Britain introduces bill to stop migrant crossings of English Channel

The British government said Tuesday that it was ready for legal challenges to a tough new law intended to stop tens of thousands of migrants a year from reaching the country in small boats across the English Channel.

Home secretary admits it's uncertain the bill upholds current human rights laws

Several people, many in life vests, disembark a large boat.
Migrants, including women and children, are removed from a British Border Force vessel after being picked up in the English Channel in Dover, England, on Monday. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The British government said Tuesday that it was ready for legal challenges to a tough new law intended to stop tens of thousands of migrants a year from reaching the country in small boats across the English Channel.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said the government had "pushed the boundaries of international law" with a bill that will bar asylum claims by anyone who reaches the U.K. by unauthorized means, and will compel the government to detain and then deport them "to their home country or a safe third country."

They would be banned from ever re-entering the country.

"If you enter Britain illegally, you will be detained and swiftly removed," Braverman told lawmakers in the House of Commons as she introduced the government's "Illegal Migration Bill."

The government says the new law, once approved by Parliament, will deter migrants and hobble smuggling gangs who send desperate people on hazardous journeys across one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Bill slammed by Opposition

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the law would "take back control" of U.K. borders — a central pledge of the successful but divisive campaign to take Britain out of the European Union.

Labour Party immigration spokesperson Yvette Cooper accused the government of "ramping up the rhetoric on refugees" without solving the "deeply damaging chaos" in Britain's asylum system.

Visiting a control centre in the Port of Dover, where officials track Channel traffic, Sunak said that "we've got to somehow break the cycle of these criminal gangs."

A man in yellow fluorescent vest gestures while speaking to a man in a suit inside an operations room.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, left, speaks with staff members during a visit to a Home Office joint control room in Dover, Kent, on Tuesday. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Reuters)

But critics say the plan is unethical and unworkable, since people fleeing war and persecution can't be sent home, and it's likely to be the latest in a series of unfulfilled immigration pledges by successive British governments.

"There is nothing fair, humane or even practical in this plan, and it's frankly chilling to see ministers trying to remove human rights protections for groups of people whom they've chosen to scapegoat for their own failures," said Steve Valdez-Symonds of Amnesty International U.K.

Braverman said those arriving by boat would be detained within 28 days and then deported, with exceptions only for children, those medically unfit to fly and people at risk of serious harm who have limited grounds for appeal.

Migrants who were victims of human trafficking would be barred from using Britain's modern slavery laws to prevent deportation, she said.

'Yesterday's laws' insufficient: government

Braverman acknowledged that the bill is likely to face legal challenges.

She said there is a chance the "robust and novel" legislation breaches U.K. human rights laws. But Braverman said she was confident it is compatible with Britain's "international obligations" under refugee and human rights conventions.

"In the face of today's global migration crisis, yesterday's laws are simply not fit for purpose," she said.

A woman is seen speaking at a podium inside a legislative chamber that appears well populated.
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaks during the introduction of the Illegal Migration Bill in the House of Commons in London on Tuesday. (Andy Bailey/U.K. Parliament/Reuters)

Britain receives fewer asylum-seekers than some European nations such as Italy, Germany or France. But thousands of migrants from around the world travel to northern France each year in hopes of reaching the U.K., drawn by family ties, the English language or the perceived ease of getting a job.

Most attempt the journey in dinghies and other small craft now that authorities have clamped down on other routes, such as stowing away on buses or trucks.

More than 45,000 people arrived in Britain by boat last year, up from 28,000 in 2021 and 8,500 in 2020. Most went on to claim asylum, but a backlog of more than 160,000 cases has led to many languishing in overcrowded processing centres or hotels, without the right to work.

The U.K. and France signed an agreement in November to increase police patrols on beaches in northern France, and Sunak said he hopes to cement further co-operation when he meets French President Emmanuel Macron at a Britain-France summit on Friday.

Previous plan with Rwanda in limbo

The British government says many of those making the journey are economic migrants rather than refugees, and it points to an upswing last year in arrivals from Albania, a European country that the U.K. considers safe.

Refugee groups say most of the channel arrivals are fleeing war, persecution or famine in such countries as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. A majority of those whose claims have been processed were granted asylum in the U.K.

Scenes from a December rescue at sea: 

"No one wants to see families continue to risk their lives crossing the freezing channel in small boats," said Katy Chakrabortty of charity Oxfam GB. "But instead of implementing this cruel bill, the U.K. should provide more safe and legal routes for people needing protection."

The British government says that once its new law is in place, it will establish more legal paths to asylum, adding to those set up for people from Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Ukraine. But it hasn't said how many people will be accepted, or when the program will start.

It's also unclear which, if any, safe countries will be willing to take in people deported from Britain.

A plan announced by the U.K. last year to send migrants on a one-way trip to Rwanda is mired in legal challenges. No one has been sent to the East African country, though Britain has already paid Rwanda 140 million pounds ($227 million Cdn) under the deal.