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8 March 2023

Rishi Sunak can’t win his fight on the small boats bill

He cannot reduce immigration to zero and plenty of Conservatives will be among those repulsed by the crackdown.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Last night the UN’s refugee agency made the extraordinary decision to intervene in British politics and criticised Rishi Sunak’s new legislation aimed at stopping migrants crossing the Channel in small boats. The UNHCR accused the British government of “extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the UK” and said it was “profoundly concerned” about the Illegal Migration Bill.

The Conservatives may not be overly concerned about this reaction. Indeed, the Prime Minister and Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, have often used deliberately obnoxious language when talking about asylum and immigration. Braverman has talked previously about an “invasion” of Britain’s southern coast and said yesterday she was on the side of “the law abiding patriotic majority” who, she says, “have said enough is enough”.

At a press conference yesterday Sunak declared he was “up for the fight”. And there may be plenty of those. The government admits that the bill may not be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The “stop the boats” law places a legal duty on the government to detain and deport almost anyone who arrives “irregularly” to the UK. There would be limits on the use of judicial review to challenge decisions, which would make it easier to, for example, send people to Rwanda. The bill would also introduce a cap on the number of refugees the UK would offer sanctuary to through safe and legal routes.

The intention seems to be to deter as many people as possible from entering the UK. The background to all this tough talk, however, is failure. Last year a record 45,000 migrants crossed the Channel, up, as Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, pointed out, from 280 four year. Convictions of people smugglers have halved in that time.

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People have heard the government’s rhetoric before, and that is starting to show. Braverman would not say, when asked four times during an interview on Radio 4 this morning, whether she thought those who disagreed with the bill were not patriotic. That approach seems especially risky given Conservative supporters will be among the many people repulsed by it.

She was also unable to say how someone with links to the UK fleeing persecution could come to the UK via a safe and legal route.

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It remains unclear what the measure of success is. Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” this year suggests that the target is zero, which looks unachievable given the current refugee crisis and the practical difficulties the legislation will face.

Braverman was also asked whether she would resign if the bill failed and was at pains to point out that it was as much the Prime Minister’s as it was hers. That rather suggests that she knows the bill is a risk for the government and does not plan to take the full blame should it all go wrong.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Migration tracker: How many people migrate to Europe and the UK?]

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