary in order facilitate returns and to gather intelligence about the nature and direction of irregular flows.
Reports that the preferred route to the Channel is from Tirana to Brussels airport make such cooperation even more important. That requires greater diplomatic engagement and resourcing on the part of the UK Government.
Secondly, the UK can make use of readmission agreements, including the 2021 document signed by the former Home Secretary Priti Patel with the Government of Albania. This provides a mechanism to return individuals to Albania (and conversely the UK) and outlines the operational processes to be followed.
Yet, successful returns rely on cooperation with the Government of Albania, which has both been tapped to pick up the pieces of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, including resettling Afghans at risk, and has been equally be subject to offensive scapegoating and stereotypical depictions of its nationals as criminals.
Thirdly, the UK should intensify bilateral opportunities for trade and investment, including the creation of economic zones in Albania, with a view to undermining the logic of outwards migration, most of which is driven by poverty and lack of opportunity.
The problem of organised crime is real but it cannot be laid at the door of Albanians alone. Rather it reflects the increasingly globalised and illicit context in which the movement of capital and people is now occurring, and has been enabled by the lack of effective regulation, inadequate law enforcement, the reduction in policing, and evidence of collusion between interest groups.
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London, in particular, has become the place where the proceeds of crime are washed, via major infrastructure developments, through to the establishment of barbershops, restaurant fronts, nail bars and the hundreds of cannabis farms concealed from street view.
Several London councils are at the epicentre of this collective criminal enterprise – you only need to visit the high streets in some boroughs to see how they sustain criminal activity behind the façade of business. Similarly, we should take a much closer look at recruitment in the construction sector.
None of this will be news to our law enforcement or legislators but the Serious Fraud Office has yet to rein in these illicit businesses which recruit victims of trafficking, smuggling and desperation. It is time to address this system-wide abuse, including the pull factors enabled by local and central government, and the politicians and their allies at the centre of this web of exploitation. That means gathering intelligence both upfront and behind the scenes, to root out these sources which attract and sustain criminal gangs – supposedly the target of Sunak’s policies.
None of this requires the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. Doing so would substantially reduce opportunities for international cooperation, including in matters of security and the prevention of trafficking in persons.
Brad Blitz is Professor of International Politics and Policy at UCL