The Illegal Migration Bill was first proposed in March 2023 with the stated aim to stop people crossing the channel in small boats. It then became law in July 2023, making it the Illegal Migration Act. However, it has raised concerns within Parliament as well as from NGOs and the public about what it means for refugees and asylum seekers.

What is the Illegal Migration Act? 

The Illegal Migration Bill was first introduced by the former Home Secretary Suella Braverman in March 2023, and became law and therefore an ‘Act’ on 20th July 2023. This changed the law so that people who arrive in the UK by ‘irregular’ routes, such as by small boat crossings, cannot make a claim for asylum or protection, regardless of their need for protection.

The law states that these people will be indefinitely detained and eventually removed from the UK to a third country such as Rwanda. 

Politicians, NGOs and human rights groups have called the Act an ‘asylum ban’ because it prevents people fleeing war and persecution from claiming asylum in the UK as there are currently no safe alternative routes by which refugees can travel.

The White Cliffs of dover in the English channel
Since 2018, 56 people have drowned in the English Channel, including 11 children. Due to a lack of safe routes to claim asylum, people are forced to risk their lives to seek safety. 

Is it the same as the Rwanda Plan?

No, but the Government has not yet been able to enact most of the provisions of the Illegal Migration Act, because it is currently unworkable given the limited agreements with third countries to send people to.

Before proposing the Illegal Migration Act, the UK government made a deal with Rwanda in April 2022. Called the Migration and Economic Development Partnership, this aimed to send people arriving on small boats to have their claims processed in Rwanda. 

The plan has faced legal challenges, with the Court of Appeal ruling in June 2023 that Rwanda is not a safe country for people to have their claims processed.

The following month, the current Home Secretary signed a new treaty with Rwanda, claiming it would strengthen their asylum system. The Government also introduced a new Bill to say that Rwanda is a safe country.

The Safety of Rwanda Bill has now been passed which means Rwanda is officially considered safe under UK law, but many are saying that Rwanda still lacks proper safety measures to protect refugees.

Read more: Rwanda Plan explained: Why the UK Government should rethink the scheme

What are small boat crossings? 

Small boats refer to the vessels on which crossings are made. These are not sturdy, but are usually inflatable boats, dinghies or kayaks which are not suited to the journey.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, 69 people have drowned in the English Channel trying to reach the UK between 2018 and 2023. It is due to a lack of safe routes to claim asylum, that people are forced to risk their lives to seek safety.

How many people cross the Channel on small boats? 

In the year ending June 2023, there were 44,460 people detected arriving by small boats according to government figures. 

This means small boat arrivals amount to 3.7% of overall immigration to the UK which was 1.2 million during the same period. 

Why do people make dangerous crossings? 

The vast majority of the people who make small boat crossings are refugees, fleeing conflict and persecution. As there is no visa for someone in this situation, they take these journeys so they can apply for protection in the UK, also known as asylum.  

Asylum is when an individual is given protection by another country because they cannot return home because of war, violence or persecution. A person granted this protection is called a ‘refugee’. 

Once the Home Office recognises that they are a refugee then they will be able to live and work in the UK. 

A report by the Refugee Council recently revealed that three out of four people crossing the English Channel in small boats in 2023 are refugees who would be granted asylum if their claims were processed. 

Under the Illegal Migration Act, would-be refugees will be denied the right to ask for protection, and instead be detained and eventually removed from the country. 

Are there alternative safe routes for refugees? 

Not currently. There are very few safe alternative routes for refugees to travel to the UK. The few existing resettlement routes are extremely restricted by nationality and number. 

Moreover, there is no way for someone to claim asylum in the UK unless they are physically in the UK, and there is no asylum visa to allow someone to enter regularly in order to access this legal right. These are some of the reasons that people risk their lives in small boats.   

Read more: What are safe routes in the UK? Four common myths explained

How will people be detained, and for how long? 

The Act allows for people to be detained indefinitely, including children, and then removed either to their own country or a ‘safe third country’ if that’s not possible

Can children be detained under the Act? 

Yes children can be detained, which has raised concerns across the board. Conservative Peer Baroness Mobarik says that the government is not learning from mistakes of the past whereby child detainment amounted to “state-sponsored cruelty” leading to emotional distress, trauma and cases of suicide. 

Will the Illegal Migration Act 'Stop the Boats'?

The Illegal Migration Act will not stop small boats crossing the Channel. It will only add to the trauma of the people in these boats, while further damaging Britain’s global reputation for fairness and compassion. 

The majority of new arrivals are from countries where conflict, violence and persecution are rife, and their asylum claims are likely to be successful.They risk their lives in small boats because there is no way to claim asylum from outside of the UK, and there are no safe routes to travel and claim asylum here. 

The best way to tackle small boat crossings is to scale up safe routes and allow for a way for people to make a claim for asylum without having to resort to dangerous journeys. 

Will the Illegal Migration Act help with the existing asylum backlog? 

There is currently a large backlog of asylum claims that need to be processed. At the end of 2023 there were nearly 100,000 people waiting for a decision on their asylum claim. These claims often take years to reach a decision. 

In the meantime, asylum seekers awaiting a decision are not allowed to work. Not being able to generate an income means that asylum seekers living in self-catered accommodation struggle to survive on around £7 per day while they await the outcome of their claim, which can take years.  

There is no sign that this Act will help people in the current backlog to get a decision any faster so that they can move on with their lives,'in fact it is only likely to make the backlog worse.

#RefugeesWelcome on the white cliffs of dover

What are people saying about the Illegal Migration Act? 

The Refugee Council’s impact assessment estimates that it will result in as many as 250,000 people (including 45,000 children) being detained or left destitute in state-provided accommodation, and that, in the first three years of this Act’s operation, between £8.7bn to £9.6bn will be spent on their detention and accommodation. 

Immigration lawyer Colin Yeo has said that the Government’s belief that the new legislation will be a deterrent is misguided:  

“We are talking about a group of people who may have crossed deserts, put themselves in small boats already, dodged gangs and border guards alike and lived through unimaginable hardships on their journeys. They have sometimes watched friends, family members and fellow travelers die on these journeys. Over 26,000 have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2014.” 

The UNHCR has said the effect of the Act is to ‘deny a fair hearing and to deny protection to many genuine refugees in need of safety and asylum.’

It adds: “This is a clear breach of the Refugee Convention and undermines the United Kingdom’s longstanding, humanitarian traditions.

“The vast majority of refugees have no way to legally reach the UK to claim asylum, regardless of how strong their need for protection is. A majority of those arriving over the Channel would be likely to be found to be refugees, were their claims to be considered by the Home Office on their merits.”

The British Medical Association has said that the Act “…risks leaving people who are vulnerable, fleeing dangerous situations and who have often experienced trauma, subject to an environment where they are re-traumatised and unable to access the medical attention many desperately need.”

The then Home Secretary was not able to confirm that the Act is compatible with human rights law when introducing the proposal to Parliament. 

What is International Rescue Committee saying about the Illegal Migration Act? 

Laura Kyrke-Smith, Executive Director of the International Rescue Committee UK has made the following statement and calls for alternative solutions:  

“Parliament’s passing of the “Illegal Migration” Bill is damaging for Britain and devastating for people seeking safety from conflict and persecution.  

The Act dismantles people’s right to seek asylum in the UK; a right established in the wake of the Second World War, which has offered vital protection and hope in the decades since, and earned those who uphold it great respect. 

“This legislation has the potential to do great harm, and we urge continued consideration of the many more viable and humane alternatives.”

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