The UK government Tuesday unveiled radical plans to stop migrants crossing the channel illegally on small boats, acknowledging it is stretching international law amid an outcry from rights campaigners.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the plan would “take back control of our borders once and for all” – reprising a popular pledge from campaigners like him who backed Britain’s Brexit divorce from the European Union (EU).
“This new law will send a clear signal that if you come to this country illegally, you will be swiftly removed,” he wrote in The Sun newspaper, ahead of a summit Friday with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Under the draft law, anyone who is deported after making the dangerous journey from France would be banned from re-entering the United Kingdom or ever claiming British citizenship.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman would be given a new legal duty to deport illegal migrants, trumping their other rights in UK and European human rights law.
“No more sticking plasters or shying away from the difficult decisions,” the interior minister wrote in the Telegraph newspaper, before introducing the legislation in parliament.
“Myself and the prime minister have been working tirelessly to ensure we have a bill that works – we’ve pushed the boundaries of international law to solve this crisis,” Braverman added.
Migrants would be returned to their home country or on to a “safe” destination such as Rwanda, under a hotly contested partnership agreed by London, and their rights of legal redress dramatically curtailed.
Running for their lives
Sunak’s Conservative government is trailing in the polls and the topic of illegal migrants is playing badly with voters and the right-wing press, particularly when they have crossed “safe” countries in Europe to reach Britain.
But rights groups and opposition parties say the plan is unworkable and unfairly scapegoats vulnerable refugees.
Christina Marriott, executive director of strategy for the British Red Cross, said the UK would be in breach of its duties under international asylum conventions.
“We wonder if you are fleeing persecution or war, if you are running from Afghanistan or Syria and are in fear of your life, how are you going to be able to claim asylum in the UK?” she told Sky News.
“If they don’t have a valid asylum claim, then we are in support of people being returned to countries,” she said.
“But what we need for that is a really fair and fast asylum system. And that’s what we don’t have at the minute.”
More than 45 000 migrants arrived on the shores of southeast England on small boats last year – a 60 percent annual increase on a route that has grown in popularity every year since 2018.
Nearly 3 000 have arrived so far this year, often ending up in expensive hotels at taxpayer expense, and the backlog of asylum claims now exceeds 160 000.
The new plan would transfer illegal migrants to disused military barracks and cap annual asylum claims to a level set by parliament.
The perilous nature of the crossings has been underlined by several tragedies in recent years, including in November 2021 when at least 27 people died when their dinghy deflated.
The government has been striving for years to get a grip on the issue.
It had hoped the threat of a one-way ticket to Rwanda, where migrants would remain if accepted for asylum, would deter the cross-Channel journeys.
But the plan was blocked at the last minute by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which is separate to the EU.
It was then upheld by Britain’s High Court, but remains mired in appeals. No flights to Rwanda have yet taken place.
Reports Tuesday said the government could withdraw from the ECHR if the Strasbourg-based court again intervenes in its latest legislation, following what Braverman called its “opaque” ruling on Rwanda.
The government cannot yet state whether its “robust and novel” plan meets Britain’s own Human Rights Act, she said, while adding that UK officials were in discussion with the ECHR.
But Braverman stressed: “I am confident that this bill is compatible with international obligations.”
In Dover, the scene of an anti-migrant protest and counter-demonstration at the weekend, locals appeared uniformly sceptical about the draft law.
Matthew Stevens, 43, predicted that its stipulations “won’t happen”.
“Too many people are profiting for it to stop,” he said of the criminal gangs who manage the illegal cross-channel operations.