Small boats crisis: what are Rishi Sunak’s plans for Channel crossings and how have they been received so far?

About 40 migrants hold an inflatable boat before boarding to attempt crossing the Channel to Britain, near the northern French city of Gravelines on July 11, 2022 (Image: DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images)About 40 migrants hold an inflatable boat before boarding to attempt crossing the Channel to Britain, near the northern French city of Gravelines on July 11, 2022 (Image: DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images)
About 40 migrants hold an inflatable boat before boarding to attempt crossing the Channel to Britain, near the northern French city of Gravelines on July 11, 2022 (Image: DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images
The Home Secretary is set to publish the Illegal Migration Bill on Tuesday, but critics are already calling it "unworkable"

A week after his Northern Ireland Brexit deal was heralded as a success, Rishi Sunak is turning his attention to the small boats crisis in the English Channel.

The Conservatives believe that the crisis, which has seen 2,950 migrants crossing the Channel already this year after 45,000 made the perilous journey in 2022, is a priority among voters, and the Prime Minister made it one of his five pledges in January. On Sunday Sunak vowed to put an end to “immoral” illegal migration, while his Home Secretary Suella Braverman said “enough is enough”.

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The government’s plans to tackle the crisis, which Braverman is set to publish in full on Tuesday (7 March), have been widely trailed in the media, and are already proving highly controversial, both among the opposition and Tories. So what’s being proposed, and what has the reaction been so far?

What do we know so far about the Illegal Migration Bill?

Details remain scarce on the Illegal Migration Bill, but some aspects of it were briefed to the newspapers over the weekend, and they effectively amount to a ban on undocumented migrants who arrive on UK shores via small boats.

The bill will see the detention and deportation to Rwanda or “a safe third country” of all those who are detained on small boats entering the UK via “irregular routes”.

Arrivals will also be prevented from claiming asylum while in the UK, with plans also to ban them from returning once removed.

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Cabinet minister Chris Heaton-Harris, during an appearance on BBC One’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg, also indicated that there could be “more safe and legal routes” in the future.

Sunak is expected to talk to French President Emmanuel Macron today as he seeks to put the finishing touches to the plans.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Home Secretary has been clear that if you arrive in the UK illegally, you should not be allowed to stay. We will shortly introduce legislation which will ensure that people arriving in the UK illegally are detained and promptly returned to their home country or a safe third country. Our work with France is also vital to tackling the unacceptable rise in dangerous Channel crossings. We share a determination to tackle this issue together, head-on, to stop the boats.”

What’s the reaction to the proposals so far?

There have already been questions about how any such legislation, based on the details known so far, could be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. It comes after the Rwanda scheme became mired in legal challenges, with so far no flights carrying migrants to the Rwandan capital Kigali departing.

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Campaigners have also issued firm warnings to the government about the policy.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, 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”.

He added: “They will simply add more cost and chaos to the system. The majority of the men, women and children who cross the Channel do so because they are desperate to escape war, conflict and persecution.”

The charity said figures show that of all those who crossed the Channel last year, two-thirds would be granted asylum. “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.”

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Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, accused the government of presenting “the very same disastrous plan to simply avoid the asylum responsibilities it expects others to take”.

Calling it “disgraceful posturing and scaremongering”, he said the Bill “promises nothing but more demonisation and punishment of people fleeing conflict and persecution who dare to seek asylum in the UK by means to which government has chosen to restrict them”.

Even some senior Tories have voiced their doubts over the scheme. The Independent reports that some Conservatives fear Sunak has “over-promised” and will be forced to break his pledge to “stop the boats” before the general election expected to take place in late 2024.

A former Tory minister told The Independent: “They’ve over-promised and now they’ve realised the clock is ticking,” the MP added. “Every week people are standing up at PMQs saying ‘Where is the legislation’?”

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What are other parties saying?

Labour has set out six questions for the government on the new Bill, as it pressed ministers to show how the latest plan is different to the last piece of legislation to tackle illegal migration. The party said it wants know if the plan will end the backlog in asylum claims while also including “proper return agreements” with France and other countries.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “The Conservatives are responsible for an abysmal failure to tackle the huge increase in dangerous small boat crossings and the criminal gangs who are putting lives at risk and undermining border security. Ministers have made countless claims and promises yet the facts show their last law badly failed and made things worse. Instead of learning lessons, it looks like they are still recycling the same rhetoric and failure.”

The Liberal Democrats called it “another half-baked plan”. The party’s home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael said it is “immoral, ineffective and incredibly costly for taxpayers”.

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