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Sensemaker: Small minds

Sensemaker: Small minds

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Protesters filled the streets of Tbilisi to condemn Russian interference in Georgia’s parliament.
  • The weight loss drug semaglutide, marketed as Wegovy, was approved for use by the NHS in England. 
  • A man was jailed for two years for defaming the King of Thailand with satirical comments about rubber ducks.

Small minds

The UK government promised to stop irregular migration across the English Channel by ending small boat refugees’ right to apply for asylum and automatically detaining them instead.

At the same time the home secretary admitted her plans might be illegal.

So what? It’s the promise that counts. Keeping it doesn’t matter as much to a government that later admitted there was more than a 50 per cent chance its new Illegal Immigration Bill would break international law. 

So why bother? The clue was in the prime minister’s remark that he was “up for the fight” that looms over the bill in the courts. Whatever its outcome, this is a fight that will

  • show the government is trying to end migration via small boats even if it isn’t succeeding;
  • be used to support the argument that the government understands the average voter even if Labour and left-wing human rights lawyers don’t; and
  • distract from the dysfunction of the government’s broader immigration policy.

That immigration policy allowed a record number to enter the UK last year without solving acute labour shortages in the construction, farming, hospitality and healthcare sectors.

By the numbers:

45,000 – UK arrivals by small boat last year 

74,000 – total UK asylum applications last year 

180,000 – asylum applications in France last year

160,000 – UK asylum applications pending; the backlog

504,000 – net inward migration to UK last year, boosted by special schemes for Hong Kong and Ukraine

960,000 – total asylum applications last year to EU, Norway and Switzerland

£6 million – cost per day of accommodating UK asylum seekers awaiting decisions

£120 million – paid so far to Rwanda for UK deportation and resettlement scheme

0 – refugees deported so far to Rwanda under the scheme

0 – refugee return agreements in place between UK and other countries

Groundhog Day. Labour’s Yvette Cooper said the new bill put her in mind of Groundhog Day. It’s true the Conservatives have tried often to stop the small boats; not true that this time is no different. The Illegal Immigration Bill goes further than previous plans by 

  • denying those arriving on small boats the right to apply for asylum even though that right is enshrined in the UN Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights;
  • imposing on the home secretary a duty to detain them for 28 days and then deport them to their own or a safe country “like Rwanda”; and 
  • imposing a lifetime ban on entering the UK for those deported.

Days in court. The UK already holds that arrivals by small boat are illegal, while under the UN convention there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. Hence the inevitable legal fight that Rishi Sunak appears to relish. Last night the UN noted the new British policy would effectively close off access to asylum even for people with compelling claims. 

28 days. Legal challenges will delay deportations even if they don’t prevent them, meaning whatever accommodation is found for detainees – who will be classified as such retrospectively from today if the bill passes – may be quickly overwhelmed. The bill provides for 28 days’ detention without trial but leaves questions about what happens next unresolved, including for families with children.

French disconnection. Sunak goes to France on Friday hoping to secure new cooperation on policing the north French coast. But an old proposal for the UK to take one French-approved asylum seeker for every “illegal” refugee returned to France, refloated last month by Kit Malthouse MP, remains in limbo.

To note: even though the UN has deemed Rwanda safe for deportees, it’s a police state that has agreed to take only 1,000 of the 160,000 UK asylum-seekers awaiting a decision.

To ponder: the notion that this bill is Brexit distilled to its essence: a mixture of nativism, paranoia and unkeepable promises powered by general frustration flailing for specific scapegoats. 

If this is Sunak’s chosen battleground for the next election, it will feel familiar.


It’s International Women’s Day. With it comes the return of a Twitter bot calling out UK organisations for their unequal pay as they claim to celebrate women. Francesca Lawson, who co-created the GenderPayGapBot account, said the goal was to “refocus the narrative” around women’s issues rather than “pushing out one very nicely illustrated graphic with a script font and utterly meaningless quotes”. It certainly does that. Although some companies do respond constructively, many delete their tweets or change their Twitter privacy settings to avoid being shared with the account’s 236,000 followers. The bot works by pulling median gender pay gap data published by the government, a mandatory requirement for companies with over 250 employees. This year the account has a fun additional feature showing whether a company’s gap has widened or narrowed year on year. For example, Emirates’s pay gap is 34.2 per cent – 27.5 per cent wider than the previous year. The pay gap for all employees as of April 2022 was 14.9 per cent. 


Six passports and a yacht
Five men and a woman using fake passports are the subject of US and German investigations linking a pro-Ukrainian group to the undersea sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline last year. The pipeline links Russia to Germany under the Baltic. By putting it out of action the saboteurs limited Russia’s ability to sell gas to Europe but also forced up world gas prices and thus Russian revenues. The blast last September was initially blamed on Russia, which denies responsibility. So does the Ukrainian government, but Deutsche Welle says German officials have searched a vessel, thought to be a yacht rented in Poland, that is owned by two Ukrainians. Boris Pistorius, the German defence minister, said it could still have been a false flag operation designed to make Ukraine look bad, but evidence against that theory is piling up.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Mikołaj Filiks
A tragedy in Poland has opened a pandora’s box of dirty politics ahead of a tight election for the ruling party later this year. What happened: the 15 year-old son of opposition MP Magdalena Filiks took his own life in February after a state-run radio report led to his identification as a victim of a paedophile predator. In December, details of a trial that had previously been kept secret to maintain the victim’s privacy were shared widely on state media as it involved a former member of Civic Platform (PO) – Filiks’ party. Figures from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party have claimed it was to the “detriment of society” that the case had not been previously reported. Donald Tusk, the leader of PO, tweeted that his party would hold PiS to account “for every villainy, for all human harm and tragedies they have caused while in power”. Yesterday a private funeral was held and the Polish parliament observed a minute’s silence. Today would have been Mikołaj Filiks’ 16th birthday. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Houston we have a problem
The president of Cop28, Sultan al-Jaber, has urged delegates at CERAWeek, the world’s largest oil and gas conference, to decarbonise quicker and eliminate all methane emissions. Tough words from the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, but his address was notable, too, for what it missed: there was no mention of phasing-out of oil and gas production, emissions from transportation, or the all-important target of limiting warming to 1.5C. Al-Jaber is widely viewed as a figure who can act as a broker between climate campaigners and oil and gas companies with huge balance sheets. Several executives at CERAWeek have talked about taking advantage of US tax credits to diversify into clean tech, carbon capture and even lithium refining. But can Al-Jaber get them to stop backpedalling on net zero? Between now and November, he has much to prove.


Most gunfights between warring Mexican drug gangs take place in an information vacuum, unreported even locally because reporters fear for their lives. Not so a shootout in Matamoros near the Texan border last Friday, when four US citizens were caught in the crossfire and kidnapped. They have since been identified by CNN as North Carolinians in a white van with South Carolina plates, and are now the focus of a nationwide hunt that President López Obrador says involves his “whole government”. The FBI is involved too, which is complicated because it has no formal authority south of the border. One of the US citizens, named as Latavia McGee, was said to be going to Mexico for a medical procedure. So much for a US healthcare system that consumes 16 per cent of gross national income.

Thanks for reading. Please tell your friends to sign up, send us ideas and let us know what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Jess Winch, Phoebe Davis and Barney Macintyre. 

Photographs Getty Images

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