Rishi Sunak faces clash with EU on ‘unlawful’ asylum plans

EU commissioner Ylva Johansson warns new migration bill breaches international law, potentially reigniting hostilities

Rishi Sunak faces a fresh clash with the EU after a senior comissioner warned that his contentious new migration bill will be in breach of human rights laws.

The intervention comes as the prime minister prepares to meet French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, where he is expected to be asked to guarantee regular payments to stop boats carrying asylum seekers from crossing the Channel.

Sunak has said stopping the crisis is one of his top priorities, while Suella Braverman, the home secretary, has insisted the new law – which aims to criminalise, detain and deport refugees – is within human rights legislation.

Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs, said she personally told Braverman that she believes her asylum plans breach international law.

They spoke on Tuesday before the home secretary’s Commons statement, and the publication of the bill. “I told her that I think that this is violating international law,” Johansson told Politico.

Ylva Johansson said she personally told the UK home secretary her asylum plans will violate human rights laws.
Ylva Johansson said she personally told the UK home secretary her asylum plans will violate human rights laws. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The home secretary disagreed with the commissioner and asked her to read the detail of the bill once it was published, a source close to Braverman said.

Johansson’s comments will add to the perception that ministers expect the bill to be stalled by legal challenges, and may be a cynical attempt to provoke a row with Labour in the run-up to a general election. Braverman wrote on the front page of the bill that she was unable to say that the provisions were “compatible with the convention rights”.

The potential reigniting of hostilities comes after an improvement of relations with the EU after last month’s successful negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Macron will host Sunak on Friday for the first bilateral summit between Britain and France in five years, at which it is understood they will discuss further strengthening of cooperation between police and coastguards and how to finance them.

In further developments in the UK, the Conservative party was forced to launch an internal inquiry after an email sent to thousands of party activists in the name of Braverman blamed “an activist blob of leftwing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour party” for the government’s failure to stop Channel crossings.

The comments prompted an angry response from civil servants, although Downing Street said Braverman “did not see, sign off or sanction” the email sent out to Tory members in her name by Conservative campaign headquarters.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said the email amounted to a “direct attack on the integrity and impartiality” of public servants working in the Home Office.

In other developments:

  • Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, was accused by Sunak at prime minister’s question time of being “another lefty lawyer” trying to block efforts to curb migration.

  • MPs accused the prime minister of forsaking women smuggled for sex on International Women’s Day by pushing forward a bill that undermines trafficking laws.

  • The BBC was dragged into another political row over impartiality after Gary Lineker, the Match of the Day host, refused to backdown after comparing the government’s rhetoric to 1930s Germany.

  • The United Nations’ refugee agency warned it cannot step in as a “substitute for the right to seek asylum” after the government said it would expand its partnership with the organisation after outlawing small boat crossings.

At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Sunak said: “[Starmer’s] position on this is clear: he wanted to, in his words, scrap the Rwanda deal; he voted against measures to deport foreign criminals; and he even argued against deportation flights. We know why – on this matter he talks about his legal background, he’s just another lefty lawyer standing in our way.”

Starmer pointed out that just 18 people out of 18,000 who were deemed ineligible for asylum last year had been returned. “The problem gets worse with every gimmick,” he said.

The Westminster leader of the SNP, Stephen Flynn, said female victims of sex trafficking smuggled on boats will be denied help from modern slavery laws under the proposed legislation.

“May I ask the prime minister from whom are his government taking inspiration, Nigel Farage or Enoch Powell?” he said. Sunak dismissed Flynn’s claims as “load of nonsense”.

On Tuesday, Lineker wrote on Twitter about a Home Office video in which Braverman said the UK is being “overwhelmed” by migrants.

The former England footballer wrote: “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”

Sources from the BBC confirmed that they are expected to talk to remind Lineker about his responsibilities.

After condemnation from ministers including Braverman, Lineker said he was overwhelmed by “love and support” from supporters, adding: “I’ll continue to try and speak up for those poor souls that have no voice.”

Government sources said that Braverman would increase the capacity of joint settlement schemes run by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) instead of setting up new and safe routes for asylum seekers.

The refugee agency told the Guardian that this was not enough. “UNHCR’s resettlement programme with the UK is a lifesaving but severely limited pathway for the most vulnerable refugees to permanently settle … it is not a substitute for the right to seek asylum,” a statement said.


Rajeev Syal Home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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