If you thought the Conservatives couldn’t get any more evil, you were wrong
Yesterday, the government ramped up its anti-migrant legislation, marking another dark day for human rights in the UK.
After introducing a new law, the Illegal Migration Bill, which aims to crack down on people crossing the channel, the Tories have been condemned by the UN Refugee Agency, among other groups, for attacking the right to claim asylum.
Here’s everything you need to know about this new bill; whether it’s legal, why the Tories are doing it, and what the issue is really about.
WHAT DOES THE BILL ACTUALLY DO?
The bill would allow the government to criminalise, detain and deport asylum seekers, which, according to the UN, is a “clear breach of the refugee convention”. If someone tries to enter the country by crossing the channel, they will incur a lifetime ban from claiming asylum in the UK. The bill would also place restraints on the right of asylum seekers to appeal decisions in court, which comes after the government has faced legal difficulties in implementing its Rwanda plan. This means we could expect to see a significant increase in deportations, whether to Rwanda or elsewhere.
The bill would also impose an annual cap, decided by parliament, on the number of people who can claim asylum via safe routes. As the UNHCR described it, “The legislation, if passed, would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be.”
When Rishi Sunak tweeted these proposals, one detail, in particular, stood out: a bizarre infographic that read, “If you come to the UK illegally… you will be denied access to the UK’s modern slavery system.” The details of what this would look like in practice remain unclear, but it appears that, under the legislation, people will no longer be allowed to appeal deportation using modern slavery laws, and that deportation will only be deferred on this basis if someone is actively aiding an investigation. As the Tories see it, protection from modern slavery should only come as a reward for good behaviour.
WHY ARE THE TORIES DOING THIS?
Desperation, maybe. They are flailing in the polls (at today’s count, Labour is 25 points ahead), and anti-migrant policies appease both the right-wing media and the party base. Whenever something like this happens, people are quick to suggest that it’s a cynical attempt by the government to distract from its failings. One former Tory minister has been quoted as saying that the government doesn’t even expect the bill to pass, and that it is a deliberate strategy to blame ‘lefty lawyers’ and Labour when it’s inevitably defeated by the courts. There’s probably some truth to all of this. But at the same time, the Tory party are entirely sincere in their racism and hatred of migrants, so the policy doesn’t demand any conspiratorial explanation.
IS THE BILL EVEN LEGAL?
If it passes, then unfortunately yes – at least domestically. The Tories are trying their best to ensure there is almost no legal route to claim asylum, forcing refugees to do it in a way that can be deemed ‘criminal’ and punishing them on that basis. But according to Amnesty International, there is a requirement in international law that a claim for asylum can be made in any country and that a refugee may legitimately cross borders in an effort to reach the place where they’re seeking asylum. In short, there is no ‘illegal’ way to claim asylum, and everyone has the right to do so. Likewise, there’s no legal requirement for a refugee to seek asylum in the first ‘safe’ country they arrive in (particularly given that refugees often experience violence, harassment and deprivation in countries designated ‘safe’).
The Tories are well aware of this that what they are doing is – at best – legally dubious. They just don’t care. Home secretary Suella Braverman herself said that the bill is “more than 50 per cent likely” to break human rights law, which sounds as though she’s gearing up for a fight. This could be a precursor to the government leaving the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which was created in the aftermath of the Holocaust with the aim of protecting people from state power. The only European countries which are not signed up are Belarus (often described as Europe’s last dictatorship) and Russia, which was expelled following the war on Ukraine, which would be interesting company for the UK...
Sunak has stated that he doesn’t believe it’s necessary to leave the EHCR, but a number of senior Tory backbenchers are pushing for this to happen, particularly if this bill is stalled. If this happens, everyone is in trouble: the EHCR guarantees a range of human rights protections, including the right to a fair trial, the right to privacy, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. If this goes out of the window, there’s no reason to think that Tories would hesitate to clamp down on protest even further, making the UK even more authoritarian than it already is.
HOW ARE PEOPLE RESPONDING TO THE BILL?
The proposals have been met with widespread condemnation from NGOs and public figures. Sadly, the response from Labour has been tepid. Time and time again, the party has failed to take a principled stance against the Tories’ anti-migrant policies, instead opting to criticise them for going about it ineffectively.
On the day of the announcement, Stephen Kinnock MP posted an infographic on Twitter which attacked the Tories for failing to pass laws preventing channel crossings and spending too much money on accommodation for asylum seekers, thus capitulating to the narrative that it is asylum seekers themselves who are the problem. In the House of Commons, Starmer attacked Sunak for having “lost control of our borders”, which sounds like an attempt to outflank the Tories from the right.
Similarly, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said in an interview today that “for a long time, it has been an immigration offence to arrive by small boat, and we wouldn’t change that”. This an extreme position, which flies in the face of international consensus around human rights just as much as the Tories are doing. Instead of arguing for a more compassionate approach towards people fleeing from war and persecution, Labour is promising to criminalise them in a more competent and cost-effective way.
WHY IS THE ‘SMALL BOATS CRISIS’ HAPPENING IN THE FIRST PLACE?
The situation is a ‘crisis’ insofar as people are being forced to take dangerous and sometimes life-threatening journeys. But we should be suspicious of the ‘crisis’ framing, considering how often it is used to imply that Britain is being overwhelmed by an ‘invasion’ on its south coast (to quote Suella Braverman.) While last year saw record numbers of channel crossings, the truth is that Britain takes fewer refugees than most European countries. The ‘small boats crisis’ is not because we are being too generous or indulgent, but because we have drastically reduced the ways through which people can claim asylum in a ‘safe and legal’ way.
The evidence shows that the vast majority of people crossing the channel have a legitimate claim to asylum. Last year, around half of the people who crossed the channel were fleeing war-torn or oppressive countries like Syria, Iran, Eritrea and Afghanistan (who make up the largest proportion). The majority of asylum claims from these countries were eventually successful. Albanians – who in 2022 accounted for almost 30 per cent of channel crossings – have become an especially demonised group in British politics, but for women and girls from the country, around 80 per cent of claims were eventually approved.
Overall, analysis by the Refugee Council has found that over two-thirds of people who crossed the channel in 2022 would be granted asylum. Under the proposed legislation, this would be impossible, leaving around 45,000 people every year at risk of being detained for long periods. Whether or not their claims are eventually successful, everyone has the right to seek asylum. But as it stands, the UK only allows such applications to be made from Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan (the latter being notoriously incompetent, hence the high number of Afghans crossing the channel). If there is a problem with small boats, it’s entirely of the government’s own making.
No one should be happy that refugees are being forced to take these dangerous journeys. But if we want to stop this from happening, we need to provide people with safer options, including refugee visas, and a fairer and more timely asylum system. As well as being immoral – and illegal under international law – trying to deter people with punishments simply does not work. “No parent sends a child on a desperately dangerous journey without good reason,” Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said in a written statement.