Furious transport workers have claimed they could be forced to detain migrants during deportations by the Home Office, threatening to defy the new rules if they come into force.
The Illegal Migration Bill, unveiled by Home Secretary Suella Braverman earlier this month, would mean that anyone who arrives in the UK via small boat would be detained and removed even if they are the victim of trafficking or want to seek asylum.
A clause in the bill states that any transport worker operating a vehicle used in the process of deportation must prevent those being deported from leaving, including by detaining them in custody. Unions are concerned that this means workers driving a minibus carrying asylum seekers to the airport, or operating a plane bound for Rwanda, could be required to take them into custody themselves.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union, described the legislation as “reactionary and inhumane” and said he intended to instruct members not to follow it. He told i the clause would amount to a requirement for “transport workers to restrain and detain asylum seekers”.
“As well as being completely immoral, this could place transport workers in situations of conflict, and we will therefore be taking urgent legal advice with a view to advising our members not to comply with these provisions,” he said.
It is not clear exactly which workers the clause would apply to, but is thought to impact those contracted by the Government to carry out deportation transport, such as privately contracted minibus drivers and airline staff.
Border Force officials or private security guards acting on behalf of Border Force – with specialist security training – accompany all those on deportation flights and would also be present on the buses escorting migrants onto planes.
When Border Force guards have had to restrain migrants on deportation flights previously, the Home Office has set out that the use of force is a “matter of last resort” if someone becomes disruptive or refuses to comply, or to prevent deportees from harming themselves. Handcuffs and, in exceptional cases, leg restraints can be used.
The new bill, if passed, would expand rules laid out in the 1971 Immigration Act that state ship and plane captains cannot allow someone to disembark a deportation procedure. Those violating the 1971 Act face a sentence of up to six months in prison but it does not apply to other transport workers like minibus drivers and rail staff.
The bill would also expand the scope of immigration deportations. If passed, it would mean that transport staff would be involved in the deportations of anyone who travelled to the UK via small boat, which may include those wishing to seek asylum in the UK after fleeing persecution overseas, or victims of modern slavery who have been trafficked to the UK.
Matt Creagh, employment rights officer at the Trades Union Congress, which represents 48 unions across the UK, said the bill would “force transport workers – such as lorry drivers, bus drivers or train drivers – to do ministers’ dirty work for them”.
“Where drivers are required to transport asylum seekers to their deportation, they could have to carry out the orders of immigration officers and forcibly detain and restrain them. This is plainly not their job and rides roughshod over the ethical views and legal obligations that individuals might have,” he said.
“With nearly 200,000 asylum seekers thought to be affected by the legislation – a significant number of transport workers could be put in this invidious position. Workers should not be forced to be complicit in the government’s shameful actions.”
The proposed bill, which is being scrutinised by MPs this week, bars migrants who arrive illegally in the UK via the English Channel from seeking asylum in the UK, receiving the UK’s modern slavery support and places a ban on them ever seeking asylum in the UK in the future.
It has drawn condemnation from the UN and the Council of Europe, who argued it violates the UK’s commitment to asylum seekers and modern slavery victims under international law.
Ms Braverman admitted that the long-promised legislation on Channel crossings “pushes the boundaries of international law”, but told ministers that she is confident the bill “is compatible with international obligations”.
The Home Office says the bill is designed to crack down on small boat crossings that put migrants’ lives at risk as well as speed up removals of those with no right to be in the UK.
Ms Braverman also said the bill would help prevent abuse of the UK’s modern slavery system, but charities and MPs have said there is little evidence this is occurring.
The Home Office was approached for comment.