Tories' 'Illegal' Migration Bill isn't UK's top priority, it's designed to distract from cost of living crisis – Tommy Sheppard

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Stopping small boats is the number one priority of the British people. So said Rishi Sunak in the Commons this week.

Really? That’s demonstrably untrue. So why does he say it? What is the motivation behind making this a priority? Well, because if we are talking about small boats, we’re not talking about the deepening Tory-made cost-of-living crisis, soaring energy bills or eye-watering inflation. The Tories believe they are on to a winner by dividing public opinion on migration. It’s politics. And it’s getting ugly.

Next week, parliament will spend two days discussing a series of measures against some of the world’s most vulnerable people. The language used is important. When the Home Secretary talks of an “invasion”, when she creates a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, she does so for a reason.

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The intent is to suggest a hostile horde massing on our shores. A threat to our well-being and way of life. In truth, these migrants are amongst the most desperate people on Earth. They have lived through trauma and pain the likes of which most of us will never see.

Tory backbenchers try to pretend there are a million or more people trying to get to the UK illegally. In truth, around 3,000 people have come in small boats this year. On average, maybe 35 people a day.

It’s terrifying to watch this debate at close quarters. Civilised people who ought to know better than espousing narratives that we usually associate with far-right and totalitarian governments.

The centrepiece of the government’s ‘Illegal’ Migration Bill is to remove the right to claim asylum from anyone who arrives in this country without permission. It hopes to deter people getting into the boats in Calais in the first place. But the boats have only started coming in these numbers because the UK Government has effectivity closed any legal way of getting here.

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In the last year, the government’s official scheme for Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban allowed entry to just 22 people. It’s little wonder that more than 8,500 Afghans made the treacherous journey across the Channel.

People land on a beach at Dungeness after being picked up by an RNLI lifeboat (Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)People land on a beach at Dungeness after being picked up by an RNLI lifeboat (Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)
People land on a beach at Dungeness after being picked up by an RNLI lifeboat (Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

The problem for the government is that those fleeing persecution have rights enshrined in international law. This doesn’t seem to worry some Tory MPs though. They seem content to break international agreements and preside over our expulsion from the Council of Europe, following in the footsteps of Russia and Belarus.

The other problem with the bill is this: it just won’t work. People will still come because the many challenges in front of them will be as nothing to the horrors they leave behind. Instead of being granted asylum, they will be detained, in a state of limbo, awaiting deportation to Rwanda or elsewhere. This will cost the taxpayer a fortune and leave Britain’s international reputation in tatters.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This country could accept its fair share of asylum seekers and refugees. We could provide legal routes for people to come here. We could employ enough staff to make sure applications are determined quickly and fairly. We could also allow those seeking asylum to work and pay tax while this happened. That is the sort of policy Scotland could pursue if it had the normal powers of an independent country.

Tommy Sheppard is SNP MP for Edinburgh East

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