The UK government this week introduced proposed legislation that it couldn’t say for certain complies with international law, its latest attempt to put a stop to migrant boats crossing the English Channel from France.
The UK has seen a dramatic increase of people arriving in small, non-seaworthy boats, having paid criminal gangs of human traffickers to get them into Britain. Many of these boats have sunk, people have died. This bill, in theory, should discourage people from making the trips and in doing so break up the human traffickers’ business model.
One potential problem: The Illegal Immigration Bill may not be legal. On page one of the bill, Home Secretary Suella Braverman admitted she cannot say whether the bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the UK is a signatory.
“The bill would prevent a large group of extremely vulnerable refugees from relying on human rights protections, by leaving it up to the Home Secretary to decide who should be protected and who should be deported – and excluding the courts almost entirely,” says Adam Wagner, a leading human rights barrister.
“For example, victims of modern slavery will not be able to use laws designed to protect them. This attacks the core idea of human rights that everyone is protected, and that states must, under the ECHR, give people access to an effective remedy,” he adds.
The bill, the government says, is an essential piece of legislation aimed at stopping the small boats. Government data shows that over 3,000 people have already arrived on small boats this year.
The small boat issue has become a political flashpoint.
To those on the left, the boats are a result of the government not providing safe routes to the UK for people fleeing their homes. There have been too many horror stories over the past few years of boats sinking and people drowning at sea.
To those on the right, the boats represent an “invasion” of the country and are full of people who are not seeking asylum, but economic migrants looking to jump the queue.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) has already said that the bill, if passed, would be a “clear breach” of the Refugee Convention and has urged lawmakers to “reconsider the Bill and instead pursue more humane and practical policy solutions.”
Which raises the question: why is the government pressing ahead with this bill?
All major political parties agree that the small boat crisis needs to be stopped. The new bill, which essentially hands the government the right to deport anyone landing illegally in the UK, is supposed to be a deterrent for people who seek to travel illegally to the UK. That, in theory, should break the people traffickers’ business model. Problem solved? Not quite.
Experts say that this would only work if the people trying to get into Britain this way can easily access safe, legal routes into the country. In many cases these don’t exist and even if they did, could lead to them being deported from the UK anyway.
Zoe Gardner, a leading expert on refugees and migration, explains that even if the bill worked as intended, “there are still thousands of people who feel they would be safest coming to the UK. Those people will not disappear. They are making these journeys because they want to be found.”
She adds that the bill “makes it less likely they will be considered for asylum in the UK if they come through a route where they are very likely to be seen and given the opportunity to present themselves to the authorities.” This, consequently, could lead to “a dangerous incentive to come into the UK and not be found. That means more people living without formal documentation within the UK who are then made vulnerable to modern-day slavery, and sex trafficking,” Gardner adds.
If the bill passes, it is not certain it will actually lead to a great deal of people being deported.
“As far as I can see, it will only speed up deporting people that could already legally deport,” says Sunder Katwala of British Future, a think tank specializing in immigration and integration.
Even though the bill in theory allows the government to remove anyone arriving illegally, it is very likely lawyers would challenge this and stall any such moves.
“In terms of people landing on small boats, if they claim asylum the government will be in a similar position to now where lawyers and courts will challenge and delay any deportations.”
The government has made deals in recent years with third-countries where refugees will be sent to claim asylum, most controversially with Rwanda. The policy has been widely criticized and embarrassingly for the government, legal challenges have led to zero people being sent to Rwanda so far, despite the fanfare made when the policy was announced.
The government’s hardline stance on small boats has been criticized for being racially motivated by anti-racism groups and prominent commentators – most notably by Gary Lineker, the former England soccer captain and household name. Something the government denies. The majority of people who have arrived through this method have been from Iraq, Iran, Albania and Afghanistan.
Compare this to people who have applied to come to the UK through legal methods and programs specifically set up by the government, most notably people fleeing Ukraine and Hong Kong, and the difference is stark. The latest figures show that 270,600 Ukrainians have applied for British visas, with 220,300 issued to date.
Nearly 150,000 Hong Kongers have also come to the UK after the government made it easier to get visas in light of Chinese crackdowns in Hong Kong, according to Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based charity that advocates for Hong Kongers and has worked with people coming to the UK.
By contrast, 45,755 are estimated to have come via small boats in 2022. And despite harsher government rhetoric, that number is an increase from 2018, when it was just 299 people.
In the grand scheme of things, asylum seekers only make up around 18% of all migration to the UK – including the dramatic uptick since the start of the Ukraine conflict.
People on all sides of the debate agree that the UK’s asylum system is barely fit for purpose. The backlog of cases is enormous – 166,261 unresolved cases at the end of 2022.
This has led to people being held in hotels at the UK taxpayer’s expense, which has made the issue a point of tension for both the left and right – why should the public be funding a system that doesn’t work? There have been protests from both anti and pro-immigration groups, in some cases breaking out in violence.
The backlog, experts say, make any recent figures on asylum claims approved or denied largely pointless as they don’t accurately represent exactly how bad the issue is.
To recap, the plan as it stands might be illegal, might be unworkable, has been called racist, and might actually make things worse. Which, again, begs the question: why?
One explanation could be the current state of British politics. The governing Conservative party has plummeted in the polls in recent years. As things stand, it is very unlikely they would win the next general election.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, says that the policy is “a fairly clear grab at a type of voter the Conservatives badly need to hold onto to win the next election – older, whiter, probably less educated, and living in less affluent parts of the country.”
The electoral map favours the Conservative party in that it is able to win a majority with a smaller percentage of the vote than the opposition Labour Party. “The calculation for the Conservatives is clear: if they hang onto those key voters, they can hold the seats they have in those battleground regions even if it means they sacrifice a bunch of more liberal voters in safer Conservative seats.”
Talking of those liberal voters, it is worth noting that they are now the majority in the UK – at least when it comes to migration.
“There is undoubtedly a softening of attitudes towards immigration – even on the straightforward question of do you want the overall number of immigrants reduced,” says Bobby Duffy, director of public policy at King’s College London. “It’s still around 4 in 10, but when we started asking this question it was around 8 in 10.”
He says that despite common perceptions about Brexit, Britain has actually become more pro-immigration since 2016. “People have either realized that specific sectors are worse off, like health care or food distribution. Or they feel that the government has at least partly taken back control of migration by ending free movement from the EU and are more comfortable with it now.”
This extends to asylum seekers and refugees. “The trend is increasingly in favor of taking in people fleeing danger. It’s a very small group who thinks we should shut up the borders – and even within that are people who think we should make exceptions for Ukrainians, for example,” says Katwala.
There is a better way, experts believe. “The Hong Kong BNO scheme is an interesting case study of what can happen if there is political will,” says Sam Goodman, director of policy and advocacy at Hong Kong Watch.
“There are 12 welcome centers across the country and a really good support package which costs relatively little, including help with English language. And most importantly they just didn’t politicize it. All this has meant that 144,000 Hong Kongers have come here with little to no fuss, integrated quickly and there have been minimal issues,” Goodman adds.
Whether the government is playing cynical politics or thinks this really is the best course of action, consensus is that even if the bill passes, it won’t do much to stop boats coming. And that ultimately means more people jammed up in a backlogged system that is barely functioning and, tragically, more people drowning at sea.