The UK Parliament recently passed laws that change the way refugees are treated and welcomed in the UK. The laws are part of the Nationality and Borders Act, which came into force on 28 June 2022.

Here’s what you need to know about the rules and how they will affect refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.

What is the Nationality and Borders Act?

The Nationality and Borders Bill set out the government's plan for new immigration and asylum laws in the UK. Parliamentarians voted on the Nationality and Borders Bill earlier this year and it was passed in April 2022, making it an ‘Act’ and officially law.

Unfortunately, the Act undermines the right to seek asylum in several ways. UNHCR has said that some provisions are in breach of the Refugee Convention. They have said that powers that seek to prevent people applying for asylum, shift responsibilities for refugee protection to other states, and criminalise new arrivals, are particularly concerning.

Charities, human rights groups and MPs from all parties have spoken out against the new laws. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said on Twitter, ‘It is disappointing that [the UK] would choose a course of action aimed at deterring the seeking of asylum by relegating most refugees to a lesser status with few rights and a constant threat of removal.’ 

Who will be affected, and what does it mean for refugees and people seeking asylum in the UK? 

One of the things the new law will do is categorise refugees into two groups, based on how they arrive in the UK. These groups will receive different access to rights and protection. People arriving through so-called ‘illegal routes’, such as on small boats, may not be able to apply for asylum in the UK or only receive temporary protection. 

Everyone has the human right to seek asylum where they choose, no matter how they arrive. Unfortunately, asylum seekers are unable to apply for protection outside of the UK, meaning that they can only lodge an asylum application on arrival in the UK. This means people are forced to make dangerous journeys to claim asylum, including crossing the English Channel in small and unsafe boats.

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Why do people risk their lives to cross the English Channel?

People choose to make the Channel crossing for many reasons. They are often fleeing war and persecution. They may already speak English or want to join family members. 

Currently, there is no safe way to apply for asylum from outside the UK and resettlement places are very limited. Analysis from the Refugee Council has found that the majority of people who cross the Channel and arrive through so-called ”illegal routes” seeking protection, qualify for refugee status.

So are there safe routes to the UK? 

Providing safe routes for refugees means offering protection and safe ways of reaching the UK so that refugees don’t have to resort to dangerous journeys. Family reunion and resettlement schemes are two routes to the UK that would qualify as safe and legal routes. Resettlement schemes offer protection for the most vulnerable refugees who are usually located in countries neighbouring crisis areas, having fled conflict or persecution at home.  Unfortunately, even places under these routes are extremely limited.  For instance, in 2021, the UK resettled approximately 1600 refugees - far fewer than we have the capacity to take. It is important to remember that the vast majority of the world’s  27 million refugees are hosted in countries neighbouring crisis areas.  

In some instances, the UK government has set up schemes to respond to a particular crisis but some of these have closed or struggled to meet people's needs. For example, following the beginning of the war in Syria, the UK government worked with UNHCR to resettle people as part of the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS). The scheme offered safety to 20,000 refugees fleeing the Syrian crisis and ended in 2021.

Similarly, following the crisis in Afghanistan in August 2021, the UK government formally opened the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) in January 2022.The scheme will prioritise those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and rule of law as well as vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk, and members of minority groups at risk. The government have said that they will resettle more than 5,000 people in the first year and up to 20,000 over the coming years.  However, charities and politicians from all parties have highlighted that the ACRS will need to deliver more places, more quickly, to offer protection to Afghans that supported the UK effort and are at most risk of persecution. 

In short, there are some safe and legal routes to the UK - but nowhere near enough. And the routes that are in place need significant improvement. It is also vital that the UK ensures safe passage to the UK for all asylum seekers whilst upholding asylum obligations under international  law. Increasing coordination with Europe on reuniting families would be one way of doing this for example.

What would more safe routes look like?

The UK has many options to expand safe routes for refugees. Here are two  examples:

At the same time, the government should invest in and resource our asylum system so that it can process applications effectively. We know that 94% of asylum seekers want to work. If the ban on employment for asylum seekers were lifted, it is estimated that the UK economy could gain £211.3 million per year.

How does the Act relate to the plan to send asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda?

In April 2022, the UK and Rwanda signed an agreement for the UK to deport some people seeking asylum in Britain to Rwanda. The agreement was signed two weeks before the Nationality and Borders Act was passed. Under the new scheme, once refugees have been sent to Rwanda, they will be processed under Rwanda’s legal system and will not be able to return to the UK.

The UK government has said that the new policy aims to tackle and deter the business model of people-smuggling. Guidance from the Home Office states, ‘The Partnership will see those travelling to the UK through illegal, dangerous, or unnecessary methods considered for relocation to Rwanda, where they will have their asylum claim processed.’ This means that some people will be declared inadmissible to the asylum system based on how they have arrived in the UK.  

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The Act has been widely criticised by a number of politicians, charities and human rights groups. IRC UK’s Executive Director Laura Kyrke-Smith has called the Bill “...dangerous for refugees and asylum seekers, and dangerous for Britain’s standing in the world.” Over 200 organisations, including Oxfam and Save the Children, condemned it as "anti-refugee".  

What is the IRC’s position?

The IRC  believes that no-one should lose their right to apply for asylum by trying to access safety. The IRC has urged the UK government to rethink and strengthen its approach to refugee protection. We are calling for the UK government to:

  1. Expand and strengthen existing resettlement schemes by increasing the amount of refugees we resettle in the UK  and deliver new places quickly. 
  2. Strengthen and reform current policies on asylum. For instance, by resourcing and investing in the  asylum system,  coordinating with European partners on safe routes for people seeking protection and rethinking the two tier approach set out in the Nationality and Borders Act. Protection should be based on an individual’s need rather than how people arrive in the UK 
  3. Provide quality integration support to refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants. For instance, providing tailored support for women and girls as well as ensuring integration services are delivered from the moment people arrive in the UK. Refugees should also receive quality support to access to the labour market. Enabling the right to work for asylum seekers will also be crucial to achieving a more inclusive economy and supporting stronger integration outcomes in the long-run.

As an influential member of the UN and a signatory to the Refugee Convention, the UK should share the responsibility for protecting refugees globally.