Leaving the ECHR: a solution to immigration or a threat to human rights?

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Recent reports suggest Rishi Sunak would consider withdrawing the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); this would mean joining the likes of Russia and Belarus, the only two European countries not to be signatories of the ECHR.

This has come in response to the Conservatives’ stringent immigration legislative proposals aimed at tackling ‘illegal’ small boat Channel crossings from France to the UK. The legislation would do so by detaining and removing asylum seekers and only allowing asylum appeals after arrivals have already been deported. Many feel such legislation is necessary following recent predictions on migration suggesting 65,000 migrants are expected to arrive in the UK during 2023. According to a source close to Sunak, the new proposed legislation would push “the boundaries of what is legally possible while staying within the ECHR”.

The PM’s official spokesperson has claimed that the government is confident the legislation complies with international law, including the ECHR. Consequently, No.10 has said that there are “no plans” to withdraw. However, when asked what would happen if the ECHR did block the proposed legislation, a spokesperson responded: “I wouldn’t get into future speculation”.


No . 10’s failure to rule out withdrawal from the ECHR has been met with criticism, including from Conservative MPs. Conservative MP David Simmonds has said that withdrawal would “not help to address the issue of small boats” and that he is “profoundly concerned” about the UK “joining Russia and Belarus as the only European countries that aren’t participants of the convention”. Several other Conservative MPs have echoed similar sentiments.


That said, some Conservatives do support withdrawal, claiming the ECHR is an undemocratic obstruction that blocks supposedly necessary stricter immigration policies and is inhibiting the full realisation of the Brexit referendum. Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis stated that the ECHR “should have no jurisdiction over our laws and our borders”.

Leaving the ECHR would leave refugees vulnerable to greater exploitation

It is clear that withdrawal from the ECHR is a divisive issue within the Conservative party. As this situation develops, it may lead to
costly internal conflicts that could be detrimental to a party that is only just beginning to recover from Brexit fractures.

However, the implications of leaving the ECHR extend far beyond the Conservative Party. Abandoning the ECHR would also threaten critical aspects of cooperation between the UK and the EU. Former national security adviser, Lord Ricketts, tweeted
that withdrawal “means the UK would automatically lose ALL its law enforcement cooperation with the EU”.

More importantly, leaving the ECHR could leave refugees vulnerable to greater exploitation. The founder of the Care4Calais
group, Clare Mosely, has stated that “every day we work with people who have not been protected from violations of their human rights. Their terrible stories of abuse provide stark examples of why the UK must not leave the ECHR”.

It should not be overlooked that the ECHR was not created solely to protect the rights of refugees but instead the rights of every UK and member-state citizen. Formed in 1953, in the aftermath of World War Two, the ECHR grew from the sentiment of ‘never again’. The UK was a key player in its creation, and Churchill a passionate advocate for it. The ECHR is rooted in the notion that history has shown the need for external safeguards of human rights. Withdrawal would not only undermine the human rights reputation of the UK but also directly threaten human rights themselves.

The consequences of withdrawing from the ECHR would be significant; however, these are the early stages. It should not be forgotten that the possibility of the UK’s withdrawal is speculation. Officials have said that even if withdrawal were considered, it would not be during this parliament; instead, it would be included as a Conservative manifesto pledge in the next general election. The time to worry about ECHR withdrawal may come, but that time has not come yet.

Image: Adrien Grycuk via Wikimedia Commons

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