Immigration is an ideological headache for the UK’s Conservative party, caught between its neoliberal new right that champions free markets, and its social conservatism, which immigration is said to threaten. But a restrictive immigration stance has been a winning ticket for the Conservatives since David Cameron’s 2010 pledge to reduce net migration.
Conservative voters still consider immigration to be the second most important issue facing Britain. But after years of stringent measures, the road has run out on cutting immigration. An “Australian style” points-based immigration system has already been delivered and can no longer be promised as the panacea.
This leaves the future prime minister to focus on preventing irregular migration, and the reliable vote winner of restricting asylum. So it’s no surprise that leadership contenders Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are promising hard-line immigration policies. While the rivals differ in their approach, both have pitched ideas whose feasibility and legality are suspect.
Sunak kicked things off with his ten-point plan to fix the “broken” asylum system. He wants to cap the number of refugees, tackle the asylum backlog, crack down on small boat crossings, and end what he calls the “farce” of housing asylum seekers in hotels.
Sunak wants to “tighten” the legal definition of who qualifies for asylum to be “in line with the [UN] Refugee Convention” instead of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This is baffling given that the ECHR has no definition of asylum seekers.
Reports suggest Sunak is alluding to the court’s interpretation of article 3 of the convention, which protects people from being removed from the UK on the grounds of escaping “inhuman or degrading treatment. This can include having a serious medical condition, where the asylum seeker believes that an absence of medical treatment in their country of origin will result in intense suffering or significant reduction in life expectancy.
To address the backlog of asylum decisions, Sunak has proposed an increase in case workers and “performance incentives”. As I’ve found in my research, asylum backlogs are part of a long history of organisational failure at the Home Office, and performance targets are likely to incentivise quick and therefore sloppy decision making. This proposal might decrease the initial backlog, but would no doubt result in a ballooning of appeals, generating costs to the government and more unnecessary waits for asylum seekers.
Sunak also wants to place immigration as a centrepiece in foreign policy by reassessing aid and trade terms in order to deter illegal migration, including bilateral agreements to return irregular migrants to their country of origin. This will be hard to achieve with a weak geopolitical hand. Post-Brexit Britain is already unpopular with its European neighbours and bilateral deals require cooperation and partnerships.
Securing the borders
Liz Truss has been less meticulous in her immigration policy proposals than her competitor. Like her rival, Truss zeroes in on clandestine entry to the UK. But where Sunak wants to overhaul by circumventing international norms, Truss is more interested in securing borders by tinkering with the existing regime.
Truss nebulously refers to pushing for reforms of the ECHR so that it “works for Britain”. Much to the distaste of the right of the Conservative base, she also promises a short-term expansion of the seasonal agricultural scheme, which allows foreign workers to come to the UK for summer agricultural jobs.
In a more concrete proposal, she vows to increase the frontline border force by 20% and double the border force’s maritime staffing levels. Staff increase will be welcome, but this is a sticking plaster for the increase in irregular entry.
Where the rivals share a vision is on expanding the highly controversial Rwanda deal, which allows the UK to send some people to Rwanda who would otherwise claim asylum in the UK. The scheme has been widely criticised at home and abroad over its practicality, efficacy, value for money and compatibility with human rights laws.
The first scheduled flight to send asylum seekers to Rwanda in June 2022 was grounded after a dramatic last minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights. Despite these ethical and legal challenges, both Sunak and Truss are committed to the idea of outsourcing asylum processing, vowing to make the deal work and explore further partnerships.
Rwanda deportations: what is the European Court of Human Rights, and why did it stop the UK flight from taking off?
Sticking plaster plans
Both contenders are papering over the cracks with these plans. The evidence is stacked against deterrence tactics. The home affairs select committee has found no evidence that the Rwanda scheme will deter migrants.
The reduction of safe, legal humanitarian routes to asylum, as well as inertia on settlement schemes, has and will continue to lead to dangerous clandestine entry and lives lost. Arguably, the most draconian plans are smoke and mirrors designed to appeal to party members who are ideologically to the right of Conservative MPs. Whoever governs will likely water these plans down, or can expect them to be stuck in legal purgatory in the courts.
The glaring omission from both candidates is any plan for fixing an immigration system that is contributing to severe labour market shortages. Whoever becomes PM will have to address the reality of the failing immigration system that employers have decried is bloated with red tape.
Ultimately, Sunak and Truss’s dog-whistling to party members may backfire when it comes to a general election. While an authoritarian policy may have been a winning ticket in the 2010s, public concerns over immigration are at a historic low and it isn’t a pressing issue with voters anymore.
Erica Consterdine does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.