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Critics slam UK government proposals to curb migration

March 8, 2023

The UK government wants to put an end to people crossing the Channel in small boats with controversial legislation that would see asylum seekers deported. Activists say the plans could violate international law.

Migrants dressed in orange rain capes are helped from a boat after being rescued in the Channel
The UK is seeking to deter illegal migrant arrivals with harsh new immigration legislationImage: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/dpa/picture alliance

The British government has unveiled a new proposal to prevent unauthorized immigration to the UK. "They will not stop coming here until the world knows that if you enter Britain illegally you will be detained or swiftly removed," British Home Secretary Suella Braverman told Parliament on Tuesday. "Removed back to your country if it is safe or to a safe third country like Rwanda," she continued.

Tackling illegal migration to the UK is one of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's top priorities. For months, his government has come under pressure from some quarters because of rising numbers of migrants entering the country in small boats. In 2022, 45,000 migrants arrived after crossing the Channel, up from 30,000 in 2021.

Last summer, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg intervened and brought about a halt to plans by the previous government to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda by plane.

Lifetime ban on British citizenship

If the proposed legislation is approved, migrants crossing the Channel in small boats and arriving in Britain through unauthorized means will not be allowed to apply for asylum. They will be detained and then deported and will receive a lifetime ban on returning. They will not be able to obtain British citizenship in future.

The home secretary explained that the new law would provide for the detention of people arriving for 28 days, "without bail or judicial review." She added that their subsequent deportation would only be suspended in exceptional cases, and specified that "any other claim will be heard remotely, after removal."

Describing the proposals as "robust and novel," she said she was "confident that this bill is compatible with international obligations."

However, critics pointed out that this was not necessarily the case. The Refugee Council and other NGOs have denounced the proposals.

Human rights expert Lena Riemer pointed out to DW that the UK was bound to the principles of international law, and that these stipulated "that individuals seeking protection cannot be returned to a country where they are at risk of bodily harm." She explained that whether the UK government proposals were possible would also depend on which country an individual might be sent to, and that Rwanda did not fulfil certain criteria.

'Primary objective is to deter people from making this dangerous journey'

Talking to DW about the proposed legislation before it was unveiled, Rob McNeil from Oxford University's Migration Observatory agreed: "The idea is that it would lead to the removal of people who arrive in the UK without the legal right to do so. The question is where would they go? There isn't a clear plan of the UK government where the people would go."

He added that there were also no agreements with countries of origin or even France, from which people trying to reach the UK often embark on their crossing of the Channel.

"What we do know is that the (…) primary objective of this legislation is to deter people from making this dangerous journey," he said. 

Riemer referred to the Geneva Refugee Convention, which stipulates that refugees cannot be penalized for seeking protection in another country. "If these people are deported without it being verified whether they are in need of protection, this too will be violated, in my view," she said.

For now, the proposals still need approval from the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament. A lot can still change in the course of this process, but whatever the outcome, McNeil is skeptical: "What we do know that academic analysis shows (is) that there is not good evidence to support the idea that deterrence policies work effectively, quite often because people in the countries of departure are not conscious of the ins and outs of law in the countries to which they travel," he said. 

An inflatable dinghy on a beach in Britain
Often, people make the perilous journey to Britain on inflatable dinghies Image: Henry Nicholls/REUTERS

Franco-British summit

On Friday, Prime Minister Sunak will discuss the proposals with French President Emmanuel Macron at a bilateral summit between their two countries.

Last November, Britain and France agreed to work together to thwart illegal migration, with their interior ministers signing a €72.2 million ($74.5 million) deal to increase the number of patrols along the French coast and promote more cooperation.

"We have signed a new deal providing more technology and embedding British officers with French patrols," Braverman said this week. "And I hope Friday's Anglo-French summit will further deepen that cooperation." 

This article was translated from German.

DW Mitarbeiterin Lucia Schulten
Lucia Schulten Brussels Correspondent