Rishi Sunak's government unveils 'robust' bill to stop the boats

Home Secretary says 'novel' measures are needed to prevent criminals enabling people to enter the country illegally

People are brought to shore at Dungeness, Kent, after crossing the Channel in a small boat. PA
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Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman has unveiled new legislation to deal with small boats carrying migrants across the English Channel, saying it was needed to tackle the “waves of illegal migrants breaching our border”.

Ms Braverman said not responding to the problem would be to “betray the will of the people we were elected to serve”.

Almost 3,000 migrants have made unauthorised crossings of the English Channel this year.

“Our asylum system has been overwhelmed”, she said, with almost £7 million ($8.4 million) a day being spent on hotels to house people while their claims are processed.

She added that she had been working “flat out for months” with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to draw up the Illegal Migration Bill.

“This bill will mean that if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay. You will be detained and removed to your home country if safe, or a safe third country, like Rwanda”, she said.

“Enough is enough. We must “stop the boats”.

Her direct message to migrants was “do not get into that flimsy dinghy”.

Critics have warned that the proposals are “unworkable” and will leave thousands of migrants in limbo by banning them from ever claiming British citizenship.

Tackling the number of migrants crossing the Channel is one of Mr Sunak's top priorities.

The bill:

  • Imposes a new duty on the Home Secretary to remove illegal migrants “as soon as reasonably practicable”. Anyone who arrives on a small boat would be deported either to Rwanda or a “safe third country”.
  • Extends detention powers, with faster processing
  • Restricts appeals and judicial reviews
  • Prevents arrivals from claiming asylum while in the UK and removes the right of migrants to return once removed
  • Establishes a new safe and legal route, but crucially this will not be introduced until after the small boats crossings have been halted
  • Introduces measures to block injunctions in the European Court of Human Rights
  • Applies retrospectively from the moment it is announced, to stop crossings accelerating in the short term
  • Will put a cap on the number of refugees able to settle via safe and legal routes based on an “orderly system for housing, public services and support”.

Ms Braverman suggested that under current rules, there are 100 million people around the world who could qualify for protection. “Let’s be clear. They are coming here”, she said, pointing to a 500 per cent increase in small boats crossings in the past two years.

“This is the crucial point of this Bill. They will not stop coming here until the world knows that if you enter Britain illegally you will be detained and swiftly removed.”

She said that the small boats problem is part of a larger global migrant crisis. “In coming years developed countries will face pressure from greater numbers of people leaving the developing world for places like Britain.

“The problem will be worse tomorrow, it is already unsustainable”.

She said many of the people who have arrived on small boats came “from safe countries like Albania”, and that “almost all passed through France”, with “the vast majority” being adult males under 40 “rich enough to pay criminal gangs thousands of pounds for passage”.

Speaking after a cabinet meeting in which Ms Braverman set out the policy, a Downing Street spokesman said safe and legal routes to asylum in the UK will be increased only after small boat crossings of the Channel are halted.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: “Once we have stopped the boats and taken these steps, then we will have the ability to agree more safe and legal routes.”

Asked if it would not make more sense to increase the routes first, he said: “Certainly we don't think it is right to introduce those routes at a time when you don't have clarity on the numbers coming into the country.

“It was 45,000 last year and we can only at this moment estimate what those numbers would be if we took no action for this year”.

Despite plans such as forcibly removing asylum seekers to Rwanda being mired in legal challenges, Ms Braverman earlier acknowledged the new legislation would approach the limits of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Anticipating a possible legal fight, the Home Secretary wrote to colleagues saying there was a more than 50 per cent chance the Illegal Migration Bill may be incompatible with convention rights.

But she said she was "confident" it did not breach international law and hoped the courts would take into account any endorsement Parliament gave to her "robust and novel" plans.

"This does not mean that the provisions in the Bill are incompatible with the convention rights, only that there is a more (than) 50% chance that they may not be," she wrote.

"We are testing the limits but remain confident that this Bill is compatible with international law."

Mr Sunak also told cabinet ministers that his plans to stop small boat crossings of the Channel will fall within international law.

Giving an account of what Mr Sunak's told his cabinet, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: “He said it [the bill] would take tough, fair and necessary action, acting within international law, that would enable UK to have control of our borders so we can continue to be a compassionate and generous country providing refuge to the most vulnerable”.

Asked about the legality of the legislation, the spokesman said: “Certainly from the government's perspective, we believe the legislation to be compatible with the refugee convention”.

Ms Braverman told cabinet detailed work had taken place to ensure the plans can be delivered “as soon as possible”.

Attorney General Victoria Prentis “outlined some of the legal measures relating to the bill”, No 10 said.

The Prime Minister will hold a press conference from Downing Street later on Tuesday after visiting Dover as he sets out his new legislation to reduce small boat crossings.

His official spokesman said the visit would be to “front-line officers working on the ground to prevent crossings and respond to incidents in the Channel”.

Mr Sunak spoke to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame before finalising his plans, and pledged to continue working with him to ensure the stalled project works.

The government has paid more than £140 million ($168 million) to Rwanda but no flights forcibly carrying migrants to the capital Kigali have taken off because of legal challenges.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper criticised the government’s record on dealing with people smugglers and said Home Office decisions on asylum cases have “collapsed”, adding: “This is deeply damaging chaos and there’s no point in ministers trying to blame anyone else for it. They have been in power for 13 years. The asylum system is broken and they broke it.”

Ms Cooper said “serious” action is needed to stop small boat crossings, with a new agreement needed with France and other countries.

She added: “Instead, today’s statement is Groundhog Day.”

Earlier, Mr Sunak admitted voters “have heard promises before” without seeing results, but insisted his legislation “will mean that those who come here on small boats can’t claim asylum here”.

“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.

Labour leader Keir Starmer raised doubts about the legality and feasibility of the plans after the last one failed.

“Now we’ve got the next bit of legislation with almost the same billing. I don’t think that putting forward unworkable proposals is going to get us very far”., Mr Starmer said.

Asked if the plan was legally feasible, the Labour leader said: “I don’t know that it is and I think we’ve got to be very careful with international law here.”

Afghan migrant documents dangerous journey across Channel — video

Afghan migrant documents dangerous journey across Channel

Afghan migrant documents dangerous journey across Channel

Refugee Council chief executive Enver Solomon said the plans “shatter the UK’s long-standing commitment under the UN Convention to give people a fair hearing, regardless of the path they have taken to reach our shores”.

“The government’s flawed legislation will not stop the boats but result in tens of thousands locked up in detention at huge cost, permanently in limbo and being treated as criminals simply for seeking refuge”, he said.

“It’s unworkable, costly and won’t stop the boats.”

Updated: March 08, 2023, 9:39 AM