Stopping the arrival of small boats is a "priority" for the British people, Rishi Sunak has said as he defended the government's new asylum plan. Image Credit: AP

London: Britain is facing a domestic and international backlash after unveiling contentious legislation to overhaul the way it handles migrants crossing the Channel on small boats.

What has been announced?

The Illegal Migration Bill places a legal duty on the interior minister to deport anyone who enters the UK illegally, superseding their other rights under human rights conventions.

They would be deported home or to a "safe third country", such as Rwanda, under an existing UK plan, where they could then claim asylum.

Legal challenges or human rights claims would be heard in that country. Applicants would be disqualified from using British laws aimed at preventing modern slavery to stop their deportation.

Illegal entrants who are removed also face7a lifetime ban on citizenship and re-entry to the UK.

The government is promising new "safe and legal routes" for refugees, but has yet to spell those out.

Lawmakers would set an annual quota for legal refugees eligible to settle in Britain.


Who is in the boats?
The British government says many of those making the journey are economic migrants rather than refugees, and points to an upswing last year in arrivals from Albania, a European country that the UK considers safe.

The other main countries of origin last year were Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Of those whose applications have been processed, a large majority were granted asylum in the UK.

Why is the UK proposing this?

More than 45,000 arrivals from across the Channel were recorded last year, with 3,150 already having made the journey so far in 2023.

Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman
A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman presenting to members of Parliament the British Government legislation aimed at curbing migrant boat arrivals during a session at the House of Commons, in London, on March 7, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Interior minister Suella Braverman says that as many as 80,000 could cross by the end of the year, and that the "broken" asylum system is costing UK taxpayers #3 billion ($3.55 billion) annually.

She and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also argue that their approach is more "compassionate" than allowing cross-Channel tragedies to occur.

In November 2021, at least 27 people drowned when their fragile dinghy deflated.

But the government says that in any case, many of the migrants are coming for economic reasons rather than for genuine asylum needs.

Last year, the largest contingent came from Albania, which has already agreed a return policy with Britain to take its illegal migrants back.

Why are people now crossing by boat?
When the COVID-19 pandemic all but halted rail, air and ship travel and disrupted freight transport in 2020, people-smugglers began to put migrants into inflatable dinghies and other small boats.

In 2018, only 300 people reached Britain that way. The number rose to 8,500 in 2020, 28,000 in 2021 and 45,000 in 2022.

Dozens have died in the frigid channel, including 27 people in a single sinking in November 2021.

Groups of migrants arrive almost daily on beaches or in lifeboats along England’s southern coast, sending the asylum issue up the news and political agenda.

Will it work?

The United Nations refugee agency says the bill amounts to an “asylum ban” and is a clear breach of the UN refugee convention. The UK government acknowledges the bill may break Britain’s international human rights commitments, and says it expects legal challenges.

Sunder Katwala, head of the identity and immigration think-tank British Future, said in a blog post that “the pledge to detain and remove all people who cross the Channel has no prospect of being honored in the next two years.”

The British government says the country’s asylum system has been “overwhelmed” by the small-boat arrivals. Braverman, who has called the arrivals an “invasion,” said Tuesday that “the law-abiding patriotic majority have said: Enough is enough.”

Her words have been criticised as inflammatory. BBC soccer pundit Gary Lineker drew a mix of praise and criticism for saying some of the government’s language was “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”

Critics say the asylum system is creaking because cumbersome bureaucracy, exacerbated by the pandemic, has created a big backlog in applications.

Is it legal?

Britain is a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which sets numerous responsibilities for countries towards people fleeing persecution or war.

Criticising the UK bill, the UN refugee agency noted that the convention explicitly allows people to flee their homeland and claim asylum elsewhere without passports or other papers.

Britain also has obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to avoid putting people at risk of torture or other forms of inhuman or degrading treatment. The country's own 1998 Human Rights Act also offers asylum-seekers various protections.

Braverman insists the draft law complies with international law. But in a note to MPs at the beginning of the 66-page bill, she acknowledged she was "unable" to assess that its provisions are compatible with the ECHR.

Migrants to Europe
Migrants on an overcrowded wooden boat wait to be rescued in the Mediterranean Sea, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 Image Credit: AP

What responses have there been?

The bill has drawn vocal support from many Conservative MPs and right-wing newspapers after serial vows by governments to crack down on cross-Channel migration.

But critics including UK rights groups and United Nations agencies have expressed deep concern.

The Refugee Council has said it is "unworkable, costly and won't stop the boats", while the Doctors Without Borders charity called it "cruel and inhumane".

The main opposition Labour party wants the money spent instead on a crackdown on criminal gangs behind the cross-Channel traffic, arguing that the government's plan will do nothing to deter them.

BBC football presenter Gary Lineker, a longtime critic of the government's migration policies, even compared the new plan to the rhetoric of Nazi-era Germany.