Sunak’s small boats plans run into wave of opposition
By David Hughes, Sophie Wingate and Dominic McGrath, PA Political Staff
Rishi Sunak is “getting a grip” on illegal migration, allies claimed as critics warned he was putting forward “unworkable” plans which would leave thousands of migrants in limbo.
The Government is expected to set out plans on Tuesday which are expected to make asylum claims from those who travel to the UK on small boats inadmissible, with the migrants removed to a third country and banned from returning or claiming citizenship.
Details about how the policy will be implemented are scarce, with previous efforts to tighten procedures – such as the Rwanda policy – mired in legal challenges.
But Cabinet minister Michelle Donelan said: “This week we will be bringing forward additional legislation, which is based on the principle that if people travel here via illegal routes they shouldn’t be allowed to stay, which I think is common sense and right and the correct approach.”
The Science Secretary told the BBC that many people crossing the Channel have previously “travelled through a number of safe countries” or do not need to claim asylum in the UK.
“Those boats are not filled with people coming from countries that desperately need help. Many times they’re filled with people that are actually economic migrants and have also been exploited by criminal gangs who take their money on a very perilous journey.”
She said the Government is “getting a grip” on illegal migration but also promised that more “safe routes” for asylum seekers to enter the UK would be set up, although she failed to name any when pressed repeatedly.
Critics questioned how the proposals could be put into practice.
Lucy Moreton, of the Immigration Services Union, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The plans as they’ve been announced really are quite confusing.
“We can’t move anyone to Rwanda right now – it’s subject to legal challenge.
“We can’t remove anyone back into Europe because there are no returns agreements and we lost access to the database that allows us to prove that individuals have claimed asylum in Europe – Eurodac – when we left with Brexit.
“So, unless we have a safe third country that isn’t Rwanda to send people to, this just doesn’t seem to be possible.”
She also warned that the threat of a crackdown could lead to an increase in the number of people risking the crossing.
The gangs will tell people “quick, cross now before anything changes”, she said.
Downing Street said it was “alive to that sort of issue”, but that rising numbers of crossings meant “there is no time to waste” on implementing the plans.
While declining to give a timescale, the Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said: “Obviously we want to do this as quickly as possible.
“As we’ve always said, we recognise there will likely be challenges in many forms to this sort of legislation.”
Responding to wider criticism of the plans, the official urged people to “wait for the actual policy details to be published before giving their views”.
“For our part, the Prime Minister has made a commitment to the British public to stop the boats, which are putting lives at risk and lining the pockets of ruthless criminal gangs.
“We’ve seen too many lives lost attempting this dangerous and unnecessary journey, and the number of people entering the country is simply unsustainable.
“We have an unacceptable situation depriving people who genuinely need our help and that is simply not fair. So we have to take away the incentive to jump the queue by coming here illegally and stop the boats.”
The Government will eventually open more safe and legal routes for asylum claims, but only “once we have control over our borders”, the spokesman said.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer suggested the move was a political tactic ahead of May’s local elections and questioned its legality.
“We had a plan last year which was put up in lights, ‘it’s going to be an election winner’. These bits of legislation always seem to come when we’ve got a local election coming up,” he told LBC Radio.
“It was going to break the gangs – it didn’t. Now we’ve got the next bit of legislation with almost the same billing, I don’t think that putting forward unworkable proposals is going to get us very far.”
Asked if the plan was legally feasible, the Labour leader said: “I don’t know that it is and I think we’ve got to be very careful with international law here.”
The Prime Minister on Sunday vowed to put an end to the “immoral” situation, while Home Secretary Suella Braverman said “enough is enough”.
The legislation would see a duty placed on the Home Secretary to remove “as soon as reasonably practicable” anyone who arrives on a small boat, either to Rwanda or a “safe third country”.
Arrivals will also be prevented from claiming asylum while in the UK, with plans also to ban them from returning once removed.
The Prime Minister, who has made “stopping the boats” one of his five priorities, is preparing to act after months of pressure from Tory backbenchers.
But already there have been questions about how any such legislation, based on the details known so far, could be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Ms Braverman has made her personal view that the UK should leave the ECHR well known, while Justice Secretary Dominic Raab refused to commit to the UK remaining a party to the convention “forever and a day”.
However, Mr Sunak believes he “can bring in tough new legislation that remains within ECHR,” his spokesman said.
Almost 3,000 migrants have crossed the English Channel already this year.
Campaigners have issued firm warnings to the Government about the new policy.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the plans “shatter the UK’s long-standing commitment under the UN Convention to give people a fair hearing regardless of the path they have taken to reach our shores”.
He added: “The Government’s flawed legislation will not stop the boats but result in tens of thousands locked up in detention at huge cost, permanently in limbo and being treated as criminals simply for seeking refuge.
“It’s unworkable, costly and won’t stop the boats.”