After weeks of ping-ponging between the House of Commons and House of Lords, the government’s Illegal Migration Bill (now Act) has finally passed and has just received royal assent.
But the controversial Bill hasn’t had an easy ride and has faced widespread opposition from all parties, casting doubts on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s rash and inhumane pledge to “stop the boats” by deporting those who arrive in the UK by unauthorised means.
Let’s look in more detail at the government’s widely contested immigration policy and why it’s never going to work.
The Rwanda scheme is on hold
Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s “dream” and “obsession” to send asylum seekers arriving in small boats to Rwanda has been stalled – for now. In December last year, the High Court ruled that the policy was lawful, dismissing claims from asylum charities and (somewhat surprisingly) a border officials’ union.
But this was only a temporary victory, as the appeals court overturned the judgement at the end of June and ruled that the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is indeed unlawful and breaches article 3 of the European convention on human rights. The court concluded that Rwanda is not a “safe third country” and that there is a real risk that people sent there could be returned to countries where they had faced persecution, even if they have strong asylum claims.
Despite Labour’s claim that the small boats policy is now “completely unravelling”, the government plans to appeal the decision in the supreme court. This further delay makes it increasingly unlikely that any asylum seekers would be sent to Rwanda before next year’s general election.
In addition, Braverman is facing questions about further breaches of the ministerial code in failing to disclose that she had previously worked with a charity helping to train Rwandan lawyers – a possible conflict of interest in her support of the Rwanda deportation scheme.
Fierce opposition to the Bill from both Houses
The Illegal Migration Bill’s rough ride through both the Lords and Commons shows the degree of opposition to some of its measures from all parties.
The Bill suffered a record 20 defeats in the Lords, including aspects relating to children. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby led a cross-party demand on the government to work with other countries on the refugee crisis. The Lords also wanted to put a legal duty on the government to create safe routes for refugees.
Lord Dubs, who came to the UK on the Kindertransport in 1939, called the Bill a “nasty piece of work”. He particularly criticised the category of “inadmissibility”, whereby anyone entering the UK by so-called illegal means would automatically be deported, especially as it relates to children, members of the LGBT community and victims of slavery.
This aspect was also fiercely opposed by senior Conservative MPs, including Theresa May and Sussex MP Tim Loughton, who sought further protection for children, pregnant women and those claiming to be victims of trafficking. Rather ironically, given her own previous endorsement of the “hostile environment” for refugees, May claimed that the Bill would “consign more people to slavery.”
Perhaps because of the opposition from its own backbenchers, the government offered a number of concessions, including reducing the time limits for detaining children and pregnant women, and removed the retrospective element of the Bill.
In the end, MPs voted to reject the proposed amendment on human trafficking from the Lords with a majority of 55 (hardly a huge endorsement), but 13 Tories rebelled, including Sussex MPs Tim Loughton and Peter Bottomley. 12 Conservatives also rebelled to support the Lords’ call for safe and legal routes for migrants, 11 on unaccompanied children, and five on added protections for LGBT+ people.
Does the Act breach international law?
Despite the Act passing into UK law, there are still many voices calling into question its validity under international law. The chair of the joint committee on human rights, Joanna Cherry KC, said: “Having carried out legislative scrutiny of the Bill, it is overwhelmingly clear that it breaches a number of the UK’s international human rights obligations including the ECHR and risks breaching others.” The committee has warned that the Act is likely to lead to further challenges from the European Court of Human Rights.
The UN released particularly critical statements, claiming the Bill breaks the UK’s obligations under international law, “extinguishes access to asylum for anyone who arrives irregularly”, and “will have profound consequences for people in need of international protection.” UN refugees head Filippo Grandi said: “This new legislation significantly erodes the legal framework that has protected so many.” UN human rights chief Volker Türk, urged the government to reverse the law.
How will the Act work in practice?
Even though the Act is now law, making it work will be almost impossible. With deportations to Rwanda not on the cards at the moment, that leaves the possibility of asylum seekers being detained for unlimited periods on barges, such as the Bibby Stockholm, which has just arrived to considerable opposition in Portland, Dorset.
Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “The overall bill remains unworkable, and will lead to human misery and huge cost to the taxpayer.” Solomon warned that the new law would not act as a deterrent and that the country lacks the detention capacity to house all those likely to continue arriving. “Vulnerable people [will] vanish into the margins of society…children will simply disappear as they approach their 18th birthday.”
There is no evidence that the numbers arriving on small boats have been deterred so far, so there is every likelihood that this inhumane situation will continue until, almost certainly, the Tories are defeated at the next election. And if Labour forms the next government, let’s hope that they will overturn this heartless legislation, which Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock called an “exercise in performative cruelty.”
The Refugee Council has put forward a national refugee strategy, including the piloting of ‘refugee visas’, as a safer and more humane way of reducing the numbers arriving in small boats. Safer routes for refugees must surely be the way forward.