The Home Office is aiming to deter Channel crossings to the UK with a social media ad campaign targeting Albanian nationals.
The publicity drive, which will run on Facebook and Instagram from next week, will warn people they “face being detained and removed” if they make the journey.
Opposition critics and charities have branded the campaign a “gimmick”, with Labour accusing the Government of “tinkering at the edges” of an asylum system “in chaos”.
The Home Office would not say how much the publicity drive is expected to cost.
Record numbers of people crossed the channel last year and more than 6,000 have been detected making the journey so far in 2023.
But the number of Albanian small boat arrivals peaked during the summer of 2022 and by early 2023 had dropped below levels seen in 2021, according to Government figures.
According to the Home Office, Albania is a “safe and prosperous country” and many nationals “are travelling through multiple countries to make the journey to the UK” before making “spurious asylum claims when they arrive”.
It was the most common nationality applying for asylum in the UK in the year to March 2023, with 13,714 applications by Albanian citizens, 9,487 of which came from arrivals on boats crossing the English Channel.
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said: “Organised immigration crime is a global challenge which requires international solutions the whole way along the migration route.
“That includes working proactively at source before people set off on dangerous and unnecessary journeys.
“We are determined to stop the boats and the campaign, launching in Albania this week, is just one component of the Home Office’s work upstream to help dispel myths about illegal travel to the UK, explain the realities and combat the lies peddled by evil people-smugglers who profit from this vile trade.”
“It also repeats the myth that refugee migration is illegal when in fact a person’s right to enter a country to claim asylum is protected by a Refugee Convention we helped create.
“If the Government wanted to smash the smuggling gangs and stop people crossing the Channel in flimsy boats it would create more safe routes for refugees to travel here to claim asylum.”
Chief executive of refugee charity Care4Calais Steve Smith said: “No amount of taxpayer-funded PR spin will deter refugees, who have experienced some of the worst things imaginable from war and conflict to torture and human rights abuses, from seeking a safe future.
“The only solution that will put people smugglers out of business, stop small boat crossings and save lives is to offer safe passage to refugees with a viable asylum claim in the UK.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the Tories’ “so-called solutions” to tackle the migrant crisis have failed “at every turn”.
She said: “It beggars belief that as Channel crossings continue to rise and the asylum system is in chaos, all the Conservatives can come up with to stop the criminal gangs is an ad campaign.
“At every turn, the Tories so-called solutions fail to meet the scale of the crisis. All they are doing is tinkering at the edges.”
Freedom from Torture chief executive Sonya Sceats said: “This is just another government gimmick to distract us from the tragedy of millions of British families getting poorer because of how badly the Prime Minister has handled the cost-of-living crisis.
“If Sunak is serious about protecting refugee lives, he needs to secure safe routes, stop wasting money on PR tactics and close the backlog of asylum claims.
“Refugees need protection and a chance to recover and rebuild their lives in safety.”
The Government’s Illegal Migration Bill aims to send asylum seekers who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes back home or to a third country such as Rwanda.
Ministers also hope the legislation will cut the daily £5.5 million cost of housing migrants who make it to the UK.
The Bill, currently in the House of Lords, has been attacked by critics including the Archbishop of Canterbury who argue that it is both unworkable and “morally unacceptable”.