The latest attempt by the Conservatives to stop small boat crossings has sunk to a new low with the Illegal Migration Bill.
In July last year, Olympic champion Sir Mo Farah disclosed that he had been trafficked illegally to the UK as a child and forced to work as a domestic servant. Farah wanted to tell his story “to challenge perceptions of trafficking and slavery”, but under the proposed Bill, he would have been prevented from claiming asylum in the UK and probably returned to Somalia.
An Afghan asylum seeker, Taraki, who recently arrived in the UK after fleeing from the Taliban, believes that small boat crossings will not cease until there are legal routes for refugees to come to Britain. He told iNews: “Nobody wants to come to the UK on a small boat, but for people like me, there is no other way.”
Contradictory claims behind new migrant Bill
The aim of the new Bill is to ensure that anyone arriving in the UK by alleged illegal routes such as small boats would be “detained and swiftly removed”, including children. It goes further than last year’s controversial Nationality and Borders Act by preventing such refugees from claiming asylum and banning them from re-entry. So refugees like Taraki are at risk of being deported.
In an extraordinary statement to the Commons, Home Secretary Suella Braverman admitted that there is a “more than 50% chance” that the Bill might be “incompatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), “but the government nevertheless wishes the House to proceed with the Bill.” Was she just being honest with MPs or was she playing a cynical game to cover her back if the plan backfires?
In apparent contradiction to this, Braverman nevertheless asserted: “We are testing the limits but remain confident that this bill is compatible with international law.”
This claim was immediately challenged by legal commentators such as Joshua Rozenberg, who argued that it could be a breach of the ECHR if refugees are unable to claim asylum, and would be open to legal challenge.
Braverman also claimed that people arriving in small boats are doing so “against the will of the British people”, a familiar dog-whistle used in talking about immigration, yet a 2022 poll by IPSOS indicated that a majority of 56 per cent have sympathy with migrants attempting to cross the Channel and 46 per cent want a fair asylum system.
Responses to the Bill are negative
The Bill has been met with an immediate backlash. In a rare statement of open criticism, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said it was “profoundly concerned” about the Bill and accused the government of “extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection” in the UK. They state:
“The effect of the Bill [in this form] would be to deny protection to many asylum seekers in need of safety and protection, and even deny them the opportunity to put forward their case. This would be a clear breach of the refugee convention and would undermine a longstanding, humanitarian tradition of which the British people are rightly proud.”
Amnesty International’s UK refugee rights director Steve Valdez-Symonds said: “There is nothing fair, humane or even practical in this plan”, while Oxfam’s head of policy and advocacy Katy Chakrabortty termed the bill “cruel.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper criticised the government for “ramping up the rhetoric on refugees” and said the Bill was a “con that risks making the chaos worse.”
Cooper highlighted the failure of the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme. Under this scheme, only four people had been resettled up to September 2022, despite 2,000 being referred by the UN refugee agency, with the aim of resettling up to 20,000 over the next few years. Afghans represent 18 per cent of those arriving in small boats, including those who previously worked for the British government and, like Taraki’s family, are under constant threat of death in Afghanistan.
Sports commentator Gary Lineker has also come out strongly against the Bill, calling it “immeasurably cruel” and comparing the language used as “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.” He is under fire from the government for his statement and was temporarily suspended by the BBC for supposedly breaching impartiality rules under what looked like undue pressure from the government.
Calls to leave the ECHR will rebound
Unsurprisingly, some right-wing Conservative backbenchers, such as Simon Clarke, Mark Francois and former leader Iain Duncan Smith, have renewed calls for Britain to leave the ECHR in order for the new legislation to be passed.
SNP MP Joanna Cherry thinks the whole Bill is a cynical ploy on the part of the government to move towards leaving the ECHR. Indeed, in February, PM Rishi Sunak was said to be keen to “push the boundaries of what is legally possible” to remove asylum seekers and was even “prepared to withdraw” from the Convention if necessary.
However, legal experts say the UK’s trade agreement (TCA) with the EU could be immediately terminated if Britain were to leave the ECHR, as the TCA locks Britain into the Convention, being based on both parties’ “longstanding respect for democracy, the rule of law and the protection of fundamental rights.”
Attempts to withdraw from the ECHR would also undermine the recent Windsor Framework and set the UK back on a path of opposition with the EU – which no doubt some right-wing Tory MPs would applaud.
What seems to be forgotten by this increasingly anti-rights government is that the ECHR was originally proposed by Winston Churchill after World War 2 and drafted mainly by British lawyers. Does Britain really want to be the only other European country not signed up to the Convention apart from Russia and Belarus?
Let’s hope that this vicious Illegal Migration Bill founders, like the Rwanda scheme, on so many legal challenges that it never sees the light of day.