The new Illegal Migration Bill: A step in the right direction

March 10, 2023

The new Illegal Migration Bill appears to be a step in the right direction as the UK Government looks to tackle the ongoing small boats crisis on England’s south coast.

In 2022, a total of 45,755 people entered the UK on small boats via the English Channel last year – which, according to the 2021 Census, is a number larger than the entire population of English towns such as Dover in Kent, Boston in Lincolnshire, and Kirkby in the Metropolitan Borough of Knowsley (where public disorder outside the four-star Suites Hotel accommodating asylum seekers resulted in a total of fifteen arrests made by Merseyside Police).

There is no doubt that the UK’s asylum system has been reduced to a ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ arrangement; undercut by people-smuggling enterprises importing largely young, able-bodied men who can take on physically demanding journeys and have the resources to pay for them. This indisputable overwhelming of the asylum system threatens to leave women and girls at major risk of sex-based violence in conflict-ridden foreign territories by the wayside. This is reflected in the 2022 data for small-boat crossings into the UK. Out of the 45,755 people who crossed the English Channel on small boats and arrived in the UK over the course of 2022, more than four in five – 38,225 individuals – were recorded as male: 83.54%. Only 11.26% – 5,150 individuals – were registered as female (with the categories ‘unknown’ and ‘not currently recorded’ comprising the missing data). Around two in three of the 45,755 individuals who arrived in the UK on small boats via the English Channel in 2022 were males aged between 18 and 39 years – 66.03% (30,211 individuals). For females in the same age bracket, this drops all the way down to just 6.67% (3,052 individuals).

Part of the action the government is taking to stop small boat crossings and irregular migration in general is an agreement with Albania that recognises their status as a ‘safe country’. Much of the national debate surrounding illegal economic migration and the integrity of the UK’s asylum system has centred on illegal migration from the south-eastern European country in the Balkans – with Albanians being the most common nationality among those who arrived in the UK on small boats in 2022 (12,301 individuals). Albania admittedly has entrenched problems with institutional corruption, organised crime, and illiberal cultural practices associated with traditional honour codes. However, it is a relatively peaceful country which has not experienced conflict since the 1997 civil war. Freedom House concluded that it is now a country which has a record of competitive electoral processes – with the latest parliamentary elections being “generally well administered.” It is also of the view that religious freedom and freedom of assembly is respected in Albania overall.

A recent development regarding the ongoing crisis is the upsurge in Indian nationals who are arriving in the UK on small boats via the English Channel. The second-most populous country in the world is widely considered to be a democratic and strategically important partner for the UK in the post-Brexit international system. From 2021 to 2022, the number of Indian nationals who crossed the English Channel and reached the UK on small boats increased by 910.4% – from 67 to 683 individuals. It has been reported that a section of the Indian nationals are students exploiting a loophole that allows them to attend UK universities at lower prices – being able to study for a degree and pay domestic fees while their applications for asylum are processed. It is also worth noting that the small-boats route to the UK was a cheaper alternative and more likely to guarantee entry than formally applying for a student visa. This represents a flagrant abuse of the UK’s asylum system. It is a myth that all those who arrive in the UK on small boats through the English Channel are fleeing war-torn territories defined by lethal violence and rampant persecution.

The new Illegal Migration Bill certainly has more thought and substance behind it than the National and Borders Act. Following a recommendation recently made by Policy Exchange, the Bill proposes that the Home Secretary will have a legal duty to remove people who have illegally entered the UK. Acknowledging the degree to which existing protections are being abused to delay and prevent removal from the UK, modern-slavery referrals for those who illegally enter the UK will be disqualified based on public order grounds (under the terms of ECAT – the international anti-trafficking treaty). The proposed annual cap on the number of people entering the UK through safe routes – to be set by parliament – will be designed to “ensure an orderly system.” This is especially sensible in terms of providing the best chances for integration and should be complemented with a reformed internal dispersal system which is fairer on the UK’s left-behind and relatively-deprived areas – such as Knowsley.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had said the new bill, which is key to one of his five priorities, will “take back control of our borders, once and for all.” The worry for the government is the possibility of political wrangles over the new laws – meaning they may be held up in parliament and do not reach the statute book in time to make a meaningful impact before the next General Election. Even if the new laws are found to be lawful by our courts, what will the Conservative government do if the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg rules them to be unlawful? There will be considerable pressure within the Party for the UK to leave the ECHR in the event of such an outcome – but how would that be greeted by liberal-minded Tory voters in so-called ‘blue wall’ constituencies being eyed up by its progressive rivals?

On the surface, the new Illegal Migration Bill does look promising in terms of tackling the ongoing small-boats crisis. Whether it will enable the timely and effective implementation of policy to address the problem at hand is an entirely different matter.

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