The government’s current Illegal Migration Bill fails to treat people with dignity, undermines important international and domestic commitments and is being promoted more for political messaging than effective policy.

At the start of the year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak offered five pledges for his government, one of which was to simply stop the boats’. The government’s proposed legislation to achieve this and tackle small boat crossing in the Channel was introduced into parliament in early March. This proposed law would remove virtually all rights from those arriving through irregular routes and in doing so undermines international refugee obligations and makes a mockery of modern slavery legislation, which became law less than 10 years ago. For the first time since the slave trade was abolished this legislation represents a reduction in rights for those trafficked into slavery. 

The problem the government is trying to solve

In 2022, more than 45,000 people travelled to the UK via small boats across the English Channel without permission to enter the country. More than half of these were during the three months from August to October. This was a 60% increase on 2021. Since 2020, small boat arrivals have become the primary means by which irregular migration into the UK occurs. In August 2022 alone, more than 8,000 people arrived, and in 2023 up to 7 March, 3,150 had already arrived in the UK

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In our current global context migration continues to grow as an issue which requires national and international action, both out of compassion and security. Many are fleeing from persecution or being trafficked, many are also migrating for a range of economic, social and familial reasons. Between May and September 2022, more than 40% of arrivals originated from Albania, whereas from January 2018 to June 2022 nearly half were either from Iran or Iraq. The profile of those arriving and the conditions of the countries they left paint a complex picture of those seeking economic advancement mixed with those in desperate need of asylum and protection.

The Evangelical Alliance recognises that there is an important role for the government in managing migration and we acknowledge that the small boat crossings are an issue requiring attention. When we seek to speak on policy matters, we endeavour to represent a reasonable consensus of evangelical opinion. We consider that there is legitimate disagreement among evangelicals both on the level of immigration and how to deliver that. However, in stating our opposition to this Bill we hope that we can speak with many who want the government to take a better approach, one that prioritises human dignity, provides protection for those fleeing persecution and human trafficking, and is developed in a way that will deliver effective results. 

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Why the Evangelical Alliance opposes this legislation

Our approach to this legislation is to first ask whether it is treating people in a way that aligns with how we believe the Bible instructs us to treat each other. Our hope is that we can find a way to both speak about this topic better and encourage the government to address it in a way that works, is just, and treats people with dignity. 

It is essential that policies and laws treat all people with the dignity we have as men and women created in God’s image. This means that whatever level of immigration we wish to see, the system that regulates it (and there will always need to be some regulation) does so in a way that does not undermine that dignity for political expediency or policy efficiency. 

Throughout the Bible there is an overarching instruction to care for the stranger in society. We see that with the people of Israel after they flee from Egypt – to remember that as they were slaves and God redeemed them, they too should not deprive the foreigner of justice (Deut 24:17 – 22). Again, in that passage the Israelites were specifically commanded to leave some of the harvest for the foreigner, widows and orphans. In detail in the story of Ruth we see compassion for the stranger played out – someone who would not be welcomed accepted by Boaz (Ruth 1:15 – 16, 2:1 – 7). 

We think that this proposed Bill:

  1. Fails to treat people with dignity
  2. Undermines international refugee obligations
  3. Makes a mockery of our domestic modern slavery protection
  4. Is more about political point scoring than effectively tackling the problem

Throughout the Bible there is an overarching instruction to care for the stranger in society.

We consider that this current legislation does not treat people with the dignity we believe a fair and just migration system should. This is our primary concern and ties together the specific points raised below. 

The government’s approach will mean that anyone entering the country through irregular means – not just on small boats – will not have the opportunity to claim asylum in the UK. It will place a duty on the Home Secretary to remove all adults who do not have a visa or other entry clearance and the power to remove children as well. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention is based on the principle that no-one should be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. At present the government’s proposed policy would either violate this or leave many of those arriving in the UK in perpetual limbo. 

The UK has taken specific and vital steps to provide asylum to groups of people fleeing particular countries in recent years – namely Afghanistan and Ukraine. These schemes are important but fail to provide any options for people fleeing other countries. For example, a Christian fleeing persecution from Iran would have no right to claim asylum, there are no established safe routes’ they could use and if they arrive on a small boat or via any other means under the new law they would be deported. 

While the purpose of the bill may be to address abuse of the system by people who are not fleeing out of fear of their life, the impact would be harshly felt on those who are and to whom this legislation would close the door on any hope for sanctuary in the UK. As the Spectator commented: It is an indiscriminate approach that will see everyone who arrives illegally kicked out, including genuine refugees.”

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In 2013 the coalition government passed the Modern Slavery Act which provided vital protection and support for victims of human trafficking and slavery. The current proposals mean that anyone who enters the country through irregular means would be denied the possibility of support through this system. While slavery will affect people who travelled to the UK through legal means or are here already, and many who are smuggled on small boats are not trafficked, there will undoubtedly be those trafficked against their will or due to deception who lose the possibility of support.

There is also a serious misunderstanding of how this works. Individuals can claim asylum, they cannot refer themselves as victims of modern slavery, this requires a body authorised by the Home Office to make the referral. Therefore, to say that people entering the country on a small boat are denied access to modern slavery support is to stop authorised bodies from identifying and protecting those who are being trafficked and held against their will. As former Prime Minister Theresa May commented in parliament: The Home Office knows this Bill means that genuine victims of modern slavery will be denied support.”

The final area where this Bill fails is that it does not provide effective and workable solutions to the very problems which the government are seeking to solve; the lack of safe routes for many fleeing persecution, the lack of an agreement with France to return those crossing the Channel and the lack of agreements with other countries – no-one has yet been removed to Rwanda through that scheme. All of this means that the proposal seems to be more about being seen to do something than effectively solving a problem. 

This touches on a wider problem in current policy making. The government’s intent to stop the small boat crossings is one that polling suggests is popular, and many Conservative MPs see as vital to increasing their chances of winning the next election, and that is a significant reason why the government are focusing on this. It is seen as an issue where they can show tough action on an acute problem which many want them to solve. The problem is that this solution is unworkable. It is likely to be tied up in courts as the legality of the approach is interrogated, and it is a policy which further fuels polarisation. 

As DUP MP Gavin Robinson, said in the parliamentary debate: I am interested in dealing with the problems of unmanaged or illegal migration in this country, but I am not interested in getting involved in what amounts to a culture war, a political culture war that is more about the forthcoming general election than anything else.”


Theresa May:

“The Home Office knows this Bill means that genuine victims of modern slavery will be denied support.”

What can we do?

The government are pressing ahead with this legislation on an accelerated timetable. The House of Commons held its first vote on the overall Bill on 13 March and will consider amendments over the coming weeks, before further votes on the whole Bill. The Bill will also be considered by the House of Lords where it is likely to meet strong opposition.

We encourage you to contact your MP with concerns about the legislation and ask them to support amendments which prioritise care for those fleeing persecution and victims of trafficking. We would also want to encourage the government to ensure further safe routes for refugees are established prior to this legislation passing into law.

We ask that you pray for those in government and parliament for wisdom and compassion as they develop policy and discuss new laws. Please also join us in praying for those who are fleeing persecution or being trafficked and in need of compassion, support and a system that works for them.