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Rishi Sunak’s small boats plan suffers another blow as Home Office deems Turkey unsafe

Rishi Sunak’s small boats plan suffers another blow as Home Office deems Turkey unsafe

Rishi Sunak’s pledge to halt boats carrying migrants across the English Channel is under threat once again as the Home Office is said to have concerns about Turkey being a safe country.

The decision puts the prime minister’s hope of striking a returns deal with Ankara in jeopardy, as officials say that Turkey is “over-zealous” in its anti-terrorism laws and has unfair trials. There are also allegations of torture in the judicial system.

Three thousand Turkish nationals arrived by small boat to the UK last year, the third largest nationality and more than double the number from the previous year.

Rishi Sunak has faced considerable party discord over his failure to get a grip on the small boats crisis (PA)
Rishi Sunak has faced considerable party discord over his failure to get a grip on the small boats crisis (PA)

The proposed deal would have mirrored the accord with Albania, which Downing Street says has seen the number of people arriving by small boats falling by 90 per cent since the returns deal was signed.

But now the plans face are facing a major setback as an internal Home Office review is reported to have described Turkey as “a state that does not meet the criteria of being ‘generally safe’” and questioned its compliance with rulings from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which the Home Office said may raise “questions about adherence to the rule of law”.

The audit may gift Sunak’s right-leaning colleagues yet more ammunition to push for the UK to leave the ECHR and bolster provisions within the Rwanda bill to ignore the court-orders that override UK government policy.

Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman has called the Home Office’s decision “very concerning”.

Posting on X, she said:

“As Home Secretary I worked up proposals to list Turkey as a safe country [sic], a member of the Council of Europe, a NATO ally and a Candidate country for EU accession. The government should re-think this decision.”

The Times is reporting that officials are considering whether another treaty – similar to the Rwandan one – could be worked up to ensure that political opponents would not be persecuted upon return.

Turkey has long been considered an important state in the wider immigration landscape as a gateway between the war-torn Middle East and the rest of Europe.

It has also become the main hub for manufacturing dinghies which are used by people-smugglers to transport migrants over the channel.

Back in August 2022 the UK and Turkey signed an intelligence sharing agreement that would strengthen collaboration and enforcement between the states in dealing with the migrant crisis.

The government established a new centre of excellence, to be established by the Turkish National Police, which would help the two countries share intelligence so staff could act more quickly on information.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (PA Archive)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (PA Archive)

New Home Office figures published on Thursday revealed 1,335 migrants crossed the Channel in small boats in January, a 13 per cent increase compared with the same month last year.

Downing Street has since denied that a potential returns agreement to send migrants back to Turkey has fallen through.

Asked whether it has, the Prime Minister’s spokesman told reporters: “No. We do and can return people to Turkey. There’s been no changes to the arrangements we have between the UK and Turkey.

“We announced a strengthened migration partnership with Turkey last summer.”

Asked whether there were plans to create a more formal deal, they said: “Formal return agreements are just one of the many levers we’ve got at our disposal. And we do and can return people to Turkey.”

A spokesperson from the Home Office also said that international cooperation plays a “crucial part” in tackling illegal migration and “the UK and Turkey are close strategic partners, with a future-focused relationship”.

“Where an individual has no legal right to be in the UK, we will seek to return them to their home country. Protection claims are considered on their individual merits in accordance with our international obligations – no one who is found to be at risk of persecution or serious harm will be returned,” they added.