EXPLAINER | The UK’s proposal to stop migrants arriving by boat

Britain’s government announced plans for a new law on Tuesday to prevent people who enter the country through unofficial routes from claiming asylum in a bid to stop tens of thousands of migrants arriving on its shores in small boats.

The new legislation will face legal and logistical challenges while refugee charities say it will not stop new migrants from making the dangerous journeys across the channel.

Why is the UK doing this?

For years, the British government has been wrestling with how to deal with migrants entering the country illegally and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said that stopping asylum seekers coming to the UK in small vessels – often on inflatable boats and dinghies – is one of his top priorities.

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016 was meant to put an end to uncontrolled immigration, but successive governments have failed to stop the arrivals.

About 45 000 people crossed the English Channel last year and almost 3 000 have arrived so far this year.

Sunak said the new legislation means the government will “take back control of our borders, once and for all.”

What would the law mean?

The centrepiece of the new legislation will mean asylum claims from those who travel to Britain on small boats will be made inadmissible.

The Home Secretary will have a duty to remove nearly all migrants who arrive in Britain without permission, overriding their right to claim asylum.

Under the new law, only children, the sick or those at a “real risk of serious and irreversible harm” will be allowed to claim asylum.

The legislation will disqualify migrants using modern slavery laws to challenge government decisions to remove them in the courts.

What will happen to people arriving in small boats?

Under the government’s plans, migrants will be detained until they are removed to a so-called safe third country. This could lead to tens of thousands of people being held in detention facilities until they are removed to another country.

Under the current system, asylum seekers who reach Britain are often able to remain in the country while they have their case heard. Government figures show more than 160 000 people were waiting to have their asylum claims considered at the end of 2022.

READ | UK unveils radical plan to stop illegal migrants arriving by small boats

Last year, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed a deal to send tens of thousands of migrants, many having made the journey from Afghanistan, Syria or other countries suffering war, more than 6 400 kms to Rwanda.

But that policy is being challenged in the courts, and so far, no migrant has been flown to the African country.

What do the critics say?

There are many practical and legal challenges to implementing the new law. The government has said it plans to house people in disused military bases and vacation parks. But there are questions if the government has the capacity to keep people detained in these centres.

There are logistical questions about how Britain would be able to remove tens of thousands of people from the country each year, and where they would go.

Rwanda only had one hostel to accept UK arrivals last year, with the capacity for 100 people, a fraction of those who have arrived in the UK on small boats, and the government has not signed any similar deals with other countries yet.

Will the proposal face challenges?

Some lawyers say barring undocumented people arriving in Britain from claiming asylum would be incompatible with the United Nations Refugee Convention. This is likely to lead to legal challenges, which will delay any removals.

The Refugee Council charity said the new plans are “unworkable, costly and won’t stop the boats”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman said on Tuesday barring those who arrive on small boats from claiming asylum acts within international law and is compatible with the United Nations Refugee Convention.

The spokesman said Sunak told his top team of ministers the new law would take “tough, fair and necessary action” to enable that Britain has control of our borders.

Legal challenges to the Rwanda deportation scheme are already being considered by the British courts.

The government might also have to issue a statement before the new law is introduced to say it wants the bill to proceed through parliament even though it is unsure it is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

What do other countries do?

Governments across the world are wrestling with how to deal with an influx of refugees fleeing war-torn countries or persecution in their homelands. Britain is the latest country to attempt to outsource the settlement of asylum seekers.

Australia pioneered the concept of holding asylum seekers in offshore detention centres. Denmark has signed a similar agreement on deportations with Rwanda, but has yet to send any migrants there.

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