Is Rishi Sunak’s flagship Illegal Migration Bill really ‘racist’?


Illegal migration has been an ongoing topic of debate in UK politics, in which every year thousands upon thousands of people illegitimately enter the country. It is through Rishi Sunak’s fifth and final priority set out in his manifesto to ‘stop the boats’ and his 10-point asylum plan that he seeks to tackle this issue, which aims to ban and deter people escaping conflict, persecution, or famine from seeking refuge in the UK by unauthorised means. However, discussions surrounding the Illegal Migration Bill have focused heavily on moral and practical questions, having come under fire by critics for tramping on domestic human rights as upheld by the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. While the Minister for Immigration, Robert Jenrick, declares the plan to be ‘legal, fair and moral’, many have taken umbrage to this by claiming it is, in fact, ‘illegal, impractical and inhumane’. But is the ex-Home Office adviser’s branding of the plan ‘racist’ an equally fair judgement?

To be able to comment accurately on this heated debate, it is first necessary to clarify Sunak’s 10-point plan, the nature and purpose of which is often distorted and misconstrued by jibes and grotesque slurs. For decades, the UK has experienced a hiking of net migration figures. and is a crisis which has been called upon continuously by the British public to be addressed, to no avail. Upon appointment, Sunak made it one of his five missions to change this: he has since introduced a refugee quota, which can be changed in case of sudden emergencies, adopted a tougher stance against EU laws and the challenges they pose on Britain’s ability to grapple with this problem by committing to a narrower definition of who qualifies for asylum compare to that from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), with enhanced powers to detain, tag, and monitor illegal migrants, as well as advertised legislation as a deterrence tool to break the cycle of people-smuggling gangs and to discourage people from undertaking life-threatening boat journeys across the Channel and economic migrants from ‘jumping the queue’. This begs the question of whether making efforts to protect migrant lives is really dehumanising? Such legislation includes an attempt to house illegal immigrants off-shore in cruise ships and the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which sought to enforce the plan to expel to Rwanda people seeking asylum in the UK. Despite being declared as illegal due to the arbitrary nature of detaining asylum seekers, Sunak has justified his position by stressing the ‘need to tackle this problem creatively’ in order to ensure that we have the placed needed to detain refugees and ensure that they can be processed as quickly as possible. This aspiration to look for novel solutions is not unique to Britain. Indeed, Scotland and other countries, such as the Netherlands, have also looked at this. Does this make them, too, racist? What remains indisputable is that Sunak is willing to do whatever is legally necessary in order to ensure that adults who come to Britain illegally have no route to asylum, which should dismantle any fear of abandonment by the UK of guiding values of respecting international law and basic human rights.

The impulsive demonisation and vilification of Sunak’s plan has known no bounds. Amongst the vast crowd of discontent was celebrity footballer commentator Gary Lineker, who expressed his discomfort with the so-called anti-migrant rhetoric accompanying the Conservative government’s proposed bill, suggesting that it was reminiscent of 1930s Germany. Even tabloids – themselves complicit in describing ‘swarms’ of refugees and ‘illegal flooding into Britain’ have been quick to accuse the government of using Nazi slurs. Similar disdain has been incited by politicians, namely opposition leader Keir Starmer, who labelled Sunak’s policies as ‘racist’, and former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who asserted that the latest asylum ban ‘is immoral, inhumane and in breach of international law’. These comments have been further supported by Nimco Ali, who claims: ‘[…] if we can provide generous help to Ukrainians escaping war then I think we need to look at ensuring that we also provide routes to anyone escaping conflicts’ and that ‘If we can find room for a white child but not a black child, who are coming here in similar circumstances, it is racist. It is really painful if we believe that people can seek refuge if they come from Europe but not elsewhere’, condemning the government’s failure to open up safe and legal routes for refugees. As one of the most ethnically diverse countries, such attacks on asylum crackdown seem to propagate a fictional narrative and unfairly disregard the reality of the significant role which Britain has played this crisis. In fact, since the Brexit referendum, the UK has welcomed over 500,000 asylum seekers, not just from Ukraine, but also from Afghanistan, Syria and Hong Kong. Furthermore, the UNHCR has revealed that approximately 80 million people are displaced or living in regions defined as bellicose, in which case there has to be a limit on refugee intake. Notwithstanding, the Bill has been accused of amounting to cruelty without purpose, yet Sunak’s purpose to ensure safe, orderly, regular migration and end the lucrative trade of the masterminds of the transnational criminal-capitalist industry, which no ‘safe and legal routes’ will deter them from, remains clear.

I like to think that rhetoric on the matter has evolved from the true racist rhetoric heard in MP Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, whereby National Front members chanted ‘Keep the Asians out’. Not only are such comparisons and ‘spurious accusations of bigotry’ highly defamatory and absurd, but they also distract from and sensationalise the issue at hand for what seems to be the purpose of fuelling theatrics in Parliament, itself preventing us from progressing and solving the crisis. This is even more evident, given the accusation that the most vicious – and ironic – iteration of racist British immigration policy has been fronted by two British Asian politicians, Sunak and Braverman, with family connections to East Africa, who, instead of honouring the histories of the anti-racist struggle which afforded their families shelter in Britain in the fact of hostility, have explicitly discarded issues of race, religion and ethnicity in favour of the overriding distinction between legality and illegality. This is important, as it is necessary to recall that their parents arrived legally, whilst cross-Channel migrants have arrived illegally, for which immigrants who arrived in the UK legally also want to see action to crack down on those who are not. As reassured by Sunak, there is ‘absolutely nothing racist’ about wanting secure borders and that ‘These are not bad people, but it makes a mockery of our system and it must stop’. Therefore, their policies are not discriminating towards refugees themselves, but rather denouncing the clandestine nature of their journey. It would appear that not even immigrants themselves have a place in the debate. What remains truly hypocritical is the racism demonstrated by people who were against the appointment of Sunak as PM because of his race.

Sunak reminds us that illegal migration is a global problem, which is not just his priority to solve, but also the people’s priority, with such plans being ‘backed up by the majority of the British people’. The 1951 Refugee Convention explicitly states that no asylum seeker be punished for entering a country illegally. It is now, in fact, 2023, 28 years shy of an entire century later. There is an urgent need, therefore, to update the Migration Bill and legislation surrounding illegal migration, which is exactly what the British public’s vote is calling for. Whilst counter-parties are very quick to criticise and call out Sunak’s plans to tackle the issue, it must be recognised that there are not many viable alternative propositions. Up until now, immigration policies have been more symbolic than real, having created the illusion of control rather than implemented truly effective and workable measures. Using critics’ words against them, now is the time to stop playing on fantasy politics and start making greater efforts to ensure that proposals are ‘deliverable and grounded in reality, not simply warm words’. This would be no words in the case of Keir Starmer, who himself voted against measures to deport foreign criminals and argued against deportation flights. It would appear, therefore, that whilst Starmer is ‘hock to the open border activists’ and purporting – inadvertently or not – an open-door immigration policy and unlimited asylum, Sunak and the Conservative Party are instead acting in the interest of the British people and in many respects the safety of the migrants. Is it now racist for a party to attempt to deliver fairly and legally on what the British people have democratically voted for? Like Brexit, illegal migration is an extremely complex, deep-rooted issue that cannot and should not be expected to be solved by a perfect plan on its first attempt at being implemented. These things are works in progress. I argue, therefore, for the need to distinguish between when something is racist and when something is simply firmer than the lenient approach to the issue which the country has experienced up until now.

After full consideration of the above, it is fair to conclude that our immigration system is broken and has been broken for a long time, and that we certainly cannot defend the current system in place, hence the continued dominance of the topic in UK – and global – politics. In the words of Sunak, as law-abiding citizens, ‘Whether you believe that migration should be high or low, we can all agree that it should be legal and controlled’. It is not only unfair that those coming to the UK with the intention of becoming economic migrants are able to exploit our asylum system, which should be prioritising those whose lives are genuinely at risk, but we as a nation simply cannot, year upon year, continue with this inexplorable rise in the number of illegal arrivals adding unacceptable pressures on our health, housing, education and welfare services. Consequently, taking this debate and recklessly throwing around empty, petty slurs is not only to overlook the validity of Sunak’s argument and undermine the very reality of the issue that Britain and the rest of the world faces, but also to suppress any progress from ever taking place.

Featured image: from the Bubble portfolio

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