Will Rishi Sunak stem the tide of small boats?

‘Tough’ new legislation will promise swift deportation of those entering UK illegally as PM picks election battleground

Rishi Sunak Migrant Crossing
If a deal is struck and the number of small boats begins to come down it could prove a fertile area to fight the next election for Sunak and the Conservatives
(Image credit: Illustrated/Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak is putting the finishing touches to a plan he hopes will stop undocumented migrants arriving in small boats on Britain’s shores.

The prime minister is hoping to build on his achievement of securing a new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, which has breathed life into his premiership, by announcing new legislation, expected to be called the Illegal Migration Bill.

Briefings over the weekend suggest the bill will propose the swift detention and deportation to Rwanda or a “safe third country” of all those detained on small boats or entering the UK via “irregular routes”.

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The Mail on Sunday reported the “tough new measures” will see Channel migrants “hit with a lifetime ban on entering Britain again”, meaning they can never settle legally or gain British citizenship. The Times estimated the proposals will cost around £3bn – similar to what the UK is already spending each year on the asylum system – with the home secretary under a new legal duty to remove undocumented migrants “as soon as reasonably practicable” in a bid to reduce the backlog of claims currently standing at 160,000.

What did the papers say?

“After his well-received Brexit deal, can Sunak next solve the conundrum of how to reduce the spiralling numbers of undocumented arrivals while abiding by the UK’s responsibilities under international human rights law?” asked Politico.

The Times said the prime minister “is likely to face pressure from some Tory MPs to go further and threaten to pull Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights [ECHR]”, but “he is said to be reluctant to do so and believes that the plans are ‘legally watertight’”.

It has been reported that a clause in the bill is expected to apply a “rights brake” to effectively allow the ECHR and UN’s Refugee Convention to be circumvented.

However, “it is not clear how exactly the government is proposing to limit the rights of asylum seekers”, said the BBC. “Nor is the pledge to deport asylum seekers straightforward” added the broadcaster. “Despite a deal being reached last year, not one migrant has been sent to Rwanda yet and any plans to do so are currently on hold. There is also no returns agreement in place with the EU.”

Yet as lawmakers await the details of the legislation, “campaigners have already hit out at the plans”, reported The Guardian. Sonya Sceats, chief executive of Freedom from Torture, called the proposals “vindictive and dysfunctional”, while Christina Marriott, executive director of strategy at the Red Cross, called the plans “extremely concerning”. Almost all opponents of the bill have claimed it will do little to act as a deterrent or stem the tide of people arriving by boat.

Some senior Tories are also concerned that Sunak’s pledge to stop illegal Channel migrants before the next election could backfire. They have told the Independent they fear he has “over-promised”, claiming that “a political wrangle over the new laws will mean they will be held up in parliament and do not reach the statute book in time to take effect before Polling Day”, the news site reported.

What next?

Politics Home has reported that in a bid to limit a Tory backlash over his Windsor framework Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, “Conservative MPs are being told that getting the deal over the line will boost the chances of striking an agreement with France on tackling small boats crossings, which is one of Sunak’s priorities and a major issue for many Tory MPs”.

Sunak is hoping to introduce legislation before meeting his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, at a summit in Paris on Friday, “where the issue of small boats is expected to be high on their agenda”, said Politics Home.

The issue is “likely to become a key battleground at the next election, expected at the end of next year”, said the Mail on Sunday.

If a deal is struck and the number of small boats begins to come down it could prove a fertile area to fight the next election for Sunak and the Conservatives. But if they fail to deter those crossing the Channel illegally then the party’s hard-won support among the red wall of Brexit-backing former Labour voters will crumble, warned a senior Tory.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Brendan Clarke-Smith MP, the new chairman of the Blue Collar Conservatives group, said the issue could represent an “existential threat” at the next general election, especially with the party’s support squeezed by the anti-immigration Reform Party.

“There’s no point in offending anyone if you don’t have to, but politics means choices, and Sunak would be making the wrong one in this instance if he plumped for offending his core constituency,” said Conservative Home.

“There is no evidence that most people, including these [2019 red wall Tory voters], are opposed to taking in more refugees,” added the website, “but voters won’t long tolerate high levels overall, at least if polling is anything to go by – especially if they feel that those arriving by small boat are making a mockery of border control, and that government is unwilling or incapable or both of doing almost anything at all.”

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