Why Britain's 'Illegal Migration Bill' is so controversial

The U.K. has introduced new legislation that, if voted in, could allow the detainment and removal of all illegal migrants.

Hundreds of people stand near Big Ben with signs that read: Refugees welcome; Sisters, not strangers; and #setherfree.
Hundreds of people protest in Parliament Square against a refugee bill going through Parliament, on Monday, in London. (Guy Smallman/Getty images)

LONDON — Hundreds of protesters gathered outside of Britain’s parliament on Tuesday in response to the government’s introduction of a new migration bill. If passed, the legislation would allow the detainment and removal of all migrants seeking asylum who entered the country through illegal avenues.

The Conservative Party-led government claims this will deter people from coming to Britain through “illegal, dangerous or unnecessary methods,” such as on small boats. The bill has been denounced by human rights organizations as “inhumane,” with some claiming that it could create a “closed loop that fuels human trafficking.”

What is the latest bill about?

Hundreds of protesters hold signs reading: Stop the bill, care for refugees; We the people do not trust this government, enough is enough; Stop your Rishi Sunak; and Refugees welcome.
Hundreds of people in London take a stand against a bill proposed by the government on Monday. (Andrew Aitchison/In pictures via Getty Images)

The British government explains on its website that the bill will detain those seeking asylum who have arrived illegally into the country and that they will be “then promptly removed, either to their home country or a safe third country.”

This is, according to the government, a way of removing the “incentive” to travel across the English Channel to the U.K. in small boats. The plan is also designed to address the rising number of people seeking asylum who do not have a legal claim to do so.

Why is the legislation being introduced now?

A few dozen people wear orange ponchos on a boat whose bow rests on a beach as rescue workers in yellow gear appear to help them ashore.
Migrants, picked up at sea attempting to cross the English Channel, are helped ashore from a Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat, at Dungeness on the southeast coast of England, on Dec. 9, 2022. (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the past few years, there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of migrants crossing the English Channel, the waterway separating the U.K. from mainland Europe. According to statistics from the British government, 45,755 migrants were detected as having arrived on small boats in 2022. This was a 60% increase from the previous year.

This rise has prompted the British government’s ruling party to introduce the migration bill in a bid to curtail the number of migrants heading to the U.K. Last year, the government proposed a policy that would send illegal migrants and asylum seekers to a detention center in Rwanda. Just before the first flight was to leave England for Rwanda, however, the European Court of Human Rights blocked the deportation in a dramatic last-minute intervention.

In October, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said it was her “dream” and “obsession” to reinstate the policy. “I would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda, that’s my dream,” she said. Two months later, Britain’s High Court ruled the government’s plan as lawful.

What has the prime minister said?

Rishi Sunak.
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks with members of the media during a "huddle" onboard a plane bound for San Diego on Monday. (Leon Neal - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

In his first major speech of 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that one of his five priorities was to “stop the boats” carrying immigrants from landing in the U.K. Last Friday, Sunak announced plans to help fund a detention center in northern France as part of a bigger package that aims to tackle migrants traveling to the U.K. The package will cost the British taxpayers $576 million over the course of three years.

What is with the government’s hard push on migration?

“This [bill] has likely been used to galvanize political support of a specific constituency, and particularly also to create fear for political purposes,” Yasmine Ahmed, the U.K. director at Human Rights Watch told Yahoo News.

“It is something that we’ve seen across the board — used in Australia and elsewhere — where governments utilize and use asylum seekers as a means of creating distraction and division.”

Is the plan legal?

A few dozen protesters hold signs reading: No one is illegal; Social workers in solidarity with all refugees; and Sisters, not strangers.
Protesters at the houses of Parliament, in London, on Monday. (Andrew Aitchison/In pictures via Getty Images)

Sunak has insisted that the migration bill is legal under international law and that it is designed to “break the business models of gangs.” Home Secretary Braverman said that the bill would push the “boundaries of international law” but not break it.

“It’s very clear that this bill is cruel, unworkable and illegal,” Ahmed said. “It’s clearly in violation of international law, and the U.K. government’s international obligations. It’s also in flagrant violation of its obligations under the 1951 refugee convention, which the U.K. government was a principal drafter and promoter of after the Second World War.”

In signing the U.N.’s 1951 refugee convention, the U.K. agreed to recognize that refugees may arrive in countries to claim asylum through irregular means.

What have other human rights organizations said about the new bill?

A protester standing near Big Ben holds a sign reading: Refugees welcome.
Pro-migrant protesters gather in Parliament Square on Monday. (Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

There has been a clear consensus among human rights organizations that the bill should not be adopted. A statement from the U.N.’s refugee agency spoke of concerns over the introduction of the bill, stating that it would “amount to an asylum ban.”

“Most people fleeing war and persecution are simply unable to access the required passports and visas,” the statement read. “There are no safe and ‘legal’ routes available to them.” The U.N. statement added: “We urge the Government, and all MPs and Peers, to reconsider the Bill and instead pursue more humane and practical policy solutions.”

Daniela Reale, the global policy and advocacy lead at the international organization Save the Children, told Yahoo News that the bill was a “major setback in safeguarding children who have fled war and persecution,” adding, “The Bill threatens to strip away basic human rights from the most vulnerable.”