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Small Boats: the Post-Brexit Migration Story the Media Doesn’t Report

Thom Brooks’ report reveals the Government has created the Channel migration ‘small boats’ crisis through its hard Brexit policies

A family walk to shore as a group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dungeness, Kent, by the RNLI following a small boat incident in the Channel. Photo: Alamy

Small BoatsThe Post-Brexit Migration Story the Media Doesn’t Report

Thom Brooks’ report reveals the Government has created the Channel migration ‘small boats’ crisis through its hard Brexit policies

Despite being publicised by Peter Stefanovic with over 4 million views on his channel, Professor Thom Brooks’ report on the Government’s mishandling of its post-Brexit border controls has not been followed up by any major media organisation. Byline Times is pleased to publish the report here, as Thom Brooks summarises the problem.


Small boat crossings have caught the Government completely by surprise. There were no migrants arriving by small boats claiming asylum on record until 2018 – nearly two years after the EU Referendum vote.  

Successive Prime Ministers vowed to “take back control” and “fix our broken asylum system” using our newly found freedom to enact new laws. Only a year ago, Suella Braverman told Parliament these new laws would “stop” the boats and yet more than ever before have arrived since.  

The Government didn’t see the problem coming and doesn’t know how to solve it. The best it can offer is repeating mantras that the system is broken – albeit a system they created – needing new laws to put it right.  

The public isn’t fooled. It is obvious that if the Government knew what to do it would have done it a few months ago when pushing its new plan for immigration. It is hardly surprising public confidence in the Government’s handling of small boats and immigration more generally is at a record low. 

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I launched a new report at Durham University that examines why small boat crossings are happening and what can be done about it. The report does not make for easy reading for anyone in Government.  

My report finds the primary factor behind small boat crossings is the UK’s lacking a returns agreement with the EU. Before Brexit, the UK was part of a system (the Dublin III Regulation). Anyone travelling to the UK irregularly (e.g., without a visa or right to remain), could and often were returned to the first safe EU country they had arrived in originally. Clandestine journeys were relatively small and stable with annual removals usually counted in their hundreds. 

But after Brexit, the UK exited this returns agreement. This meant that it became much harder to return irregular migrants because there was no deal on returning them. Removals have dwindled to their dozens since. 

The Government was warned repeatedly that leaving the EU without a returns arrangement in place could have significant consequences but these warnings were ignored.

There is much evidence to back this finding. Most arrivals that year started in the months after Parliament passed the EU (Withdrawal) Act and numbers have shot up substantially since the transition period ended in January 2020, as the lack of an agreement helped fuel numbers. There were 299 arrivals in 2018, 8466 in 2020 and 45,766 last year. 

The Government was warned repeatedly that leaving the EU without a returns arrangement in place could have significant consequences but these warnings were ignored. In 2016, I first wrote that leaving the returns system would mean “more, not fewer, people” crossing that would “put their lives on the line” as it would create high risks. Tragically, this prediction turned out to be correct. 

But I wasn’t alone. Repeatedly, the Labour front bench pressed the Government for its assessment for its estimated impact of leaving without a returns agreement. While a deal on agreements was attempted, it was admitted more than once that “the Government has not modelled the likely impact” – and this failure has led to their surprise at the problem ever happening, 

My report is clear that the cause of the problem is the criminal gangs that have exploited this change in how our borders are protected. I offer several recommendations for how these gangs might be tackled more effectively. 

‘Small Boats – Lazy Minds’

Brad Blitz

I also find no evidence that the Government’s plans to send migrants to Rwanda to have asylum claims processed will have any deterrent effect. This is confirmed by the Government itself which claims it is unable to provide any estimate of the effect of this policy because of a “multiplicity of variables involved”.

This begs the question that if the Government cannot even guess the impact how can it claim any positive effect backed by £140m already spent with not a single removal scheduled? 

But perhaps the biggest hurdle for addressing the small boats issue is the Government admitting that it got its “oven-ready” deal wrong. In the rush to get Brexit done and score political points, they ignored warnings their plan would create further problems – and my report notes that recognising their failure may have political costs. 

Small boat crossings are an issue that must be handled competently and compassionately. The Government is doing neither. If it really does aim to reduce numbers, there are many options on the table. One of these is the need for a new returns agreement – like the UK had when there were no small boats. Nor does this require re-joining the EU, as many non-EU countries like Norway and Switzerland remain a part of the system that the UK left. 

Until the Government understands the causes of the current situation – as my report sets out – it cannot act effectively to improve it. It is not too late to do the right thing.  

Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University’s Law School.


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