The government has unveiled new, tougher measures to stop people crossing the Channel in small boats. But it faces legal and practical challenges. Why are they doing it and will it work?
“The number of people entering the UK illegally in small boats has more than quadrupled in just the last two years. Those illegally crossing the channel are not directly fleeing a war-torn country or persecution or an imminent threat to life.”Rishi Sunak, Guardian News
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Politicians in the UK love putting slogans on lecterns.
And on Tuesday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled a new one.
In white text on a red background: “Stop the boats.”
“My policy is very simple. It is this country and your government who should decide who comes here, not criminal gangs. And I will do whatever is necessary to achieve that.”Rishi Sunak, Guardian News
Last year, 45,000 people came to the UK in small boats. This year, it is forecast to be 80,000.
Many of them are fleeing war and violence.
Analysis from the Refugee Council shows that two-thirds of those who made the journey last year are refugees who under current laws will be granted asylum.
The biggest group is from Afghanistan, which fell to the Taliban when the US and UK withdrew from the country in 2021.
The government wants to reduce their number.
Under the new plans anyone who arrives in the UK via an irregular route, on a small boat for instance, will be detained for 28 days and deported.
They’ll be unable to claim asylum, they’ll be banned from re-entry, and they won’t be protected by the UK’s modern slavery laws.
These are the latest in a series of measures aimed at cracking down on what the government calls the “small boats crisis”.
So why have previous efforts failed?
“The British people are famously a fair and patient people, but their sense of fair play has been tested beyond its limits and they see the country taken for a ride.”Suella Braverman, GBNews
This is home secretary Suella Braverman.
“Their patience has run out. The law-abiding, patriotic majority have said enough is enough, this cannot and will not continue.”Suella Braverman, GBNews
Suella Braverman has made no secret of her desire to crack down on Channel crossings.
“I would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda, that’s my dream, it’s my obsession.”Suella Braverman, Middle East Eye
But her flagship policy, a £140 million pound plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, has yet to take off.
Opponents of the plan say it breaches the rights of asylum seekers, protected under two agreements: the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN’s Refugee Convention.
In December, the High Court ruled that the scheme didn’t breach the Refugee Convention.
But that decision is being challenged in the courts, and to date there’s still not been any successful flights to Rwanda.
Will her new policy fare any better?
The devil’s in the detail and it’s not yet clear how the new proposals will work in practice.
Detaining thousands of people who cross the Channel on a small boat for 28 days will cost hundreds of millions a year and require huge detention centres.
Then, there’ll be the matter of deporting the asylum seekers whose claims would automatically be rejected.
“The detention…is there so we can make arrangements for removal. We are confident that we are going to be able to operationalise our world-leading partnership with Rwanda.”Suella Braverman, Peston (ITV)
“But if you can’t in the requisite time, what will you do?”Robert Peston, Peston (ITV)
“Well we are very confident about our scheme with Rwanda… It may well be that Rwanda will be an option very soon.”Suella Braverman, Peston (ITV)
The current Rwanda deal, if it eventually gets through the courts, only allows for a thousand people to be sent there over the next 5 years. That’s 200 a year.
Tens of thousands are expected to cross the channel this year. Even if the government’s new plans become law and aren’t blocked by the courts, it’s hard to see where these people will be placed.
The government is facing other challenges getting this legislation through.
Suella Braverman cannot confirm that the bill adheres to the European Convention on Human Rights.
So even if the UK sorts out the detention capacity and deportation agreements, it’s still setting itself up for a fight in the courts.
So why are they doing it?
“He wanted to, in his words, scrap the Rwanda deal; he voted against measures to deport foreign criminals; and he even argued against deportation flights.”Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister’s Questions (BBC)
At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Rishi Sunak took aim at the Labour leader Keir Starmer, whose party is planning to vote against the bill.
“We know why – on this matter he talked about his legal background, he’s just another leftie lawyer standing in our way.”Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister’s Questions (BBC)
It was a revealing moment.
Illegal immigration is not ordinarily strong ground for Labour electorally. So it is a sign of where public perception is that Keir Starmer felt confident challenging the government’s failure to tackle this issue.
And Rishi Sunak is aware. With the Conservatives lagging behind Labour in the polls, he wants to get back on the front foot.
He’s bet the house on a strategy that puts illegal immigration at the front of everyone’s minds. He wants to shift the responsibility for any failure onto the Labour Party or the European Court of Human Rights.
What’s not so clear is whether it’ll work.
The bill is unlikely to deliver results in the two years that’s left until the next election and the slogan “Stop the boats” sets the bar for success very high.
This episode was written by Xavier Greenwood and mixed by Karla Patella.