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What do Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak think about immigration?


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On 5 September, the next in a long line of insufferable prime ministers will be announced. As the Conservative Party enters the final weeks of its leadership race, we ask, what bright ideas do our two hopeful candidates have in store when it comes to Britain’s borders?

The last few years of immigration reform have ranged from the horrific to the absurd. From wave machines to disused cruise ships, it feels like we’ve been living in some kind of nightmarish waterpark with a Union Jack lovingly slapped on the “Enter at Your Own Risk” sign. Although many ideas have been thrown to the wayside, some have managed to make their way into actual legislation in the form of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022.

As Truss and Sunak attempt to woo Conservative Party members, they’ve been working hard to assure them that an even more hostile environment will help to restore the green pastures of this crumbling nation. But who will out-hostile the other?

Rishi Sunak

Sunak’s campaign website, ready4rishi.com, sets out what he describes as a “full” and “detailed”  ten-point plan to “take back control of our borders”:

1. Reforming our broken asylum laws.
Tightening our definition of who qualifies for asylum in the UK, giving primacy to the Refugee Convention over the more expansive ECHR interpretation. Enhanced powers to detain, tag, and monitor illegal migrants.

2. Giving Parliament control over who comes to the UK.
Creating a cap set annually by Parliament on the number of refugees we accept each year via safe and legal routes, amendable in the face of emergencies.

3. Creating a new cross-government Small Boats Taskforce.
Drawing on military expertise and working with the NCA and UK intelligence capabilities, the Taskforce will coordinate the response to every step of an illegal migrant’s journey – from the upstream operations of smuggling gangs to detention in the UK.

4. Making our Rwanda Partnership work.
Doing whatever it takes to get our partnership with Rwanda off the ground and operating at scale and pursuing other migration partnerships. No adult who enters the UK illegally will have a route to remain in the UK.

5. Strengthening Immigration Enforcement.
Increasing resources for more raids and site visits, with tougher fines and custodial sentences for those exploiting illegal labour.

6. Holding the French to account with clear targets for stopping boats.
Increasing cooperation with France to stop small boats setting out from France with clear targets to be met.

7. Sending failed asylum seekers and foreign criminals back home.
Giving migration a more prominent role in our foreign policy, with aid, trade, and visas conditional on a country’s willingness to cooperate on returns.

8. Ending the hotel farce.
Ending the use of hotels to house migrants by delivering thousands of new beds.

9. Busting the asylum backlog.
Setting a target that 80% of claims are resolved within six months of being lodged, with more case workers, incentives, simplified guidance, and better use of technology.

10. Reforming the Home Office and Border Force.
Commissioning work to look at more fundamental Home Office and Border Force reform.

In actual fact, each point is shorter and more nebulous than the last. A new taskforce? Holding the French to account and setting some targets? If only someone had thought of these brainwaves earlier. The grand finale, “commissioning work to look at more fundamental Home Office and Border Force reform”, is particularly revolutionary.

The only bit of concrete information that can be gleaned from the plan is that Sunak does not know what the European Convention on Human Rights is. He proposes, “tightening our definition of who qualifies for asylum in the UK, giving primacy to the Refugee Convention over the more expansive ECHR interpretation.” The ECHR does not define who is or is not a refugee. It does offer protection to a wider class of people than the Refugee Convention, but Sunak does not appear to be suggesting withdrawal from the ECHR, so it would continue to offer such protection. Sunak leaves lawmakers scratching their heads with a bid to “tighten the statutory definition of who qualifies for asylum” within his first 100 days in office.

Only one of the points is remotely positive. Point nine commits to ending the asylum backlog, resolving 80% of claims within six months of being lodged.

The rest of the plan makes for a pretty morbid read. Sunak promises to “expand” and “increase” many aspects of immigration control including, raids, fines and custodial sentences for those exploiting illegal labour, and cooperation with France to stop Channel crossings. How he would afford all this is not stated.

The infamous New Plan for Immigration stated that the Government would consider restricting visa conditions for citizens of countries that do not cooperate with attempts to return failed asylum seekers and foreign criminals. Sunak takes this proposal one step further, suggesting that “aid and trade” should also be used as bartering tools in these discussions.

Point four makes the terrifying and bold claim that, under Sunak’s government, “no adult who enters the UK illegally will have a route to remain.” The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 made it a crime to arrive in the UK without entry clearance. As there is no such thing as an ‘asylum visa’, and it is not possible to claim asylum from outside the UK, this pledge would impact pretty much every newly arrived asylum seeker. It would also breach the UK’s obligation under the Refugee Convention to “as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees” (Article 34).

If Sunak did somehow manage to achieve point four, the only option for those fleeing persecution would be to apply to one of our extremely limited resettlement schemes. However, Sunak’s plan also proposes limiting these by “creating a cap set annually by Parliament on the number of refugees we accept each year via safe and legal routes,” ignoring the clear consensus amongst migrant rights experts that the only way to reduce Channel crossings is to increase safe and legal routes into the country.

Point eight of Sunak’s plan promises to “end the hotel farce” by “introducing thousands of new beds.” The plan doesn’t specify where these beds will go. However, it was Sunak who, in 2020, famously proposed the use of disused cruise ships to house asylum seekers.

Liz Truss

Truss’ vision isn’t quite as in-depth as Sunak’s. She has tweeted a three-point-plan which vows to 1) expand the Rwanda policy with more countries 2) reinforce border force with more staff 3) and ensure that the ECHR works for Britain.

Unlike Sunak, Truss makes no mention of the asylum backlog. Her only saving grace is her disregard for Sunak’s cruise ship plan which she believes would breach “international law and human rights legislation.” Her affair with human rights was short lived though, as Truss has also pledged to double Border Force Maritime staffing and “explore all possible turnaround tactics” when it comes to Channel crossings.

Finally, Truss promises to tackle labour shortages by expanding the the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, an idea that has been scrupulously picked apart in a recent Free Movement post.

What conclusions can be drawn?

None at all, really. Barring their conflicting views on cruise ships, very little distinction can be drawn between Truss and Sunak when it comes to immigration reform. The main takeaway is that none of these proposals are in any way new. Both candidates are simply rehashing what has been the party line for a good while now.

Our only hope is that whoever wins carries on in Priti Patel’s shoes by being as useless as they are cruel. When all said and done, Patel has failed to deliver on anything much at all, other than massively increasing the asylum backlog, at massive expense to the taxpayer, and creating a new visa backlog because of her insistence that Ukrainians apply for visas.

There’s lots wrong with our asylum, immigration and citizenship laws. If you want to be properly informed, check out my book Welcome to Britain, now available in paperback.

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Alexa Sidor

Alexa Sidor is an immigration solicitor who specialises in asylum law. She trained at Elder Rahimi Solicitors before moving to Southwark Law Centre.


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