Much of the discussion about the Illegal Immigration Bill has focused on whether the legislation is compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and consistent with the 1951 Refugees Convention. As others have asked, is it the immigration that is illegal or the bill? Trying to assess this when the Home Secretary Suella Braverman made her statement was not as straightforward as it might have been because, notwithstanding the general commotion over the bill, the government had not published a draft of it. Its lawyers, the House of Commons was told, were still working on it.
This is unusual. It is customary when launching a new bill that there is a new bill to launch. The legislation was finally produced some hours after the Home Secretary had finished her statement, leaving many questions unanswered. What happens if the policy is in contravention of the ECHR? Would the government withdraw from the Refugees Convention? To which countries will migrants be deported (Rwanda has only agreed to take 200 migrants)? Rather than answering those questions, let us focus on an issue of practicality.
The plan involves detaining those who entered the UK illegally within 28 days. They can then be detained indefinitely “for as long as there is a reasonable prospect of removal”. Given that the number arriving in small boats last year was 40,000, and given it is not obvious that vast numbers can be removed quickly, the likelihood is that tens of thousands of migrants will be detained. Rather than using hotels (which are both insecure and unpopular with the locals), the plan involves large detention camps. Old RAF bases in Lincolnshire and Essex were reported to be likely sites.
So, at some point (details remain hazy), very large numbers of migrants – mostly young men – will be detained indefinitely, with no prospect of their time ending in anything other than deportation. The government hopes that this prospect will act as a deterrent. They may be right. But these are also a set of circumstances that could easily provoke a riot. A riot in premises that are not designed to cope in the way that our prisons are.
Within our prison system, we have in place “Tornado teams” who will be sent in to prisons in the event of a riot. They are tough and highly trained men. A former prison governor told me today of an occasion when a Tornado team based in his prison was sent to restore order in an immigration detention centre. He said it was the only occasion when he saw them frightened. A riot in an ill-designed detention centre by people with little to lose is a very dangerous situation for all concerned.
Even if we put to one side for the moment the debate about legality, the practicalities of the government’s proposals mean that this could end very badly.