(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said his government is making progress on cutting the number of people coming to the UK from France on small boats, though he struggled to fend off questions about whether adverse weather is the main reason behind the year-on-year decline this year.
“Our plan is working,” Sunak said at a press conference in Dover, southern England on Monday, citing a 20% decline in crossings between January and May this year compared to the same period in 2022. “But we are not complacent.”
Read More: Sunak Moves to Curb Migration Citing Strain on UK Services
Sunak’s “stop the boats” effort is one of his five flagship promises - alongside halving inflation, growing the UK economy, reducing debt and cutting NHS waiting lists - against which he wants to be judged at a general election expected next year. Facing a double-digit poll deficit against the opposition Labour Party, stubbornly high inflation and recent poor local election results, Sunak is under pressure to show he’s making progress on those pledges.
Asked whether the decline has been due to particularly poor weather in the Channel in the first half of 2023 - a key determinant of crossings - Sunak pointed to the higher number of migrant arrivals in other parts of Europe as evidence the UK’s plan is working. He said a British deportation deal with Albania and enhanced cooperation with France is bearing fruit.
During the press conference, Sunak was asked whether the fact that no small boats had arrived for several days played a part the timing of his visit to Dover. “There’s many things I can control, the weather is not one of them,” the prime minister replied.
The danger for Sunak is crossings surge again in the summer months, when the majority of journeys typically occur. Sunak declined to specify a figure for what would constitute an acceptable number of crossings under his flagship policy, saying it would be for others to judge.
“I’ve always said this won’t be fixed overnight,” he said. “I will do what is necessary to achieve it.”
Sunak’s government has been trying to make the UK a less attractive destination for people arriving via routes it considers to be illegal, though ministers have faced a barrage of criticism that it means many asylum seekers have no available options for reaching the country.
The Illegal Migration Bill, due before the House of Lords on Wednesday, will let officials detain migrants who arrive through unrecognized channels. The government wants to return many of them home — or to Rwanda.
Ministers are concerned a record 606,000 more people moved to Britain than departed last year despite a promise to reduce immigration.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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