The government’s illegal migration bill is controversial, perhaps by design. It has been produced in haste, and some commentators have suggested that it has been launched primarily to wind up Conservative voters before the local elections, rather than to solve the perceived problems of informal migration. Its implications for children are particularly severe.
The opposition parties have argued that it is unworkable, and probably illegal. Suella Braverman herself, when presenting the bill, said that she could not certify that it does not breach international law.
The bill is going through parliament at extraordinary speed. It passed its second reading (approval in principle) only a week after publication. Normally, after second reading, a bill is then passed to a smaller committee, which examines the text line by line, and can call expert witnesses for advice.
However, the government has decided to take it to a committee of the whole house. This means that it is discussed in the full chamber, with all MPs able to take part, but with only two afternoons allowed for debate. That is now complete, and the revised bill will be presented for third reading (the final approval by the Commons) on 25 April (a week before the local elections).
So 150 amendments proposed by MPs were considered in two afternoons last week. There are many issues, but one crucial one is the implications for children arriving in small boats.
Children seeking asylum
The bill creates a new set of rules requiring the home secretary to remove anyone who arrives in this country by informal routes (despite government claims, there is nothing ‘illegal’ about entering by informal routes provided that a claim for asylum is made on arrival).
However, children are excluded from deportation until they are 18. A ‘child’ in international law is anyone under the age of 18. But many young people arrive with no documentation. So some adults will cheat the system by claiming to be children, while the government may deport genuine children in contravention of the law.
Some of the problems were highlighted by Diana Johnson, chair of the home affairs committee, speaking on behalf of the cross-party committee.
Deporting at 18
The bill allows children to stay, but provides that they should be deported when they reach 18. As Johnson said in the debate:
“Under the Bill, a 13-year-old Sudanese girl … could claim asylum in the UK, be placed in the care of a local authority and be fostered, spend five years at school, make friends, learn English, get an education, build a life and become a member of society, only to face removal on her 18th birthday. … the Home Office would be removing a young woman who had built her life here and might only know this country as home. The bill also dramatically increases the risk of children fleeing the system and disappearing before their 18th birthday, in the knowledge that they face certain removal.”
Vulnerable children put at risk
The home affairs committee have expressed serious concerns about the ability of the Home Office to safeguard vulnerable children. They reported poor screening and assessment, poor liaison with other agencies, and a large number of unaccompanied children who have simply gone missing, perhaps to exploitation, perhaps to living on the streets. Stella Creasey, for the Labour Party said:
“The vast majority of the British public are horrified by the idea that 200-plus children have gone missing from hotels that the Home Office was supposed to be overseeing.”
Families may be split apart
The bill does not ensure that families will be kept together. The independent family returns panel has been written out of the bill. Amendments were proposed, and rejected, to lay down that any deportation would not break up family units.
The bill lays down that anyone removed under its provisions will never be able to apply for citizenship. But someone who arrives as an infant has not made a decision to come, and it seems unfair that they should be arbitrarily blocked by a decision made by their parents, a decade or more ago.
No independent child protection
The bill leaves safeguarding in the hands of the Home Office, with no independent child protection. In Scotland and Northern Ireland an independent trafficking guardian exists to do this. The children’s commissioner recommended this for England. An amendment proposed that trained child protection workers should be based on the French coast to ensure that unaccompanied children are safeguarded. As Johnson said:
“The Committee’s report included many witness testimonies on the significant lack of support for vulnerable children who are left to navigate the asylum system alone, often with language and cultural barriers. That must be a terrifying and scarring experience for many of those children and young adult.”
The bill does not allow an unaccompanied child to be reunited with a relative who has already secured the right to remain in the UK.
Is this just window dressing for the election?
Many MPs spoke passionately against the bill on these issues. It is clear that the cross-party members of the home affairs committee are deeply unhappy about it.
As Creasey concluded:
“It is a pleasure to follow Sir John Hayes, a knight of the realm, lecturing us all on being in touch with the people and on class warfare. What a dystopian vision he paints of this country … he does not speak for the majority in this country with his callous disregard for people seeking sanctuary, and in his callous disregard for the evidence and facts.”
There is no doubt that, under normal procedures, these and other issues would have been considered in committee, and a balanced cross-party consensus reached. The government has bypassed this scrutiny. In the event, the opposition parties all voted for the amendments. But the inbuilt Conservative majority ensured that they were all defeated.
Last year 45,000 people arrived in small boats. On past patterns around 30,000 are entitled to asylum, but this bill requires the home secretary to deport most of them quickly. Yet the only country which has agreed to take any of them is Rwanda. And Rwanda is only offering a few hundred places, at an average cost of £12,000 a head.
We will see what the House of Lords does with a bill requiring the home secretary to do something both cruel and evidently impossible. But by then, the local elections will be over. Perhaps the urgency will then dissipate, until the general election looms.
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