Rishi Sunak is facing criticism that his proposed laws on small boat crossings will be unworkable and lead to tens of thousands of people fleeing war and persecution being locked up.
The prime minister is set to publish new legislation this week aimed at detaining and deporting all those who enter the UK via small boats crossing the Channel.
A Whitehall source briefed on the plan confirmed that even children could be detained with their families, as the government seeks to stop an estimated 60,000 people a year from making the perilous journey from mainland Europe.
Previous plans to deport those entering the UK by small boat to Rwanda have been rejected by the courts, but No 10 and the Home Office are proposing to insert a “brake” on human rights legislation in an attempt to stop legal challenges.
However, campaigners are extremely concerned that it will lead to the inhumane and costly detention of tens of thousands of refugees. The only safe routes currently available to those wishing to seek asylum in the UK are through limited schemes for Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong.
Former Conservative ministers and an ex-permanent secretary of the Home Office, Sir David Normington, cast doubts on the feasibility of the plans, especially without any agreement with France aimed at preventing small boats setting off or reaching the UK.
One former minister said: “The proposals, if you believe the briefings and the leaks, are a joke and I just cannot see how they will get on to the statute. They look like an attempt to go into the general election with some clear blue water between us and Labour. Propose a hardline law, have it stopped by the EU and the courts, blame lefty lawyers and Labour for being soft on immigration.”
They added: “The idea that the governments under Boris [Johnson] and Theresa [May] just failed to see this easy fix of circumventing laws with another law, without years of legal wrangling, just doesn’t wash.”
Another former minister said that the proposals will face a backlash from Conservative MPs from both wings of the party. “Many will not want to see extended detentions, while others who were in the military will feel deeply uncomfortable seeing Afghan comrades labelled as ‘illegal’ because they could not get here via a safe route. It is not plain sailing.”
Other Conservative MPs who have criticised previous plans in relation to Rwanda said they had been assured by No 10 that the new proposals were “compatible with the law” but they would wait to see the final legislation before passing judgment.
Normington told Times Radio: “I really don’t see how the prime minister’s objectives are going to be achieved. Obviously, he’s going to pass some legislation first, and there may be more to it than we have heard. But unless you manage the system properly, the legislation will be ineffective.”
Under the proposals, those who claim asylum are expected to face being kept for up to 28 days in detention facilities, one source said. They said the new laws could also apply equally to those under 18, even if they travel to the UK alone.
If everyone who crossed the Channel last year was detained for 28 days, on 4 September 9,161 people would have been detained, the Refugee Council said – four times the current detention estate capacity of 2,286.
The Mail also reported that those detained and deported would also face a life ban on ever returning to the UK.
Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland secretary, hinted on Sunday that there would be “more safe and legal routes” for refugees to come to the UK alongside the legislation, but the government has previously suggested this could be delayed until small boat crossings have been curbed.
Analysis by the Refugee Council shows that of all those who crossed the Channel last year, two-thirds would be granted asylum, with half from Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan or Syria. It said the cost to the taxpayer based on the Home Office prediction of 65,000 making the crossing in 2023 would be £219m a year for 28 days in detention or £1.4bn for six months.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council said: “These plans shatter the UK’s longstanding commitment under the UN convention to give people a fair hearing regardless of the path they have taken to reach our shores. They will simply add more cost and chaos to the system.”
The British Red Cross, another charity, called the plans “extremely concerning”, while Labour accused Sunak of reheating the proposals in last year’s failed nationality and borders bill. The Liberal Democrats said it was “another half baked plan that will punish the victims of human trafficking” and called for “safe and legal routes for asylum seekers” as a priority.
The UN high commissioner for refugees has previously said a blanket ban on claiming asylum in the UK for those arriving on small boats would breach the Refugee Convention. In relation to a thinktank report suggesting such a move, the UNHCR said in December: “Everybody has the right to seek asylum from persecution in another country, and there is no such thing as an ‘illegal asylum-seeker’.
“The indefinite detention of those seeking asylum, based solely on their mode of arrival, would punish people in need of help and protection and constitute a clear breach of the United Kingdom’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.”
A number of Conservative MPs have previously criticised any plans that could lead the UK to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights. Other Tory MPs are concerned that the prime minister may have been too ambitious in promising to stop small boat crossings without an agreement with the French to turn people back.
Sunak and Suella Braverman, the home secretary, are due to meet the French president, Emmanuel Macron, on Friday this week.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said: “Ministers have made countless claims and promises yet the facts show their last law badly failed and made things worse. Instead of learning lessons, it looks like they are still recycling the same rhetoric and failure.
“Labour is calling urgently for a major new cross-border police unit to go after the criminal gangs, fast track asylum decisions and returns, and a new agreement with France and Belgium that can stop the dangerous crossings.”
Diana Johnson, the chair of the Commons home affairs committee, said the cross-party group has said it is “essential that any new policy announcements from the Home Office be evidence-based, fully costed and thought through in practical terms”.
“The committee has offered to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny on this bill, but the leader of the house [Penny Mordaunt] last week said that the government wanted to get on with it,” she added. “We will wait and see whether this new bill will actually deliver what the government promises.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The home secretary has been clear that if you arrive in the UK illegally, you should not be allowed to stay.
“We will shortly introduce legislation which will ensure that people arriving in the UK illegally are detained and promptly returned to their home country or a safe third country.
“Our work with France is also vital to tackling the unacceptable rise in dangerous Channel crossings. We share a determination to tackle this issue together, head-on, to stop the boats.”
Meanwhile, plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is still the subject of protracted legal challenges. Campaigners and asylum seekers will on Monday seek permission to widen their appeal against the high court’s ruling that the Rwanda plan is lawful. An appeal is expected to be heard before the court in April.
Some legal observers have claimed that the appeals process could continue for many months, and possibly into next year.