Rishi Sunak has defended plans to detain child migrants as part of his new immigration bill, claiming excluding them from the legislation would “incentivise” criminal gangs to bring them to the UK in small boats.
The Illegal Migration Bill is currently being debated in the Commons, and includes measures to “detain and swiftly remove” migrants and asylum seekers who enter the country illegally via the dangerous Channel crossings, cutting the options to challenge or appeal deportation.
This would include families with children, and while those under 18 will be able to lodge an appeal, they may be deported once they reach adulthood.
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The prime minister was pressed on the policy during a grilling by the Commons Liaison Committee, with Tory MP Caroline Nokes questioning why children were not exempt from the law for their protection.
Mr Sunak told the group of committee chairs: “The intention of this policy is not to detain children, but it’s important that we don’t inadvertently create a policy that incentivises people to bring children who wouldn’t otherwise come here.
“Otherwise you create an incentive for a criminal gang to bring a child with them when they otherwise wouldn’t be, and I don’t think that is a good thing.
“We don’t want to create a pull factor to make it more likely that children are making this very perilous journey in conditions that are appalling.”
The PM said children would not be separated from their families and when detained, they would be housed together in “appropriate” facilities.
And he insisted he and the government took the welfare of children “incredibly seriously”, saying: “A lot of thought [had] gone into getting [the bill] right.”
Mr Sunak added: “I think we’ve got a policy that does what we need it to do, which is treat people with decency, treats people humanely, safeguards children’s welfare, but also achieve the objectives that we’re trying to achieve, which is to break the cycle of these criminal gangs and stop people coming here who should have been coming here.”
As the PM faced almost two hours of questioning by the committee, MPs continued to debate the bill for a second day in the Commons, where the detention of migrant children was raised again.
Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael said he would try to get the measure “excised” from the bill”, saying it was is “so fundamentally removed from the way we would tolerate the treatment of our own children”.
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick defended the policy, saying: “It is undoubtedly true that we face a serious situation today where the number of unaccompanied minors coming into the country over the channel has increased fourfold since 2019.
“That places a great strain on our system and we need ways to ensure that where those people are being age-assessed and may ultimately be decided not to be minors, that they are held in appropriate detained accommodation.”
But Mr Carmichael chastised the minister for his remarks, saying: “Can I just say to him, I hope that tomorrow he gets a hold of Hansard, reads what he has just said and, as my mother used to say to me, takes a long, hard look at himself.
“The idea that that is a justification for locking up children is absolutely disgraceful. For him to try to draw and to invent a causal link where none exists, again, is a consistent line of the way this government acts.”