The language of bureaucracy, while rarely poetic, sometimes has a sinister eloquence. Residents on board the Bibby Stockholm, the barge moored in Dorset to house asylum claimants, are classified by the Home Office as “non-detained” persons. They are not imprisoned, but nor are they free. Occupants of the vessel can travel to places “agreed with local agencies” on special buses provided by the Home Office. They are not subject to a curfew, but there is a register. Checks are made to count people out and in again.
There is nothing new in non-detention. It is the normal condition of people granted immigration bail, including tens of thousands of asylum seekers who are waiting for permission to stay in the UK. It is an ambiguous zone between sanctuary and internment, between arrival and acceptance, where rights available to a refugee blur into conditions imposed on a criminal. The government wants to shrink that zone, not least because it is expensive to keep people there. The Bibby Stockholm is cheaper than hotel accommodation but the barge only has room for about 500 people. It is what the Home Office might call a “non-solution” to the problem. Disused army barracks and portable buildings can add some capacity, but the obvious solution to an excess of people waiting for adjudication of asylum claims is to speed up the process.
That is notionally government policy, too. Rishi Sunak has set the improbable target of clearing the case backlog by the end of this year, which means churning through hundreds of files every day. Meanwhile, new claimants keep arriving. The prime minister has a different plan for them. Under the Illegal Migration Act, given royal assent last month, anyone who arrives by illicit means – on a small boat from France, most pertinently – is disqualified from asylum in Britain. They become, in Home Office speak, “ineligible persons” liable for detention.
The law stipulates that these people be deported, a duty that Suella Braverman intends to fulfil with relish just as soon as there is somewhere for the deportees to go. Back where they came from is the home secretary’s first choice, but that isn’t possible if the county of origin is a war zone or brutal autocracy. Then the destination must be a “safe third country”, defined as anywhere that will do a deal like the one Britain has done with Rwanda. Currently no one else has signed up and the Rwanda plan has been on hold since the court of appeal ruled it unlawful. If the supreme court agrees, the whole policy is non-operational, as the Home Office might say, or utterly screwed, as everyone else will say.
Even if the judgment goes in the government’s favour, Rwanda can’t take everyone. Facilities in Kigali are ready to accommodate 300 people. The government there says it can take up to 1,000 people over a five-year trial period. Last year, about 46,000 people crossed the Channel in small boats. This year’s numbers are down slightly, but still high enough to guarantee that the main function of the Illegal Migration Act, if its powers are applied as written, will be to create a whole new problem: thousands of detainees stuck in bureaucratic limbo. Unlike the current non-detained persons, these “ineligibles” will have no prospect of release because their asylum claims will be automatically forfeit.
To avoid that scenario, or at least to delay its realisation, the government has postponed implementation of the law. It might never fully come into effect. Crossing the Channel without permission has been illegal for a long time. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022, Priti Patel’s effort at a crackdown, introduced a two-tier system for asylum claims that was meant to discriminate against small-boat passengers. That mechanism was quietly abandoned as impractical earlier this year. Key provisions of the Illegal Migration Act may go the same way, once it becomes clear that pressing ahead as planned means indefinite internment of people with no legal avenue for staying in Britain but nowhere else to go.
By the time the full ineptitude of Braverman’s project is on display, she will probably be a non-home secretary. Meanwhile, Sunak boasts that the system is already a success. Specifically, he says it works as a “strategy of deterrence”. In theory, word of Britain’s draconian regime spreads. Potential passengers on small boats grasp the futility of the journey and stay in France. As Sunak puts it: “When people know that if they come here illegally they won’t get to stay, they stop coming.” There is no evidence that making access to democratic societies harder discourages refugees from fleeing persecution. It should be a compliment that victims of torture and repression take a bet that even the nastiest side of British justice is milder than the life they are leaving behind.
That perception could be shifted over time. It might be possible to enact an immigration regime so spiteful and inhumane that Britain’s international reputation as a civilised nation and haven of law is eventually lost. Maybe Braverman and Sunak have the stomach for such cruelty. Still, there are international constraints on Downing Street’s capacity to go full rogue on human rights, even if moral qualms are dispensable. The prime minister doesn’t want to be a pariah among European leaders. He might not like pesky postwar conventions that insist that refugees cannot be cast as criminals for taking unorthodox modes of transport, but he prefers not to shred Britain’s treaty obligations as ostentatiously as some Tory MPs demand.
This is what politics looks like between now and the next election. Ministers simulate the business of serious administration but with a singular focus on trapping and unsettling the opposition. The statute book is cluttered with laws drafted for use as campaign slogans, regardless of whether they can be made to work in practice. Here we are all now detained, condemned to the in-between zone where a prime minister has run out of road but not yet arrived at defeat; a country stuck in the purgatory of non-government.