Rishi Sunak set to open ‘safe’ routes for 20,000 migrants a year

·4 min read
Up to 20,000 migrants could be offered a new safe and legal route to the UK each year - Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Up to 20,000 migrants could be offered a new safe and legal route to the UK each year - Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Up to 20,000 migrants could be offered a new safe and legal route to the UK each year, with Tory moderates set to force a government climbdown.

Ministers are finalising plans that would see thousands of migrants from around the world offered a new home in Britain each year as part of a scheme developed in partnership with the UN’s refugee agency.

It comes as Rishi Sunak attempts to quell rebellions over his Illegal Migration Bill from both moderate and hardline Conservative backbenchers.

A group of Conservatives from the moderate wing of the party, led by Tim Loughton, are calling for a new safe and legal route to be introduced as part of the Bill.

Mr Loughton’s amendment, backed by several Tory MPs, is also understood to have the support of Labour, meaning it could inflict a severe defeat on the Government.

The UK currently has safe and legal routes for people to enter the country from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong, as well as refugee family reunion visas and a more general resettlement scheme.

But Tory moderates argue that these do not go far enough and that new initiatives to bring migrants over must be enacted as part of the Illegal Migration Bill. The rebels believe Mr Sunak is poised to back down and launch the global safe and legal route.

This could be announced as a commitment by Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, as early as Monday, or could be introduced as part of the Bill, which will be debated in Parliament from Monday.

The new route would include an annual cap of refugees, which would be voted on by MPs after local authorities have been consulted about their capacity to house migrants. It is thought to be around 20,000 per year initially.

Mr Loughton said that if ministers were to launch the global scheme, it would “fill the gap” that exists under current arrangements. The Home Office said nothing had been decided, while Downing Street declined to comment.

Ministers are understood to be anxious that opening the route for refugees without reducing small boat numbers would be perceived as a weakening of the Government’s immigration policy, and could be unpopular with the public.

Mr Sunak has previously said he will not announce any new routes until he has “got a grip” on illegal migration and brought down the number of small boat Channel crossings.

Mr Loughton, who sits on the home affairs select committee, said this “just won’t wash”, adding that the new safe and legal routes “need to be in place before the legislation comes into force”. He said these routes must be “meaningful” new ones rather than an “elaboration” of existing ones.

Just under half a million people have come to the UK under safe and legal routes between 2015 and last December, according to Home Office figures. This includes 233,770 visas issued to Ukrainians and 153,708 issued to people from Hong Kong.

A separate safe and legal route exists for refugees fleeing from Afghanistan, which aims to resettle up to 20,000 people over the next few years.

But a House of Commons Library report in January found that just 6,300 people were resettled in the UK following the summer 2021 evacuation from Afghanistan, as well as another four from neighbouring countries.

Meanwhile, Mr Sunak faces a separate challenge from MPs on the Right of the party who are demanding that the Bill is strengthened to ensure that migrants cannot use the appeals system to block deportation flights.

The Home Secretary is in talks with up to 60 Conservative MPs who are attempting to strip Strasbourg of the ability to interfere with Britain’s immigration policy.

Ministers may agree to block the use of a controversial mechanism used by the European Court of Human Rights to ground the first flight to Rwanda last June.

It would mean migrants who arrive in the UK illegally could be deported even if they challenge the Government under human rights law.

“They are alive to the fact that there is a loophole around the issue,” a Tory rebel source said. “The Bill is good in a number of areas, but it has failed to close the door to easily manipulated legal proceedings.”

Danny Kruger, Boris Johnson’s former political secretary and one of the leading MPs behind the move, has been invited to Downing Street for crunch talks on Monday morning in an 11th-hour attempt to see off the rebellion.

“There are very large numbers of people in the parliamentary party who are supportive of these amendments,” he said. “None of us want to make trouble for the Government, but we haven’t yet got the Bill to a place it needs to be.

“We are hopeful that the Government will see the sense of further strengthening the Bill, and we are hoping that is what we will get from Suella Braverman at the dispatch box.”