Divisive ‘hostile environment’ will not stop small boats

Rishi Sunak has declared that stopping small boats is one of his top priorities. With that stated end, the Tories’ Illegal Migration Bill is currently going through parliament. Supposedly the threat of deportation to a third country like Rwanda and making life unbearable for refugees who arrive in this country by ‘illegal’ means, will deter would-be migrants from coming to Britain. In reality, this vicious legislation has more to do with stopping the Tories loss of electoral support.

Britain is facing multiple crises, and an acute cost-of-living crisis and pay stagnation are further worsening the situation for working-class people. The Tories’ policies of privatisation and profit for big business and the super-rich will not provide a solution to these problems. The party itself is in deep crisis. Sunak is unlikely to reach his other ‘priorities’ so is looking to be seen to ‘get things done’ over immigration in order to divert attention from the Tories’ economic failings, and shore up their haemorrhaging support in the ‘red wall’ seats in particular. He hopes that the controversy over the Illegal Migration Bill, even if it’s not actually implemented at scale, will galvanise political support and unite his party behind him.

Once again the Tories are playing political football with the lives of refugees. Under the new bill, the mode of travel will determine the treatment you receive. If you are unfortunate to arrive by small boat you will be criminalised and judged without any hearing – denied basic rights such as requesting bail and seeking judicial reviews, detained and removed to a country that the Tories consider ‘safe’ – although Rwanda is the only one the government has an agreement with. All this while safe ‘legal’ routes are almost non-existent for most refugees.

Rwanda has a record of human rights abuse and mistreatment of migrants. A recent report from the US, in its annual human rights assessment, said Rwanda operated a system including harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, arbitrary detention, serious restrictions on free expression, including imprisonment of journalists, and no effective system of collective bargaining. Despite all this, Home Secretary Suella Braverman insists Rwanda is safe for refugees.

Many find it hard to understand why an Asian woman from a migrant family can be so ‘heartless’. But Braverman is representing the interests of a section of the Tory party and is spearheading their agenda. It’s not race, gender or sexuality that determines who you represent, but rather your policies and class.

Hardly anyone, including most Tory MPs themselves, believes this legislation will really stop the boats or deter desperate people from coming to Britain. “This thoroughly bad decision… is not based on good governance but the politics of trying to do something”, declared Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh of plans to use the former air base in his constituency to house refugees. Even Sunak himself has had to admit that it’s unlikely that small boats will be stopped before the next election.

Travelling by small boats is one of the most dangerous ways to travel. Only those who are most desperate, vulnerable and have nothing to lose will attempt to make such a journey: 48% are from Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan or Syria. It is highly unlikely that those that have nothing to lose would be stopped by these new measures.

This cruel legislation is partly modelled on a policy introduced in Australia in 2001 that sent anyone who arrived by boat to small islands for offshore processing. Inquiries into the conditions of detained migrants reported sexual abuse of children, murders, repeated suicide attempts and the sick denied medical attention.

Legal challenges to the Tories’ bill are inevitable. Suella Braverman was forced to admit that it could breach the European Convention on Human Rights. The Refugee Council, one of many charities to criticise the plans, said it would “add more cost and chaos to the system”, adding: “It’s unworkable, costly and won’t stop the boats”. Even amongst those that voted Conservative, 60% thought it very unlikely that it would be delivered.

The UK immigration system is very slow and has a huge backlog. A total of 160,919 people were waiting for an initial decision on their asylum case at the end of December 2022, the highest figure since 2010. The idea that these, as well as future arrivals, could all be housed on barges and empty barracks is frankly ludicrous as well as inhumane.

Immigration and asylum cannot be managed in isolation, and certainly not by the Tories who have shown their total inability to resolve any of the problems of working-class people. They should be part of an overall plan, under the democratic control of working-class people organised in the trade unions and local community organisations, to deal with the cost-of-living crisis and the conditions facing everyone in Britain, including a plan for the mass building of council housing and a massive increase in funding for the NHS and other public services.

Creating a ‘hostile environment’ for refugees sows divisions amongst working-class people precisely at a time when hundreds of thousands are uniting and striking to fight low pay. It gives confidence to far-right racist extremists to carry through anti-migrant attacks. Blaming refugees for poor housing, NHS waiting lists and not being able to see a GP benefits nobody but the Tories, the bosses and the rotten capitalist system they defend. It is the same system that creates refugees through war, poverty, repressive regimes and environmental disasters.

Capitalism in crisis is only going to accelerate these problems. Only a global solution based on international socialist planning would ultimately end forced displacements. And that requires a united working-class struggle to end capitalism.

Isai Marijela