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Illegal Migrants Bill is unethical and unworkable


4 min read

The Prime Minister’s recent meeting with President Emmanuel Macron represented a welcome thawing of relations between the United Kingdom and France.

It also offered both countries a long overdue opportunity to make serious headway on the urgent issue of how we tackle the barbaric trade in human misery, peddled by people traffickers between our two shores.

So, it is regrettable that the government’s so-called Illegal Migrants Bill should have been finalised before the meeting took place and so omits any agreed positions on joint collaboration which, of course, will be essential if we are serious about tackling trafficking.

The government should be focused on arresting traffickers rather than detaining innocent children and those with genuine claims to lawful asylum

This key omission, however, isn’t the only element of the bill which means it isn’t fit for purpose.

This bill is the government’s second attempt in less than a year to tackle what it calls the small boats crisis. The first proved unworkable and this second incarnation appears to be even more unworkable and unethical than the first.

The UNHCR has made it clear that the government’s proposals to detain all who arrive on our shores, including children, would breach the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Rights of Refugees, which the UK signed in the wake of the Holocaust. That Convention clearly states that it is not a criminal offence to cross a border to seek asylum. The Home Office has itself raised the very serious possibility that the bill contravenes the UK’s international obligations. Even more worryingly still, the current bill undermines many of the cornerstones of a civilised society that UK has long championed, namely the protection of children, other vulnerable groups, and the right to a fair hearing.

Under the bill, children, pregnant women, survivors of slavery and victims of torture could be automatically detained without any right to appeal for 28 days – a proposal that several Conservative colleagues will consider a step too far, not least those who supported previous Conservative legislation to ensure child refugees and victims of modern slavery are protected in law.

The bill also fails to address the practical implementation of these proposals.

The proposal that asylum seekers be returned, or sent to another third country, presupposes they can be returned – in the case of Afghanistan, Syria and other war-torn countries that is of course impossible – and the failure of the Rwanda scheme illustrates the very real difficulties in sending refugees elsewhere. Last year, when the Rwanda scheme was trumpeted as a “disincentive”, there was a 60 per cent increase in the number of refugees arriving in the UK and this year the numbers predicted to arrive could be as many as 65,000. The government cannot surely believe those numbers can be sent to a third country, even if the Rwanda scheme does get off the ground.

The detention of asylum seekers, especially children, is not only inhumane, it is also costly.

If everyone who crossed the channel last year had been detained for 28 days as this current bill proposes, then 9,161 people would have been placed in detention centres, requiring a four-fold increase in the current detention capacity in the UK. Detaining the numbers predicted to cross the channel this year would cost £219m, and that’s before the additional costs of building more detention centres.

We must crack down on people traffickers, but this bill contains nothing that will achieve that. Instead of offering gimmicks, like the Rwanda scheme, we must expand safe routes, particularly for children and those seeking family reunion, we should explore a refugee visa scheme which would allow people to apply for asylum in the UK from close to the country they’ve fled, and we should commit to proper cooperation with France and our EU partners, most of whom take significant more refugees than we do.

The Home Office must also tackle the unacceptable and costly backlog of asylum applications, which last year stood at 160,000, so that genuine asylum seekers can get on with their lives and contribute to the UK economy rather than languishing in hotels, paid for by the UK taxpayer.

In its current form the deficiencies in this bill are so glaring that the government will have difficulty getting it through the Commons, judging by the criticism it has already attracted from several prominent Conversative MPs, let alone the Lords, where many colleagues share my view that the government should be focused on arresting traffickers rather than detaining innocent children and those with genuine claims to lawful asylum.  


Lord Dubs, Labour peer. 

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