The UK government unveiled an extraordinarily harsh plan to stem the tide of refugees. It has two big problems. One, it likely violates international asylum laws. Two, it may be almost impossible to execute.
First, the numbers
It is an undeniable fact that the UK is experiencing a refugee crisis. It has escalated in recent years due to war, famine and political instability in places like Afghanistan and Syria. Desperate migrants arrive in waves each day—smuggled by gangs in unstable boats and dinghies.
The numbers: In 2022, 45,756 migrants crossed the English Channel to enter Britain. That’s the highest since authorities started keeping records in 2018—when a mere 300 arrived in boats. According to the latest figures, 2,953 migrants have already crossed the Channel in boats this year.
About those ‘illegal’ refugees: 40% of those who crossed the channel in 2022 came from just five countries—Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. And 8,700 of them were children. According to the Refugee Council, asylum applications of citizens of these war-torn nations are almost always approved—because they have good cause. Of the five, three currently have asylum grant rates of 98% and the other two are 86% and 82%. That said, the largest number of asylum applicants in 2022 were from Albania—which is not exactly the same as, say, Syria.
As for the ‘legal’ refugee: During the same period, 160,000 Ukrainian refugees entered the UK on special visas that allow them to work and claim benefits. Some war refugees count more than others.
Ok, tell me about this new bill….
It is the most sweeping and restrictive immigration bill in UK history. Here’s what it says:
- Anyone trying to enter the country without permission will be detained and deported.
- They will be sent back to their home country—if it is deemed safe—or flown to a ‘safe’ third country like Rwanda (more on that below).
- The only exemptions are for children under 18, those who are medically unfit to fly or in risk of serious harm in the country they are being sent to.
- The government made it clear that there will be a “very high” bar when assessing if a migrant’s life is in danger.
- People cannot use modern slavery laws to oppose their removal.
- No last-minute judicial reviews or appeals will be allowed.
- Any person removed from the country can never apply for a visa, permanent residency or citizenship.
- And there will be a new limit on the number of migrants who can apply to stay in the country through "safe and legal routes.”
That Rwandan thing: In 2022, Boris Johnson’s government inked a deal which, in essence, turned Rwanda into a dumping ground for migrants seeking asylum in the UK. These refugees would be sent on a one-way ticket to Rwanda—where they can apply for asylum to live, but in Rwanda. That’s right. Not the UK. Also this:
The deal is “uncapped”, i.e., there is no upper limit to how many migrants will be sent to Rwanda for the five years that the deal will remain in place. The MoU also does not have any specific language that outlines the economic right to work, access to healthcare or any financial support provided by the Rwandan government to relocated persons.
According to the new bill, that’s what will happen to anyone who arrives on a boat in the UK—if they are not sent back to their home country.
Quote to note: Home Secretary Suella Braverman declared: "They will not stop coming here until the world knows that if you enter Britain illegally you will be detained and swiftly removed." She also grandly claimed that 100 million people “are coming here” due the UK’s current laws. FYI: “This refers to a UNHCR figure that there are more than 100 million people forcibly displaced around the world, although there is nothing to suggest they would all want to come to the UK.”
Image of note: The Sunak photo-op announcing the plan looked something like this:
But isn’t there a basic right to seek asylum?
Yes. It was crafted in the aftermath of World War II—in the shadow of Nazi atrocities and the displacement of nearly 60 million people worldwide. The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Article 14 of that declaration established the right to seek asylum and enjoy freedom from persecution. It became the foundation of the 1951 Refugee Convention—which established the right to seek asylum:
The core principle is non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This is now considered a rule of customary international law.
The legality of this bill: is iffy—even by the government’s own admission. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) offers exactly the same protection of refugee rights as the UN convention. And it is part of UK law under the country’s Human Rights Act. Home Secretary Braverman admitted that there is a "more than 50% chance" that the new bill is incompatible with international law. In the past, the UK has considered leaving the ECHR—but Braverman has not made any such threat…for now.
Quote to note: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees issued an unusually critical statement saying the bill amounted to an “asylum ban”—calling it a “clear breach” of international law as it “undermines the very purpose for which the Refugee Convention was established.”
Another key critique: is that the bill punishes the migrants—but not the gangs that profit from their misery:
One smuggler told Sky News yesterday that three-quarters of the smugglers live in Britain, yet barely any of them are being prosecuted and they still haven't found the hundreds of children missing from asylum hotels who have been picked up by criminal gangs.
What happens now? Is this bill going to pass?
The Labour party is unlikely to play ball—which may be the real intent behind the bill—to force the opposition to look soft on illegal immigration. But even if it does pass, many doubt that the plan is doable.
One: Where will you hold them? Any illegal refugee will be detained for 28 days while arrangements are made to ship them out:
But where are these people going to be held? Last year's 45,000 arrivals are equivalent to half of the UK's prison capacity. Holding someone in a secure unit is far more expensive than placing them in a house, flat or hotel room. Prison is famously more expensive than some of the UK's top private schools.
Two: Where will they go? Hardly any ‘safe’ country has agreed to take these refugees—with the exception of Rwanda. And that deal is still stuck in legal limbo—not a single person has been deported to that country. And even if the ‘Rwanda solution’ does overcome legal hurdles, the country can only accommodate a small portion of the refugees. What will happen to the rest?
Three: Who will pay for it? There’s also this chota problem with the plan to fly all these pesky refugees out of the country:
[F]igures obtained by the BBC show that Home Office charter flights to forcibly remove illegal immigrants from the UK cost more per seat than a first class ticket to New York. The government spent £12.7m last year on the flights - removing 1,500 people - a Freedom of Information request by BBC News has revealed. A quarter of the flights took off with 20 or fewer passengers on board, including two flights with less than 10.
The Sunak posse hopes amping up the number of deportees will make the flights more economical. But they assume that this product plan will scale.
Four: Get ready for the backlog. It is highly unlikely that the painfully slow UK bureaucracy will be able to speedily process these refugees—and ship them off within 28 days. Anyone held past that limit can “launch challenges before immigration tribunals arguing that they are being unlawfully held.” Imagine the judicial logjam that will create! FYI: the current number of unresolved immigration cases is around 29,000—with a 46-week wait for a decision.
The new Brexit? The other theory is that the bill is intended to fail. If not blocked by Labour, Sunak can always rely on European human rights court in Strasbourg to play the villain:
But there remains the suspicion among lawyers that the government is setting up a confrontation with “lefty lawyers” and Strasbourg, who they can then blame for failure to implement the measures. Horne said it was highly unlikely to be on the statute books before the next election. “If you ask me, and this isn’t a legal opinion, it’s entirely a sort of political view, he [Rishi Sunak] is doing this to generate headlines,” he said. “I think the government thinks that banging on about Strasbourg is a new version of banging on about Europe.”
The bottomline: The two key architects of this bill—Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman—are of Indian origin. Wah, the NRIs really do us proud.
Sky News and BBC News have overviews of the bill—and responses to it. BBC News also asks: will this bill really stop those boats? For more incisive analysis, check out this Bloomberg column. The Wire and Quartz have more on the international law angle. The Hindu has a detailed explainer on the Rwanda deal. This Big Story offers a broader perspective on the refugee crisis—and the harsh measures it has provoked in Europe.