One of the more troubling developments of the last two years has been the sharp increase in the number of people trying to reach the UK by crossing the Channel in small boats.

In November 2021, 27 people died while attempting the journey, prompting a series of policy pledges by the government in an attempt to demonstrate control of the border.

The most contentious of these was the plan to fly some asylum seekers to Rwanda – regardless of whether they have a valid claim – in order to deter others.

Now, in a Conservative leadership contest where candidates have been falling over themselves to repudiate government policy, the Rwanda plan seems to have attracted a degree of consensus – so far, every candidate has said they’re committed to keeping it.

The government is right to prioritise policies that aim to deter asylum seekers from making such journeys. Not only are the journeys themselves extremely dangerous for the individuals concerned, but such patterns of migration are likely to undermine public confidence in the security of the border, which could fuel further division and polarisation.

Yet there is little evidence that the government’s current plans will deter irregular migration. Indeed, if anything, they are likely to further incentivise asylum seekers to attempt dangerous irregular routes because the lack of meaningful viable ones means there is nothing to lose. Meanwhile, the lack of a secure way of verifying someone’s identity (and therefore their right to work) means once asylum seekers are here, they will often “disappear” into the black economy.

The Tony Blair Institute has an alternative plan for fixing the asylum system, made up of four basic components.

First, opening up a targeted and limited legal asylum route, with a new humanitarian visa granting asylum seekers the right to have their claims properly considered in British embassies abroad, pending a full resolution of their claim in the UK. To ensure numbers are kept under control, we recommend parliament sets an annual cap on the number of visas issued each year. Those seeking to arrive outside the new legal route would be deemed inadmissible.

Second, the government ought to be honest enough to acknowledge that this is a problem that can only be solved through international cooperation (recently made harder by Brexit). We therefore recommend that the government rapidly seeks to negotiate a new agreement with the EU (or selected EU countries) covering safe returns and joint operational enforcement against smugglers and traffickers.

Third, there needs to be a systematic focus on clearing asylum-case backlogs and speeding up the processing of claims, learning lessons from reforms adopted in the 2000s. A decade ago, the majority of asylum claims were resolved within six months. That is now the exception, rather than the rule.

Finally, we need to deal with the demand side of irregular migration, with a system of digital identification for all citizens, ensuring that those who want to work and access benefits will need to be able to demonstrate they have a legal right to reside.

Such an approach would go with the grain of majority public opinion, rather than deepening division. New polling conducted for our report demonstrates that when asked to choose between the principles of “fairness” and “deterrence”, a majority prioritise an asylum system that is fair, even if that means allowing more people to arrive and stay in the UK than is the case now, and most would back the policies outlined above.

Tory candidates clearly feel the Rwanda plan plays well with their members. But the majority of people want an asylum system that combines the principles of control and compassion, rather than being forced to choose between one or the other. That means putting forward a plan that will focuses on fixing the problem.

Harvey Redgrave a Senior Associate Fellow at the Tony Blair Institute. He is one of the UK’s leading experts on crime and justice policy. He has a wealth of experience from a decade spent working in government, academia and parliament. Harvey was a deputy director in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, where he led major strategic reviews on behalf of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.