Why the U.K.’s ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ Probably Isn’t Legal

5 minute read

Britain’s immigration minister Suella Braverman has sent mixed messages over whether the U.K.’s new Illegal Migration Bill is lawful.

In a statement to parliament on Tuesday, when the bill was introduced, Braverman said that she is “confident” the government’s initiative to “Stop the Boats” complies with international law. However, she told Conservative lawmakers in a letter revealed by HuffPost UK that it was “more than 50%” likely to breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

Under the new plan, asylum seekers arriving in the U.K. via small boats will be detained and removed to their home country if officials deem it safe to do so, or a third “safe country” such as Rwanda.

Last April, the U.K. announced a controversial deal with Rwanda to relocate people who are granted asylum to the African country. The scheme’s inaugural flight, which was due to carry over 30 people, was stopped after advocacy groups initiated various legal challenges. No flights have departed to date.

According to the draft legislation, those who enter the U.K. will no longer be able to use anti-slavery laws to block their deportation, and challenges will only be heard once the asylum seeker has been removed to another country. Additionally, anyone removed from the U.K. on those terms will receive a lifetime entry ban.

Preventing migrants from entering the U.K. via small boats is one of five key priorities Prime Minister Rishi Sunak outlined in January. Since 2018, around 85,000 people entered the U.K. that way, with over 45,000 of these people arriving in 2022.

Read More: ‘Maximum Suffering.’ A Man Stripped of His Citizenship Sheds Light on the Potential Impact of the U.K.’s Nationality Bill

But refugee charities have warned against the bill and questioned its legality. Here’s what to know.

What has Suella Braverman said about the bill?

In her statement to parliament, Braverman said the bill aims to tackle part of a broader migration crisis that costs taxpayers £3 billion ($3.5 billion) a year.

Braverman, whose parents are of Indian origin and migrated from Mauritius and Kenya, said her own family is “eternally grateful” to have arrived in Britain.

Braverman said she could not make a “definitive statement of compatibility” under section 19(1)(a) of the U.K.’s Human Rights Act, which requires any minister in charge of a bill in parliament to state before its passage that it is compatible with domestic and international human rights laws. Section 19(1)(b) requires ministers to state if a bill is incompatible with human rights but they wish to proceed regardless. In her statement, Braverman did not formally invoke either clause but said she believes the bill is “compatible with international law.”

“I won’t address the bill’s full legal complexities today,” Braverman added. “But I must say this, the Rule 39 process that enabled the Strasbourg court to block at the last minute, flights to Rwanda, after our courts had refused injunctions, was deeply flawed,” she added, referring to the European court’s ruling that prevented deportations to Rwanda last year.

When asked if the Illegal Migration Bill is lawful, the Home Office, the government department that oversees immigration, referred TIME to Braverman’s Tuesday statement.

Alexander Horne, a former parliamentary lawyer, says, “I don’t think we can yet say that the Bill definitively breaches human rights. However, the s19(1)(b) is a big red flag.”

Oliver Oldman, a senior associate at British law firm Kingsley Napley, says that if the bill becomes law, it will “inevitably” be met with legal challenges at further expense to the taxpayer.

“The removal scheme introduced by the Bill is an extreme tightening of the inadmissibility procedure that already exists,” Oldman says. He adds that the introduction of punishment for refugees who enter the country is “expressly prohibited” by the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, which the U.K. is signatory to.

Oldman adds that the government urges asylum seekers to seek “safe and legal routes” but these do not exist for the vast majority of the world’s refugees. “This bill will close the only door that is left to them,” he says.

How is the Illegal Migrant Bill being received?

A number of charities focused on refugee rights have issued statements against the bill. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said in a statement Tuesday that it is “profoundly concerned” by the proposed plan. A UNHCR spokesperson adds it is a “clear breach” of the 1951 Refugee Convention that undermines the U.K.’s “longstanding, humanitarian traditions.”

Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of the Refugee Action charity, tells TIME the government’s plan “run roughshod over… basic humanity and will almost certainly be challenged in court.” Hilton adds that the subject of migration has become the ball in a game of political football rather than an issue to be tackled.

The U.K’s Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, echoed this sentiment on BBC Radio 4’s Today program, saying “time and time again they go for the gimmicks.”

Meanwhile, Gary Lineker, a former English soccer player and sports commentator said in controversial remarks that the bill is an “immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”

Lineker is a sports presenter for the BBC, which has increasingly stressed impartiality, with the broadcaster saying it will have a “frank conversation” with him about sharing these views. On Wednesday, Lineker tweeted he would “continue to try and speak up for those poor souls that have no voice.”

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Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com