Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Sensemaker: Small boats, big picture

Sensemaker: Small boats, big picture

What just happened

Long stories short

  • At least 68 people died when a Yeti Airlines flight in Nepal crashed near the town of Pokhara. 
  • UK police arrested a man in his 60s over traces of uranium found at Heathrow airport. 
  • German police removed Greta Thunberg and other activists from a coal mine protest site.

Small boats, big picture

In December 2018, Britain’s home secretary, Sajid Javid, had to cut short a family holiday to manage a growing number of people crossing the Channel by boat. It was estimated that a few hundred people made the trip that year. Three home secretaries later, last year that number topped 45,000. 

So what? Rishi Sunak has staked a lot of political capital on his promise to “stop the boats” – one of his five key priorities before the next general election. His government is focused on legislation, expected next month, that will mean anyone who arrives in Britain on small boats is detained and removed to their home country or a third country like Rwanda. It seems unlikely to work. 

By the numbers

45,756 – people who crossed the Channel in small boats in 2022.

212,600 – total Ukrainian scheme visas issued to come to the UK.

504,000 – net migration to the UK in the year ending June 2022.

15,987 – people granted asylum in the year to September 2022, putting the UK in seventh place in Europe, behind Germany and France. 

77 per cent – asylum claims in the UK approved at the initial decision stage last year. 

143,377 – people waiting for an initial decision on their asylum application.

In the context of overall immigration to the UK, the number of small boat crossings is not that big, says Dr Peter William Walsh, senior researcher for the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. But “they are politically significant because they have been increasing sharply in recent years and symbolise a lack of government control.”

The politics. That’s difficult for Conservatives, who both pre- and post-Brexit have emphasised taking back control of the border. As Tortoise’s Matthew d’Ancona wrote last month, reports of record levels of net migration to the UK go down in Red Wall seats, according to a Downing Street source, “like a fart in a spacesuit”. Unhelpfully, the UK lost the right to deport asylum seekers to the first EU country that they entered when it left the bloc. 

But but but. The problem also gives Conservatives something to unite behind. The Spectator’s Katy Balls says some Tory MPs want the next election to be fought on a promise to ignore rulings from the European Court of Human Rights and run a “stop the boats” campaign. Suella Braverman, the current home secretary, refused to apologise for calling the boat crossings an “invasion” this weekend after an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor said it reminded her of “dehumanising” language used by the Nazis (the Home Office is trying to have a video of the exchange taken down).

Sunak has pledged to bring down the backlog of asylum claims from people in the UK and explore creating more safe routes to the UK (it is not possible to claim asylum from outside the country). But the focus is on deterrence: removing the right to claim asylum for illegal arrivals and, he hopes, packing migrants off to Rwanda. 

Morally, Britain is at risk of becoming an “international pariah”, say charities. Practically, it’s difficult. The government’s plan to pay Rwanda to accept asylum seekers (which would only cover 300 people and has so far cost £140 million) – was declared legal by the High Court. But the charity Asylum Aid, which challenged the policy, will seek permission to appeal the ruling in a hearing today. Any new legislation will likely also be challenged in the courts. 

The big picture. Pushing public focus onto desperate people in unsafe dinghies distracts from another issue in the UK’s mess of a migration policy: huge holes in the labour market (more on this to follow in Wednesday’s Sensemaker). A Lords report warns that an exodus of more than half a million people from the British workforce since Covid poses serious risks to the UK economy – but Sunak has so far rejected business pleas to increase immigration in favour of encouraging more over-50s back to work.

There are no quick fixes – only better cooperation between Britain and France to prevent small boats setting out, and a big rethink on who has the right to work – and seek refuge – in the UK. 


Priced out of Davos
Magnitsky campaigner Bill Browder has accused the World Economic Forum of “intentionally pricing” him out of Davos, after organisers raised the cost of his ticket to $250,000. The financier-turned-activist, who has been locked in a conflict with Russia’s Vladimir Putin for nearly 20 years, told Tortoise this was more than three times the cost of entrance in the past. “I’m a well-known human rights activist who’s been risking my life to stand up to Putin. At a time when Putin is invading Ukraine I would have thought my voice would have been particularly relevant this year,” he said. Although some 2,700 world leaders will attend this week, the World Economic Forum said Putin and other Russian leaders were not welcome. The WEF did not respond to requests for a comment, although spokesman Adrian Monck told Semafor: “Invitations to activists and civil society figures tend to prioritise people with considerably less resources.”


Beijing’s golden shares
China is shifting tack when it comes to controlling its tech giants. Previously, Beijing favoured heavy fines and sanctions to limit their growth and power. But now, the government is instead buying up “golden shares” in local units of Alibaba and Tencent. The shares, usually equal to about 1 per cent of a firm, come with special rights over business decisions. The Financial Times reported that a branch of the Cyberspace Administration of China took 1 per cent of an Alibaba subsidiary in Guangzhou on 4 January and that discussions were underway about a similar stake in a Tencent subsidiary. The government has previously purchased stakes in mainland subsidiaries of TikTok owner ByteDance. Different tactics, same grip. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Covid New Year
Question of the day: what is the largest annual migration of people? Answer: the Lunar New Year celebrations in China, which begin this weekend. Two billion trips are expected around the holiday. In post-zero-Covid China, that movement of people – particularly into rural provinces – could have catastrophic consequences. The World Health Organization has been pushing China’s National Health Commission (NHC) for more transparency on the virus’s spread through the country. On Saturday, the NHC reported 59,938 deaths between 8 December and 12 January in hospitals; previously, Beijing had reported 5,272 direct deaths in total through the pandemic. These new official figures don’t include deaths at home or in senior care homes – which are potentially higher in the rural areas vast amounts of people will soon travel to. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Afghan trailblazer shot 
A former Afghan MP and her bodyguard have been shot dead in Kabul. Mursal Nabizada, 32, was elected as a member of parliament in 2018 and stayed in the country after the Taliban takeover in August 2021. Many female judges, journalists and politicians fled the country, as the Taliban remove women from nearly all aspects of public life. The shooting also marks the first time a politician from the previous administration has been killed in the city since the Taliban took power, according to CNN. “A true trailblazer – strong, outspoken woman who stood for what she believed in, even in the face of danger,” former lawmaker Mariam Solaimankhil said on Twitter.


Diabolik captured
Italy’s most-wanted mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro has been captured after 30 years on the run. Denaro, who took his nickname, Diabolik, from an Italian comic book criminal, was arrested at a private hospital in Palermo, Sicily. His capture marks the end of an era: Denaro was the last of Sicily’s notorious fugitive bosses – who were all ultimately arrested in the heart of Sicily. Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister, called the arrest “a victory for the state”. Denaro has been sentenced to life in jail in absentia for his role in the 1992 murders of anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino and faces a life sentence for his role in bomb attacks in Florence, Rome and Milan the following year. 

The week ahead


16/01 – Rwanda asylum case hearing in the High Court, 17/01 – Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes unemployment figures, 18/01 – Royal College of Nursing members begin two-day strike; Unison members at the Environment Agency stage one-day strike; ONS publishes latest UK inflation data, 19/01 – Deadline for restoring power-sharing in Northern Ireland; Government deadline to review Scottish Parliament’s Gender Recognition (Reform) Bill, 20/01 – Junior doctors’ strike ballot closes. 


16/01 – World Economic Forum opens in Davos, Switzerland; Belarus and Russia begin joint aviation drills; Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, 17/01 – Trial in absentia starts of Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya; China releases fourth quarter GDP data, 18/01 – Nato military chiefs begin two-day meeting in Brussels, 19/01 – Orthodox epiphany, 20/01 – Annual Roe v Wade campaign march in Washington, DC, 22/01 – China celebrates the start of the Year of the Rabbit. 

Thanks for reading. Please tell your friends to sign up, send us ideas and let us know what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Jessica Winch

Additional reporting by Catherine Neilan, Phoebe Davis and Sebastian Hervas-Jones.

Photographs Getty Images, Ufficio Stampa Comando Generale

Choose which Tortoise newsletters you receive