The finer details of the Conservative's proposed new Illegal Migration Bill remain a little foggy, with the Prime Minister refusing to be drawn on questions about when he would stop small boat crossings, and whether trafficking victims who arrived via illegal means would be protected.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak formally unveiled their plans on Tuesday to remove and ban asylum seekers from re-entry if they arrive in the UK through illegal means. The Prime Minister had made a promise to the British people, that anyone entering the country illegally would be detained and "swiftly removed", and this Bill would fulfil that promise, Braverman said.
At the Prime Minister's question time on Wednesday, Sunak butted heads with opposition MPs, as he was grilled on the Government's track record on illegal immigration and on sending people found ineligible for asylum back.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer slammed the plans as nothing new, and said they have been tried before - and failed. “I voted against his legislation last time because I said it wouldn’t work, since it became law the numbers have gone up, he’s proved me right. The Prime Minister says they will detain people who aren’t eligible to claim asylum here and then return them. Well, they already tried that under the last legislation.”
Starmer said in 2022, 18,000 people were deemed ineligible to apply for asylum. Only 21 had actually been sent back, he claimed. “What happens to the rest? They sit in hotels and digs for months on end at the taxpayers’ expense.”
The Prime Minister answered: “We’ve actually got a clear plan to stop people coming here in the first place. Labour have absolutely no plan on this issue because they simply don’t want to tackle the problem.
“We introduced tougher sentences for people smugglers, they opposed it, we signed a deal with Rwanda, they opposed it, we are deporting foreign offenders as we speak, they oppose it… In fact, he opposed every single step of what we’ve done to try and stop this problem.”
How has the Bill been received?
The Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “We welcome the government’s intention to remain within the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). We are nonetheless concerned that the legislation risks breaching the UK’s legal obligations under the Refugee Convention and ECHR.”
The plan is simply “not the British way of doing things”, the Refugee Council said. Its chief executive Enver Solomon suggested the plans were “more akin to authoritarian nations” such as Russia and insisted the proposals would not stop desperate people crossing in small boats but would instead leave “traumatised people locked up in a state of misery being treated as criminals and suspected terrorists without a fair hearing on our soil”.
He said the new legislation “ignores the fundamental point that most of the people in small boats are men, women and children escaping terror and bloodshed from countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Syria”.
Labour and SNP ministers questioned the Tory’s hard-line approach and the sturdiness of the bill, as well as what would happen to migrants who could not be returned. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the government did not have the necessary agreements in place to actually send asylum seekers back.
"They still don’t have any return agreements in place, the Home Secretary herself has admitted Rwanda is failing, and even if it gets going it’ll only take a few hundred people, so what will happen to the other 99% of people under this Bill?”
While fellow Conservatives seemed mostly onboard with the plan, many questioned what it would mean for Britain's membership in the European Convention on Human Rights, which had previously grounded attempts to send illegal migrants to Rwanda. Sunak said while they believed they were in line with international law, they were “up for the fight” if need be.
The new Bill has been criticised by human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International, the Church of Scotland, and even the United Nations. UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said it was “profoundly concerned”, as the legislation would extinguish 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".
“Most people fleeing war and persecution are simply unable to access the required passports and visas…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.”
Braverman due to make announcement at 12.30pm
We're waiting for the Home Secretary to make her announcement on the new legislation any minute now...
Home Secretary takes the stage
Suella Braverman has appeared before the House to announce the new bill.
“A few months ago, the Prime Minister made a promise to the British people. He said that anyone entering this country illegally will be detained and swiftly removed,” she said.
UK still supports world's most vulnerable - Braverman
Braverman said the Illegal Migration Bill would fulfil that promise. “It will allow us to stop the boats that are bringing tens of thousands to our shores, in flagrant breach of both our laws and the will of the British people.”
The UK must support the world’s most vulnerable, she said - met by loud jeers from others in the House - and since 2015, had given sanctuary to nearly half a million people.
Braverman addresses own family's migrant roots
Vulnerable asylum seekers given refuge in the UK included more than 150,000 people from Hong Kong, 160,000 from Ukraine, and 25,000 Afghans fleeing the Taliban, Braverman said.
“Indeed my own parents, decades ago, found security and opportunity in this country - something for which my family is eternally grateful.”
British public back bill
This Bill was widely supported by the British public, Braverman said, “not by the people smugglers and other criminals breaking into Britain on a daily basis”.
“For a Government to not respond to waves of illegal migrants breaching our borders, would be to betray the will of the people we were elected to serve.”
UK's asylum system 'overwhelmed'
The small boats problem was part of a larger, global migration crisis, Braverman said, with developed countries set to deal with unprecedented numbers of people leaving the developing world for places like the UK.
“Unless we act today, the problem will be worse tomorrow.” People were already dying in the Channel, she said, and the volume of people arriving had overwhelmed the asylum system - with a backlog of over 160,000 people. The system now cost British taxpayers £3 billion each year, she said.
Since 2018, 85,000 people had illegally entered the UK by small boat, she said, 45,000 of them in 2022 alone. All had travelled through other countries where they could, “and should”, have claimed asylum, she said.
People arriving in small boats not the most vulnerable
Braverman denied many of those arriving in the UK via small boats were truly the most in need of asylum. Some had come from safe countries like Albania, and nearly all had passed through France, she said.
“The vast majority, 74% in 2021, were adult males under the age of 40, rich enough to pay criminal gangs thousands of pounds for passage,” she said.
'Enough is enough', Secretary says
The need for reform was “obvious and urgent”, Braverman said, and in the face of today’s crisis, “yesterday’s laws are simply not fit for purpose”.
“They will not stop coming here, until the world knows that if you enter Britain illegally, you will be detained and swiftly removed… back to your country if it’s safe, or to a safe third country, like Rwanda,” she said.
“Enough is enough. We must stop the boats.”
More details of new bill revealed
The new bill would allow immediate detention of illegal arrivals without bail or judicial review for 28 days, until they could be removed.
It will put a duty on the Home Secretary to removal illegal entrants, and will radically lower the number of challenges and appeals that can suspend removal.
Only those under 18, medically unfit to fly, or at serious risk of harm - with a higher bar - would be able to delay their removal. Any other appeals would be heard remotely, once the person had been sent back.
Labour hits out at sturdiness of new bill
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper criticised the Government’s track record on dealing with people smugglers, and said Home Office decisions on asylum cases had “collapsed”.
“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.”
“They still don’t have any return agreements in place, the Home Secretary herself has admitted Rwanda is failing, and even if it gets going it’ll only take a few hundred people, so what will happen to the other 99% of people under this Bill?”