And so the Conservative leadership election has turned to immigration. Supporting the plan to send migrants who come here illegally to Rwanda, Rishi Sunak says: “I will do whatever it takes to implement it.” Liz Truss agrees: “I am determined to see our Rwanda policy through.”
Predictably, Labour has accused Mr Sunak and Ms Truss of pandering to “rabid, bigoted” party members. But most of us understand that immigration must be controlled, for social, cultural, economic and democratic reasons.
Of course, we can integrate newcomers, but integration takes time so the pace of change must not be too fast. There is a cultural case for control. Our common identity and culture, obviously valuable in themselves, also help us to recognise familiarity in strangers, and to accept the need to compromise with and make sacrifices for our fellow citizens.
On Right and Left, advocates of mass immigration claim it leaves us better off, but this is not true. Academic studies suggest it makes little economic difference overall. But we know, for people in lower-paid jobs, immigration can hold down wages and cause job displacement. And it indisputably puts pressure on services and infrastructure. Immigration is the cause of nearly half of new housing demand, and the need for 216,000 extra secondary school places by 2026.
Moreover, there is a democratic case for control. Among those who never heeded public opinion when polls showed people wanted steep reductions in immigration, it is fashionable now to claim that since Brexit, concern about immigration has disappeared. But this change is driven in part by voters who believe Brexit has restored the control they demand. They expect to see the rate of immigration reduced, and the border secured.
We are yet to hear in great detail from Mr Sunak and Ms Truss what they will do to reduce immigration, but the reason for their endorsement of the Rwanda policy is clear. More than 28,500 people crossed the English Channel last year to enter Britain illegally, and more than 15,000 have made the journey so far this year.
Ministers cannot return the migrants to France, nor to their countries of origin: the migrants destroy identity documents, claim asylum and even if they are refused, launch numerous and time-consuming appeals to stay. The crossings are making criminal gangs rich, allowing mainly young, male, fit and comparatively prosperous migrants who are already in safe countries to abuse the system, undermining our ability to help the genuinely needy and vulnerable, and destroying public confidence. Asylum now costs the taxpayer £1.3 billion per year.
To stop the crossings we must break the link between entering Britain illegally and staying here to live and work. As in Australia, we must legislate to ensure that no one arriving illegally will ever, under any circumstances, be allowed to settle in Britain.
To make this a reality, anybody who enters the country illegally must be transferred to a safe third country like Rwanda. They should be treated humanely, and where necessary the third country should offer genuine refuge. The Government should ensure the transfer from Britain to the third country is safe and dignified.
Once transferred, migrants can choose to apply for asylum there or return to their home country – but they should not be allowed to return to Britain. And the Government should establish legal routes here, capped in number, for those who need our help most.
Achieving this policy goal, however, will be difficult and controversial. The Rwanda scheme has already been suspended by an injunction issued by the European Court of Justice, pending a judicial review due to be heard at the High Court. There is nothing in law to stop ministers sending migrants to safe third countries, but the European Convention on Human Rights means the Government has a responsibility to assess that the receiving state is safe, and must give migrants the chance to argue that the receiving state is not a safe place for them as individuals.
The risk is that the policy is killed, either by the courts ruling it illegal in principle, or by allowing so many appeals that migrants know they stand a good chance of remaining in Britain. This is why Mr Sunak has said: “The ECHR cannot inhibit our ability to properly control our borders and we shouldn’t let it,” and why Ms Truss has said: “We will not cower to the ECHR and ensure it works for Britain.”
There are a variety of measures ministers can take to limit the legal impediments to the implementation of the policy. The Government could, for example, add Rwanda to the list of safe countries in the 2004 Asylum and Immigration Act. It could devise policies that define the extent of individual risk based on established scenarios, such as the sexuality or religious faith of the migrant. It could introduce a procedural bar on appeals beyond a specified point in the process: for example, requiring migrants to make all claims as soon as they arrive here and are in contact with the authorities. It could make it impossible in law to claim asylum here after travelling from a safe country, unless via a legal route.
But as long as Britain remains a signatory to the ECHR and subject to the jurisdiction of its court in Strasbourg, such changes will be challenged in the courts. Even if the Human Rights Act is replaced by a British Bill of Rights, claimants will be free to make Convention-based appeals in British courts, and free to petition Strasbourg, regardless of the content of any domestic legislation. In particular, the Government will be unable to remove the requirement to assess the individual circumstances of all removals to Rwanda without leaving the Convention.
The proposals made by Mr Sunak and Ms Truss to make Rwanda work are welcome. Making life difficult to live here for illegal immigrants, better co-operation with France, a tougher approach to countries that refuse to recognise migrants as their own citizens – as suggested by Mr Sunak – would all help. Increasing resources for immigration enforcement – as proposed by Ms Truss – is also important.
But both candidates should know, if they really are prepared to do “whatever it takes” to sort out the immigration system, they must in the end be prepared to leave the European Convention and the jurisdiction of its court.