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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Enver Solomon

The illegal migration bill has passed, and here’s what will happen: children lost, abused and exploited

The Bibby Stockholm barge being manoeuvred into the dock at Portland, Dorset, where it is due to house migrants, 18 July 2023.
The Bibby Stockholm barge being manoeuvred into the dock at Portland, Dorset, where it is due to house migrants, 18 July 2023. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

There have been a number of migration bills in recent years, but make no mistake: the illegal migration bill that has now passed through parliament is a watershed moment. It will go down in history as a milestone like no other. As the UN has said, it “extinguishes access to asylum” in the UK for anyone arriving by a route the government deems “irregular”.

Pause for a moment and consider what that means. These are all people, like you and me. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. They aren’t all “illegals”, as the government claims. They are the family from Syria who saw their neighbours killed by bombs. Sudanese people fleeing the brutal war that is raging in their country. Iranians escaping persecution. And Afghans, who made up the largest nationality coming across the Channel in the first three months of this year.

The bill means they will all be turned away. The overwhelming majority are refugees. Indeed, three-quarters of asylum claims assessed in the last year were found to be valid. And for people from countries that accounted for half of all those who came across the Channel last year – Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan – the asylum grant rate is at least 80%.

Under the bill, all those arriving who have had to take dangerous journeys because they weren’t able to get a visa to come to the UK will face detention on arrival – and, if the government is to be believed, swift removal from the country. Contrast that with how the government chose to welcome Ukrainian refugees fleeing the devastation in their homeland.

It is clear this will lead to immense human misery and put people at grave risk. There are only about 2,500 immigration detention places in England and Wales, and at least half of those are used for foreign national offenders awaiting deportation. As the chief inspector of prisons has pointed out, there isn’t the capacity in the detention estate to hold people under the new legislation.

The government will have to leave people in what it calls contingency accommodation, in the community. In other words, they will be left in limbo in poor-quality hotels or warehoused in vast accommodation centres in former military barracks in isolated rural areas of the country. Knowing they face removal from the country, they may simply disappear.

A woman carries her children after being helped ashore from an RNLI lifeboat at a beach in Dungeness, England, after being rescued while crossing the English Channel.
Refugees on a beach in Dungeness, Kent, after being rescued while crossing the English Channel. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

When this is put to officials in local or central government, they shrug and don’t deny it. Councils will be left to pick up the pieces as vulnerable people vanish into the margins of society. Some will inevitably end up in the criminal underworld.

For children who arrive in the UK alone, the situation is even worse. Directors of children’s services tell me it will lead to a serious safeguarding crisis as they know children will simply disappear as they approach their 18th birthday, knowing they face expulsion. They fear they will be abused and exploited by criminal gangs and traffickers.

We know from our work at the Refugee Council that uncertainty and desperation will leave many refugees feeling utterly hopeless. There is likely to be an increase in serious mental health crises, including self-harm and attempted suicide. For children who are held in detention, the damaging impact on their mental health has been well documented.

The government turns a blind eye to this, and is determined to press on. But inside the Home Office it is a well-known fact that the legislation can’t be delivered unless the government is able to send people to Rwanda, as there won’t be a so-called “safe third country” to remove people to. If the supreme court upholds the recent appeal court ruling that Rwanda is not a safe country to send refugees, officials know the bill will be in tatters.

Even if the supreme court rules in the government’s favour, it will be impossible for Rwanda to receive more than a few thousand people each year. Tens of thousand will be left in limbo in some sort of Home Office-procured accommodation. The Refugee Council’s analysis has found that even if Rwanda is able to take 10,000 people seeking asylum in each year in the first three years of the legislation coming into effect, almost 200,000 men, women and children will have had their asylum claims deemed inadmissible but will not have been removed.

Living in limbo, unable to work and facing destitution, those who don’t disappear will be reliant on Home Office support and accommodation indefinitely. This will come at a huge cost – about £9bn will be spent over three years locking up refugees in detention centres and accommodating people who can’t be removed to other countries.

It’s difficult to see how the new law will act as the deterrent the government says it is. Instead, it will make matters much worse and cause immense human misery.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. We should always give people a fair hearing on UK soil, actually return people humanely who aren’t granted asylum, expand safe routes through some initial simple measures such as relaxing the limited rules on family reunion, and join forces with other nations and the UN to increase foreign aid and improve conflict resolution. Without global leaders coming together to address the reasons why people flee, the numbers seeking safety in the UK and Europe are not going to reduce.

The government has chosen a path that doesn’t reflect the values most of us hold dear: of showing compassion, respect and humanity for those people who through no fault of their own become refugees, and who are simply searching for safety.

  • Enver Solomon is chief executive of the Refugee Council

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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