UK will create more safe and legal routes for asylum seekers 'once numbers are under control', deputy PM says

17 December 2023, 11:32 | Updated: 17 December 2023, 13:25

Oliver Dowden
Oliver Dowden. Picture: Alamy/Getty

By Kit Heren

The UK will create more safe and legal routes for refugees to apply for asylum when "numbers are under control," Oliver Dowden has said.

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The Deputy Prime Minister told LBC's Matthew Wright that creating more "legitimate means" for migrants "has to be predicated on getting the numbers down".

Mr Dowden was speaking after the government's emergency legislation to send migrants arriving illegally to Rwanda passed a vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday, despite criticism from left and right.

Under the plan, migrants arriving in the UK via small boats would be sent to Rwanda to apply for asylum in the east African state.

The aim is to deter people from making the crossing, which is very dangerous and run by criminal human traffickers. Some critics say the Rwanda plan itself is unworkable and risks endangering refugees.

Read more: More than 60 dead after migrant boat headed for Europe capsizes in the Mediterranean

Read more: Rishi Sunak warns of migrant threat 'overwhelming' European countries as UK and Italy agree to fund Tunisia plan

Matthew Wright speaks to Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden

It comes after 61 people died when the boat they were crossing the Mediterranean in capsized on Saturday. Earlier in the week, a migrant died in the English Channel.

Mr Dowden said on Sunday: "Nobody should be able to make that dangerous crossing across the Channel, facilitated by criminal gangs, and if you want to apply to get into the United Kingdom you need to do so through legitimate means.

"If you don’t abide by those rules, you will either be sent back to your home country, or you will be sent to Rwanda - I think that is a reasonable proposition."

Some of the official routes for refugees are limited to specific countries: Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. There are others, such as the refugee family reunion scheme, although the number of visas granted is considerably lower.

Matthew Wright has a heated conversation with Deputy PM Oliver Dowden regarding immigration

Asked by Matthew what legitimate routes migrants can take, Mr Dowden said: "We’ve announced a range of routes, so for example people who are being persecuted in Afghanistan, or Hong Kong or in Ukraine - we’ve allowed many hundreds of thousands through.

Mr Dowden added that the fundamental point here... is we cannot allow this trade in people. It really is a trade in people [who] have been paying, paying criminal gangs.

"Often they'll not even be given enough petrol to get across the Channel - we have to put a stop to that."

Mr Dowden said that the government "will create further legal routes, but that has to be predicated on getting the numbers down.

"I think most of your viewers appreciate let's get our numbers under control, and then have further routes for those people".

Over 100,000 people have made the Channel crossing in small boats since 2018
Over 100,000 people have made the Channel crossing in small boats since 2018. Picture: Getty

More than 29,000 migrants have arrived via small boats in the UK so far this year, which is down considerably from the 45,000 who came via the same route in 2022. Over 100,000 have made the perilous crossing, which is run by criminal people smugglers, since 2018.

The government has made 'stopping the boats' a key pledge to the electorate. Rishi Sunak said on Saturday that migrants could "overwhelm" Europe with their sheer numbers.

At the same time, the UK has experienced very high legal migration that has ramped up considerably since Brexit. Net migration - the number of people who arrived in the UK, minus the people who left - hit 745,000 in 2022.

Rishi Sunak said that migrants risk overwhelming the UK
Rishi Sunak said that migrants risk overwhelming the UK. Picture: Getty

The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and crossing it in small dinghies is very dangerous.

The death of a migrant in the English Channel on Friday morning is the latest in a series of tragic crossing attempts. French authorities confirmed two people had died in a similar incident off the coast of France last month.

Two others died after trying to cross the Channel in separate incidents in August and November 2021, while an independent inquiry was launched last month after 27 people died when after an inflatable boat capsized, also in November 2021.

Separately, Mr Dowden also backed calls made by Foreign Secretary David Cameron for a "sustainable" ceasefire in Gaza.

Asked about Lord Cameron's comments in the Sunday Times, the Deputy PM said "the most important thing is that we get an enduring and sustainable end to the conflict in the Middle East."

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