Let's Stop Talking About Gary Lineker And Look At The Illegal Migration Bill

--first published in HuffPost UK--

Ask someone on the street about the biggest news story of the past week, and you’ll likely hear one name: Gary Lineker. The football legend’s suspension and now un-suspension from the BBC has dominated the airwaves and splashed tabloids and broadsheets alike. But if you asked the same person exactly what Lineker was objecting to in the tweet that sparked the controversy, you’d likely get a much larger range of answers–and probably some blank stares.

To many punters and wide sections of the media, the episode has become a debate about free speech, rather than what Lineker actually said on the Government’s craven ‘Illegal Migration Bill’. So today, hours after the Bill passed second reading in its warp speed journey through Parliament, let’s bring the focus back to where it should be: A Government plan that is legally, morally and practically unworkable and which, to quote the man himself, is “immeasurably cruel”.

Let’s start with unlawful. On the very first page, the Bill confesses that it may not conform to the 1998 Human Rights Act or the European Convention on Human Rights. That’s not the only UK legislation it likely contravenes. The Prime Minister declared that anyone seeking asylum ‘illegally’ (an oxymoron under international law) would be denied protection under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. The section explaining how they plan to unilaterally and legally nullify this Act for people seeking asylum has been left blank.

Perhaps they haven’t bothered with all those pesky details because they know courts will strike the Bill down anyway. The UK’s High Court has a mixed record on this Government’s hateful policy toward asylum seekers, but the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) will almost certainly stop this Bill’s unspeakably cruel deportations before they start. The Government appears poised to accept this inevitable defeat–Braverman admitted as much in a letter to Conservative MPs. For the right-wing zealots who’ve taken over the Party, that’s the point.

Advancing this Bill is the Tories’ last, barrel-scraping hope of shoring up their terminally-low polling numbers. With a Bill that probably flouts domestic law and certainly violates the ECHR, they can let it be struck down and fall back on crowing about either “lefty lawyers” and international bodies undermining the UK’s sovereignty. Then by amplifying the likes of Lee Anderson to spread hateful misinformation about immigrants, they’re goading the opposition into condemning their callousness, drawing Sunak’s battle lines for the next election. Lineker is just additional fodder for their culture wars.

This strategy may seem familiar. It’s an insidious rehash of their gameplan from the Brexit referendum. Without the EU to scapegoat, the Conservative Government has turned their wrath on desperate people fleeing conflict and persecution. Though austerity has cost us half a trillion pounds since 2010 while also gutting the NHS, though the UK economy is currently around 1.2 million workers short (thanks in part to Brexit), and though the UK hosts far fewer refugees than most European countries, the Government is suggesting that asylum seekers are to blame for pressure on public services and finances.

Posturing is their only hope; because, even if it became law, this Bill would fail even by its own sickening measures. It proposes throwing thousands of innocent people into criminal detention and deporting them in titanic numbers. It outlines neither how the Home Office will find the resources or staff to do so, nor where it plans to detain and deport people. The deal with Rwanda, one of just two countries that has agreed to accept people deported from the UK, accounts for a few hundred. 

This inhumane plan would require building several new detention centres. Just continuing the current hotel detention system would cost an estimated £25 billion over five years–in addition to the nearly £70 billion wasted by the Government since 2019. Over 150,000 people are stuck in our asylum system backlog. They could be part of our critically low labour force, building new lives here, but instead the Government shuttles them between often-unlivable hotels for years and prevents them from working.

They harp about ‘illegal migration’ and illegitimate asylum claims, but 76% of claims in the UK are successful. In the past few years, the Government has closed legal frameworks for asylum seekers to arrive here and forced people to undertake dangerous journeys to have any chance of a successful claim. The Prime Minister’s lectern says “stop the boats”, but no Bill can do this without reestablishing the safe routes to asylum in the UK. The Government has said they will reveal these at an unspecified point in the future, but don’t hold your breath. 

Many of us have read about tragedies in the Channel and believe there’s little we can do, but we all have the same power as Gary Lineker (and the countless refugees, advocates and campaigners before him) to speak up and hold this Government to account. This is one of the most shamefully heinous pieces of legislation in modern British history–a category in which this Government has been prolific. End-stage Toryism is making the UK remorseless, isolated and pitifully small. It’s time for us to fight back–and our fight begins by stopping this Bill.