Can Britain tackle its problem of illegal migrants?

Can Britain tackle its problem of illegal migrants?. (Xinhua/Han Yan/IANS)

By Naresh Kaushik

London, Aug 8 (IANS) UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government has begun sending migrants on a floating vessel in southern England while their claims of asylum are processed. It is part of a wider policy of its “Stop the Boats” campaign to discourage people arriving on British shores to flee persecution in their own countries or simply to seek better life.

On Monday, a small group of 15 migrants were moved from their hotels to Bibby Stockholm barge in Dorset. Twenty others were helped by a charity to stop their removal on safety grounds. But the government plans to house up to 500 men at the 222-room, three-storey vessel. 

The barge has a TV room, a multi-faith prayer room and gym. The inmates will be allowed to go out during the day but must return by the night. 

The government says it is spending 6 million pounds a day to accommodate about 51,000 migrants in hotels. It is planning two more barges and three former military bases in various parts of the country to cut hotel costs.

There has been a lot of criticism of the plan from charities and human rights groups who have described it as an imprisonment of migrants. Britain’s main opposition Labour Party is also critical of the plan, though it is not ruling out using barges to house migrants. 

The government argues that sending migrants to live in a vessel is safe which has previously been used to accommodate homeless people and asylum seekers in Germany and the Netherlands.

The Sunak government’s policy is similar to the one adopted by Australia in 10 years ago. Under that policy people arriving by boat to Australia were sent to detention centres in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Island of Nauru. The move drastically reduced the number of migrant boats to Australia. 

Tony Abbot also won the 2013 election as the policy became immensely popular with the Australian voters. Interestingly his slogan was also “Stop the Boats”.

Undoubtedly migrants coming in small boats has been a major political issue in Britain. Last year more than 45,000 migrants crossed the English Channel in that manner to reach the UK.

Tackling that is one of the top priorities of Sunak.

The government has also tried to send those migrants to Rwanda following an agreement with the African country, but it has not been able to send even one so far because of legal challenges. The matter is now before Britain’s Supreme Court. 

Despite a lot of criticism of its Rwanda policy at home and abroad, Sunak’s government insists it’s still committed to it. 

Last month it managed to have a new bill passed in parliament which gives Britain’s home minister the power to detain and remove anyone entering the UK illegally either to Rwanda or another “safe” third country.

Under this law anyone deemed to have tried to enter the UK through irregular means will be permanently barred from coming back. 

The British government is also considering transferring illegal migrants to Ascension Island, the British overseas territory in the South Atlantic. 

This week it also announced tripling of fines for businesses and landlords who knowingly employ or provide accommodation to illegal migrants. But in the past such measures have not been successful as it is hard to detect such businesses and landlords.

The main reason for the British government to move migrants to floating vessels or to a third country is because it is overloaded with the number of asylum applications. And unless it formally rejects an application, it cannot legally deport a migrant. 

Britain’s Indian-origin Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has warned that lawyers who coach small boat migrants to lie in order to claim asylum could face life imprisonment. But her tough words are unlikely to reduce the lengthy legal process. 

More than 170,000 people are currently waiting in Britain for a decision on their asylum applications. 

India, Bangladesh and Pakistan feature in the top 10 countries from where these migrants have come from, though Albania and Afghanistan top that list. 

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