The UK’s extreme new immigration plans, explained

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, wearing a dark suit with a white shirt and blue tie, gestures while speaking from behind a podium with a sign reading “Stop the Boats.”
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference following the launch of new legislation on migrant channel crossings on March 7, 2023. | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Tory plans to stop channel crossings may be more politics than practical.

Facing an increase in migration across the English Channel, the UK agreed to fund additional policing and new migrant detention center in northern France on Friday, to the tune of $576 million over three years. The deal, which builds on previous agreements between the UK and France, is the latest step by Britain’s right-wing government to combat immigration, and a sign of the Conservative Party’s increasing desperation on the issue.

After the number of migrants entering the UK by crossing the channel exploded in 2020, climbing from just 300 people to 8,500 in just two years, it reached new heights in 2022 with 45,000 new arrivals. In response, not only is the UK stepping up cooperation with France on immigration, but British Home Secretary Suella Braverman this week introduced a draconian new bill that would refuse the right to asylum to people arriving via irregular migration.

Under the terms of the new agreement, announced Friday at a UK-France summit in Paris, the UK will not only fund a new migrant detention center in France, but an increased French police presence in the English Channel to intercept attempted crossings via boat. France is expected to contribute funding to the enforcement efforts as well, but the French government has not yet released those details.

“The level of ambition of this plan is exactly what we need,” French President Emmanuel Macron said of the deal, emphasizing that “this is not an agreement between UK and France but between UK and EU.”

Braverman’s bill, meanwhile, which was introduced in the House of Commons on March 7 and has yet to face a vote, would deport people who arrive to the UK via irregular migration channels — primarily small boats crossing the English Channel — and bar them from seeking asylum in the UK. The bill has been widely criticized as racist and legally fraught, and both the UN’s refugee agency and the European court of human rights have objected on human rights grounds.

As described by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Twitter, the bill, if passed, would not only prevent asylum claims, it would shut undocumented immigrants out of the UK’s modern slavery protections, which provide support for victims of modern slavery and a framework to crack down on perpetrators.

“Most people fleeing war and persecution are simply unable to access the required passports and visas,” the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights said in a statement responding to the bill’s announcement. “There are no safe and ‘legal’ routes available to them. Denying them access to asylum on this basis undermines the very purpose for which the Refugee Convention was established.”

Migrants arriving in small boats — many from Albania, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, according to the Associated Press — are often those with the least access to conventional, safe routes to access the asylum system. But the UK’s legal asylum system is overwhelmed, too, according to the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, with a backlog of more than 100,000 cases affecting nearly 150,000 people, some of whom are applying with family members.

Sunak’s plan comes as the UK attempts to iron out its post-Brexit relationship with the European Union and France in particular after a blowup over a defense pact between Australia, the US, and the UK, which France saw as a betrayal. France had resisted the UK’s proposal to return migrants to France and have them claim asylum in the first safe country they enter, insisting that such a policy couldn’t be decided bilaterally and must be a decision between the UK and the EU.

Should Sunak’s plan and Braverman’s proposal fail to address the number of people coming to the UK via irregular channels, some Conservative members of Parliament are insisting the UK withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees people the right to access asylum procedures and prevents countries from sending migrants back to countries where their lives are at risk or they would be subject to torture.

The new plans won’t fix the UK’s immigration system

It’s far from clear, however, that the Conservative bill will significantly curb migration to the UK. According to Peter William Walsh, senior researcher with the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, “to date, there is surprisingly little evidence that asylum deterrence policies put people off in large numbers, for the simple reason that asylum seekers often have little understanding of what policies will face them after they arrive.”

As Sunder Katwala, head of the think tank British Future, told the Guardian’s Hannah Moore, the number of boat crossings picked up during the Covid-19 pandemic because other methods of travel weren’t available. Now, channel crossings “are an established and institutionalized route,” Katwala said. The best available option for these migrants is to pay a smuggler or group of smugglers to take them across the English Channel in unsafe and sometimes deadly voyages to try and claim asylum in the UK or find under-the-table employment opportunities.

Braverman’s proposal hinges on the idea that they can simply be deported, taken elsewhere, or detained. But that’s a fairly simplistic premise, Walsh said, and one that might not stand up to reality.

“On paper, the bill effectively opts the UK out of the global asylum system as we know it, by preventing people from claiming asylum if they arrived through irregular routes,” he told Vox via email. “But when these people can’t be removed because there is nowhere for them to go (and this is expected to be the case for most asylum seekers arriving by small boat), what happens to them? On the face of it, the bill appears to leave them permanently in the UK with no rights, financially dependent on the state because they would not have the right to work.”

Sunak has pledged to cut backlogs in the UK immigration system by “radically re-engineering the end-to-end process, with shorter guidance, fewer interviews and less paperwork,” and “introducing specialist caseworkers by nationality,” as well as doubling the number of case workers focused on asylum claims, which numbered around 117,000 applications awaiting an initial decision from the Home Office as of September 2022, according to the Migration Observatory.

The Tories have a track record of extreme immigration policies

The new immigration measures are not the first hardline immigration proposals from the Tory government; they’re just the latest in a series of increasingly drastic, hardline immigration measures pushed by Sunak’s Conservative Party.

Last April, the government put into place a program to deport irregular asylum seekers to Rwanda to apply for asylum there. That plan, introduced under then-Home Secretary Priti Patel, was deemed legal by the UK’s High Court; however, the European Court for Human Rights intervened and prevented the first flight of migrants from taking off for Rwanda last June, and no migrants have been sent to Rwanda under the plan.

Braverman took over Patel’s position, first under former Prime Minister Liz Truss and then again under Sunak, and took up the torch for the Rwanda plan, although she conceded that it wouldn’t happen “for a long time.”

The legality of that measure is currently being debated in court, but “even if the proposed Rwanda scheme gets up and running, this barely changes the picture because capacity in Rwanda is low,” Walsh said.

Ultimately, Walsh tells Vox that for as draconian as the bill is, it’s fundamentally also “a gamble: that the UK won’t actually need to impose this penalty on many people because the deterrent effect will be so strong.”

That’s something of an untested proposition, though. As Walsh told Vox, there’s no way to tell how effective the policies will be, “since they are more extreme than polices adopted in most other high-income countries where the evidence comes from.” And in the US, immigration policies such as Title 42 have done little to slow the pace of arrests at the southern border, which were reported at a record high in 2022.

If Braverman’s bill passes and “people continue to arrive in the UK by small boat in substantial numbers, not being able to process and resolve their asylum claims could create considerable operational chaos and financial costs,” Walsh said.

Despite the potential problems, however, recent polling shows that small boat migration is a priority for a crucial constituency: Brits who voted Tory in 2019. According to a new poll by Public First for Universities UK, stopping illegal migration via small boats has become the second-most important issue for these voters more important than reducing wait times for surgeries with the National Health Service. That polling also indicates voters are less concerned about legal migration and fixing the immigration system, which could help explain the extreme proposals Sunak’s government is pushing, without corresponding investment into the immigration system.

After 12 years in power, the Tories are at a low point; in a recent YouGov poll, only 17 percent of respondents said they’d vote Conservative if there were a snap election, compared to 30 percent who said they’d vote Labour. As such, recapturing people who voted in a landslide for Boris Johnson to “get Brexit done” is undoubtedly a priority for British Conservatives after the troubled tenures of Johnson, who stepped down after investigations into his administration’s flouting of Covid-19 restrictions, and Truss, whose administration lasted only six weeks.

Appealing to those 2019 Tory voters concerned about illegal migration and rekindling the UK’s relationship with France and the EU in the post-Brexit era are both crucial priorities for Sunak’s government. With the UK-France migration deal and Braverman’s migration proposal, the Tory party may have secured a short-term victory, without fixing the immigration system for the long term.

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