Britain unveils plan to detain and deport all Channel migrants

Migrants being escorted ashore from a British Border Force vessel in Dover on Sunday. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON – Britain’s government announced on Tuesday new legislation it said will prevent all cases of migrants illegally crossing the English Channel in small boats.

It is a key policy ambition of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that is expected to face legal challenges.

“Anyone entering the country illegally will be detained and swiftly removed,” Home Secretary Suella Braverman told Parliament on Tuesday.

She said some 45,000 people entered the United Kingdom on small boats crossing the Channel in 2022. 

The new law was prompted by deaths in the Channel and pressures on British asylum processes, Ms Braverman said.

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”, Ms Braverman added. 

Illegal migration costs British taxpayers £3 billion (S$4.8 billion) a year, while asylum seekers have been housed temporarily in hotels at a cost of £6 million per day, the government said. 

The new legislation will mean that anyone who arrives on small boats will be prevented from claiming asylum and deported to so-called safe third countries, Mr Sunak wrote in an article in The Sun newspaper on Tuesday.

Just under two-thirds of those who arrive on small boats are granted asylum or another form of humanitarian protection, Home Office figures show.

Mr Sunak has made stopping the boat arrivals one of his five key priorities – alongside halving inflation, growing the economy and cutting healthcare waiting times.

Unlike the other priorities, the Illegal Migration Bill is expected to face legal challenges and could find itself slowed down in the courts. 

Under the plan, the home secretary will have a legal duty to remove people who enter Britain illegally and anyone who does so will be automatically banned from claiming asylum or citizenship in the UK, the Home Office said in an emailed statement. 

The government will be able to detain migrants for an initial 28 days without recourse for bail or judicial review and will then have open-ended powers of detention “for as long as there is a reasonable prospect of removal”, the statement said.

Legal challenges and human rights claims will be heard overseas and asylum seekers will be barred from using modern slavery laws to stay in the country.

The Refugee Council charity said tens of thousands of genuine refugees who would previously have been granted asylum would be “locked up like criminals” under the plans, which would “shatter” Britain’s commitments under the United Nations Refugee Convention.

Anger over immigration in some areas has played a defining role in British politics over the last decade.

It was deployed successfully by campaigners as a tool to fuel support for Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum.

Controlling immigration was the third-most important issue for voters after the economy and the running of the health service, polling by YouGov last November found.

The poll found 87 per cent of the public thought the government was handling the issue badly.

While the number of applications for asylum in Britain hit a 20-year high of nearly 75,000 in 2022, they are still below the European Union average.

Germany received more than 240,000 asylum applications in 2022.

Opposition parties and charities have questioned whether the latest plans would be any more effective than previous attempts to deter people from making the Channel crossing, which has proved profitable for human traffickers and perilous for migrants.

Four people drowned last December when their boat capsized.

Britain has already tried to deport people who come to the country illegally.

In 2022, former British prime minister Boris Johnson agreed to a deal to send tens of thousands of migrants – many having made the journey from Afghanistan, Syria or other countries torn apart by conflict – more than 6,400km away to Rwanda.

But the first planned deportation flight was blocked last June by a last-minute injunction granted by the European Court of Human Rights and the strategy’s lawfulness was subsequently challenged in the High Court in London.

The court subsequently ruled it lawful last December, but opponents are seeking to appeal that verdict.

The legal battle is expected to end up in the UK Supreme Court and may not be resolved for months.

Ms Braverman said the government was unable to make a “definitive statement of compatibility” with the European Convention on Human Rights, although she said she was “confident” the proposed legislation fulfilled the UK’s international obligations.

Mr Sunak will meet French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, when he is expected to ask for more cooperation in tackling gangs involved in cross-Channel people smuggling.

Once the small-boat crossings have ended, Britain would be prepared to create more legal routes for asylum seekers, Mr Sunak said in 2022. But he has not said what these will be. REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

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