The most recent measures to tighten immigration and curb the number of Channel boat crossings were passed to continue to a second reading in UK's parliament on Monday.
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made cracking down on immigration one of his five key promises this year. As part of this promise, he wants to curb the number of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats and has already introduced a bill in parliament to tighten legislation still further.
The proposed "Illegal immigration bill" has now passed its first hurdle to becoming law after a Labour party amendment to try and defeat the bill failed. A majority of 312 members of parliament (MPs) voted in favor of its continuation and 249 against the bill continuing. However, reportedly 44 Conservatives did not vote at all, including former Prime Minister Theresa May.
The bill, according to the news agency Reuters, proposes to detain asylum seekers arriving by small boat without bail, before deporting them either back to their own country, or if that is not safe, to a safe third country, like Rwanda. Only those meeting a very limited set of criteria would be allowed to apply for asylum.
One of the main tenets of the new legislation is that even if someone is genuinely in need of protection, the fact that they have traveled through at least one safe country (France) in order to reach the UK by boat means that they "could and should" have applied for asylum there, commented Britain's Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Suella Braverman.
Braverman, herself a child of migrants who arrived in the UK in the 1960s from Kenya and Mauritius, criticized those who stand up against the bill as "out of touch lefties" and "naive do-gooders."
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak concluded another deal with the French authorities on Friday, including proposing to set up detention centers on the French side of the Channel.
Now that the bill has reached its second reading, the government is expected to take into account statements by MPs made during the debate and refine the details. This has led to some UK papers reporting on Tuesday that the bill might be "watered down" as criticisms are taken into account.
The bill would then have to pass through three more readings in the lower house, before five readings in Parliament’s Upper House (the House of Lords) before becoming law.
The bill has been criticized by members of the political opposition, as well as numerous NGOs and human rights organizations that work with migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and branded as "racist."
Even some Conservatives are unsure about it. One of them, Sir Robert Buckland, who late on Monday voted for the bill to continue, called for the details to be rexamined. He told the BBC’s Today program on Tuesday that the "issue relating to particularly women and children needs to be directly adressed."
More scrutiny called for
The lawmaker said: "I do not support the detention of unaccompanied children or indeed the splitting up of families; that was a government policy that has been followed since 2010. And I think that those parts of the bill should be removed."
Sir Robert added that "voting to allow the principle of a bill to go forwards is different from the detail of the bill and I would expect it to be scrutinized carefully and for the government to listen to the concerns [of MPs]."
Former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, who also led the Home Office (Interior Ministry) for many years, prior to becoming Prime Minister, is even more opposed to the bill. According to the parliamentary record of the debate on Hansard, she made several interventions regarding the bill, in which she explained she feared the proposed measures would not be effective and could shut off opportunities to those fleeing for their lives.
Theresa May told MPs that she thought it was important to recognize that the bill "removes support from the victims of trafficking and modern slavery." She acknowledged that the government is "working hard to find a solution to the problem of the small boats," but that she "shed doubt" on the approach.
The lawmaker added that she hoped the UK would be able to "deal with the problem of dangerous sea crossings and save people’s lives, while maintaining our reputation as a country that welcomes people fleeing persecution and, crutically, our reputation as a world leader in dealing with modern slavery."
'Nothing but an abhorrent dog whistle'
Directly afterwards, a Scottish National Party (SNP) politician Alison Thewliss, called the bill "nothing but an abhorrent dog whistle," and declared "my colleagues and I on the SNP Benches do not support it."
She said the new proposals were a "million miles away" from the "refugee convention, the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998," which she and her colleagues did support.
Another SNP colleague, Joanna Cherry, who chairs the Joint Committee on Human Rights in parliament said that she feared aspects of the Bill could "potentially breach the European convention on human rights."
Conservative MP, Sir Robert Buckland, commented in parliament that the longer the debate went on, the more and more "depressed" he got. He said he felt that MPs were creating an "artificial juxtaposition between an open-door policy of letting everybody into this country and a suggestion that we on this side of the House [Conservatives] are cruel and callous and do not care about people."
Sir Robert added that he believed the so-called "small boats crisis" was misrepresenting the issue. He added that after speaking to asylum seekers, he felt the market was "price-driven. It is simply cheaper to come in on small boats than it is to come here by other means at the moment, and herin lies the source of the problem."
The MP, said instead of trying to crack down with legislation, it was more important that the British government make more deals with France and other members of the European Union "to have a managed system of return." He added that the "main cause of unlawful migration is the overstaying of visas." and not so much the arrivals on small boats. He said, in fact the "small boat crisis, as we describe it, is actually the product of the successful approach we took to the control of lorries and the appalling incidents we saw in which many people lost their lives as a result of suffocation and other horrors."
The MP called on the government to "extend safe routes of passage in a controlled and measured way." He said if only the government were to do that, it would "strengthen the government’s case against those people who are choosing small boats."
Demonstrations outside parliament
As the debate in parliament continued, hundreds, according to Reuters, demonstrated outside holding up banners saying "refugees welcome." The CEO of the Refugee Council in the UK, Enver Solomon, tweeted last week that he thought the bill was "chaotic, costly and [would] cause untold human misery" if passed.
Speed could lead to lack of scrutiny and 'bad legislation'
Bills often take months, if not years to go through parliament. However, this one is being pushed through at speed. The leader of the independent think tank, Institute for Government, Hannah White, criticized the proposed timetable on Monday on the institute’s website, saying she felt "expectations of parliamentary scrutiny of legislation have dropped over the past decade."
White claimed that the government was only proposing that the bill would "spend two days in Committees in the Whole House before having its third reading and being sent up to the Lords." A decade ago, argued White, bills would be considered, particularly when concerning a "controversial subject like immigration," over a "period of weeks."
For instance, White stated, previous immigration acts have involved between 11 and 24 committee sittings, as well as between 55 and 66 pieces of written evidence. The Illegal Migration bill, in contrast, says White "will receive 12 hours [of] detailed scrutiny."
White thinks that a lack of scrutiny will only serve to store up problems for later and will make the actual legislation passed "significantly worse." White argues that "detailed scrutiny of legislation is invaluable for highlighting problems with drafting, spotting unintended consequences and identifying potential problems with the implementation of policy proposals."