Rishi Sunak's anti-immigration plan pushes boundaries of international law

The UK says it will try to deport people as fast as possible to a third country, if not their own

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Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman
Prime minister Rishi Sunak and home secretary Suella Braverman.
Photo: Henry Nicholls (Reuters)

If the UK or its Conservative government — now led by prime minister Rishi Sunak — hoped Brexit would solve the country’s immigration problems, it was wrong.

While the total number of migrants coming from the EU to the UK has fallen since the UK voted to leave in 2016, migrants from elsewhere are still trying, often through unofficial border crossings.


In the last five years, for instance, thousands of people have started making the dangerous journey from France across the English Channel in small boats. In 2018, when 300 people attempted the crossing, the government declared it a major incident.

But numbers in the years since have only risen. Some 28,500 people tried to cross in small boats in 2022, and another 46,000 in 2023. More than half of those people had legitimate reasons to seek refugee status, according to a January report from the Refugee Council, a nongovernmental organization in the UK. About 8,700 of them were children. Most of these migrants came from just five countries—Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. Most of them now languish in the UK immigration system, housed in detention centers or hotels.  


About 160,000 refugees from the Ukraine war have also come to the UK, but under government schemes that allow them to legally enter the country, work, and claim benefits.

In an attempt to stem the flow of migrants entering illegally, Sunak’s government outlined its most extreme plan to date, saying that the vast majority of people who make the attempt to enter Britain without first securing permission will be detained, deported, and even forcibly resettled in a “third country.” That third country would most likely be Rwanda. Former prime minister Boris Johnson brokered a deal in 2022 to outsource much of the UK’s processing of asylum claims to the African country.

Suella Braverman, the UK home secretary, presented the country’s latest plan to curb immigration on March 7. During her speech she said the UK government intended to set the bar “very high” when assessing if a migrant’s life is in danger at home and should be granted asylum or not.

“Only those under 18, medically unfit to fly, or at real risk of serious or irreversible harm — an exceedingly high bar — in the country we are removing them to, will be able to delay their removal,” she said. “Any other claims will be heard remotely, after removal.”


Are the UK’s plans legal?

During her speech, Braverman admitted that the government’s plan “pushes the boundaries of international law.”


International treaties protect refugees, allowing people to seek asylum in other countries if their safety is threatened in their own. Exporting the problem to a third country has not yet been put to the test as a solution in the UK.

Human rights groups have criticized the Rwandan deal, which hasn’t been put into practice yet due to legal challenges. But Braverman doubled down on the idea. She said that the vast majority of people caught entering the country illegally would be first detained, and then deported either to their home country — if the UK government deemed it to be “safe” — or to a third country.


In response to criticism that the UK’s treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants may violate their human rights, the UK has in the past considered leaving the European Convention on Human Rights. While Braverman didn’t threaten that in her speech today, her assertion that the UK is willing to stretch the limits of the law to limit immigration recalls that suggestion, which was first put forward by former prime minister Theresa May, when she had Braverman’s job.

Are the deportation threats real?

Opposition from the Labour Party, which vies with the Conservative Party for control of the UK, was swift. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, insisted that the plan announced today was nothing but a rehash of promises the government has been making for years — specifically that it will “stop the boats” — which have manifestly failed.


Calling the current situation “chaos,” Cooper noted that thousands of people who cannot be imprisoned but are not being processed simply exist in a legal limbo, often living in UK hotels for months or years on end. Those hotel accommodations costs the UK £7 million ($8.3 million) a day.