Illegal Migration Bill: Mired in controversy from the onset 

Photo: Sandor Csudai (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Intended to give the public a reason to vote Conservative despite everything, the Illegal Migration Bill has stirred up a broad-based opposition before the ink has dried. Don Flynn explains how it happened

The Government’s efforts to marshal its new Illegal Migration Bill (IMB) through Parliament has not got off to a great start. 

Rishi Sunak and his home secretary, Suella Braverman, must have imagined it so very differently when the pledge to ‘stop small boats’ was included as one of the five priorities for government back in January. Working to appease public anxiety over the arrival of asylum seekers taking the dangerous Channel crossing was one of the few issues which the Tory prime minister thought he could rely on as a sure-fire vote-winner.  

In fact, it has all turned decidedly messy as a consequence of misguided attempts to assert pressure on the BBC to clamp down on celebrity opposition to the planned legislation, exemplified by Gary Lineker’s celebrated tweet. The solidarity demonstrated by fellow sports pundits and thousands of other social media users has given the distinct impression that a large swathe of public opinion is as opposed to the anti-asylum bill as the former England football captain.

Deeper levels

At a deeper level of analysis, the provisions of the IMB have come under harsh criticism from 300 signatories to a letter published in The Times. Backed by academic experts working in UK universities, the letter describes the bill as pursuing “a deterrent approach” modelled on the efforts of the Australian government to end the spontaneous arrival of asylum seekers by detaining everyone reaching its shores and interning them on remote Pacific islands. The co-signatories argue that there is “no evidence that we are aware of to suggest that deterrence-based approaches are effective”.

The bill has been condemned because of the legal obligation it places on the home secretary to detain anyone arriving via an irregular route and removing them to what the Home Office considers to be a safe country. This could either be the country of the person’s nationality, if that is considered safe, or a third country if it is prepared to accept them. Legal commentators on the predicament of asylum seekers slated for removal have pointed out that the system already has tens of thousands of people jammed up in its works, marked for removal but who remain in the UK because no safe country has been found for them to go to. 

The Government has staked everything on the belief that its firm message will destroy the business model of the people smugglers who facilitate the movement of refugees across borders. This is disputed by experts with greater insights into the workings of this often nefarious trade in human beings.  

Game of chicken

The Status Now Network, a campaign group led by refugee and migrant people, has argued that the bill will add to the chaos within the immigration control system caused by its failure to process over 160,000 outstanding claims for asylum. Border control regimes which have descended to this level of turmoil are likely to be seen by the smuggler gangs as presenting unparalleled opportunities for further profits as the inability of the authorities to function with minimal efficiency becomes ever more obvious. The worst of all possible worlds looms for the Government as it embarks on this desperate measure, with its floundering efforts to assert control being seen by smugglers as a game of chicken, with the winner being the one who is prepared to push hardest and longest against the regulations the authorities are trying to implement.

How will public opinion respond to the issues being put at stake in this planned legislation? The signs seem to be that confrontation at street level are in prospect between supporters of the deterrent approach and others disturbed by the reactionary moods being stirred into existence. The rash of protests outside hotels accommodating asylum seekers is likely to continue into the foreseeable future, as will the counter-mobilisations being organised by anti-racist and migrant solidarity groups. The initiators of these protests, whilst having some roots in genuine community grievance, seem to be dependent on the resources of far right and openly fascist groups to build their muscle power. Their opponents can be expected to match the vitriol of these extremists with a wider appeal for the defence of the rights of refugees which ought to be able to draw in community associations concerned with inclusion, trades unions and faith communities, and, if all develops well,  local authority representatives who interpret their electoral mandate as promoting cohesion rather than stirring up rancour.

Labour Party blah, blah…

Meanwhile, what is the Labour Party saying at national level? Nothing very encouraging, unfortunately. Its arguments against the bill are being presented for publication in a series of placards with slogans that promise “Labour will crack down on smuggler gangs through a new cross-border police unit”; “Labour will negotiate a new returns agreement with France and Europe”; and “Labour will tackle crises at source and help refugees in their own region”, all of which are branded with Sunak’s own commitment to “stop small boats”. The best that can be said about these proclamations, even when they have merit, is that they have languished on the policy agendas of the European and international institutions for decades without making any progress.

At worst, it is probably more accurate to say that Labour’s feeble effort to generate a response to the bill is intended to show that, when all is said and done, there isn’t a cigarette paper’s width between its policies and those of its Conservative rivals. 

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