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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 32, August 5, 2023

Illegal Migration Act: Implications for asylum seekers and migrant populations in the UK | Sona Singh

Saturday 5 August 2023


The UK Parliament passed the Illegal Migration Bill in July, after amendments suggested by the House of Lords were resolved over three sessions of what is known in legislative parlance as “parliamentary ping pong.” It is a process of discussions and suggestions before amending a bill between the two houses of parliament. Soon after discussions were completed, the Illegal Migration Bill was sent for royal assent, thereby vindicating prime minister Rishi Sunak’s promise earlier this year to ‘Stop the boats.’ At this point, it becomes imperative to understand what pushed the UK government to take this step, and understand its implications on safe migration pathways for those entering the UK to seek asylum and migrating for work.

Need for Illegal Migration Bill 

The Illegal Migration Bill was introduced in the UK parliament in March, 2023. The UK government stated that it had become imperative to introduce this legislation because the number of illegal channel crossings into the country had increased after 2020. In his speeches, prime minister Rishi Sunak, declared that his government had five priorities, one of which was stopping the influx of irregular migrants, who were entering the country via the English Channel in small boats through France. According to the government, there had been a spurt in illegal channel crossings over the last five years, and this number was the highest in 2022, when more than 45,000 people crossed the English Channel illegally. The government stated that it had spent nearly £3 billion pounds per year on the accommodation and other facilities provided to irregular migrants and expressed its inability to do this any further.

Illegal Migration Act

According to the Illegal Migration Act, the government of the United Kingdom will have the right to outrightly refuse asylum applications from those who have arrived in the country through illegal means. This will fundamentally alter the UK asylum system and anyone, who arrives in in an illegal manner will be treated as unlawful. The Act also empowers the government to detain and deport irregular migrants. This will be done by putting them into two categories. In the first category will be people who do not face danger to their lives in their home countries and they will be sent back. In the second category are those facing danger in their countries, who will be sent to a “third” country, in this case, Rwanda.

It has been reported that the UK government struck a deal worth 140-million-pound with Rwanda in 2022. According to this deal, migrants who had entered the UK illegally, would be deported to Rwanda. The first planned deportation flight to Rwanda, however, was blocked due to a ruling of the highest court, which reserved judgement in the matter and a decision is awaited in a few months’ time. Over the next few months, the UK government is mulling an agreement with France to increase patrolling of the English Channel with a view to stop illegal migrants from entering the UK. It will spend £500 million over the next three years over this initiative.

Illegal migrant Vs asylum seeker 

It has been repeatedly stated that the main aim of the Illegal Migration Act is to differentiate between smuggled migrants and genuine asylum seekers. However, it is worthy to note that while legal mechanisms to migrate to the UK are available, this system is complex and expensive. Also, while it does offer legal pathways to migration for vulnerable populations, along with opportunities to find work, they are limited in number, which when pitched against the increasing number of helpless populations looking to migrate, makes it difficult.

Dismantling Modern Slavery protections 

One of the provisions of the Act that is being criticised is regarding overriding the safeguards provided to victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. In fact, the Act clearly states that it wants to “prevents people who come to the UK through illegal and dangerous journeys from misusing modern slavery safeguards to block their removal.” This point led Theresa May to demand an amendment as it would undermine the “UK’s efforts to address modern slavery, as those affected by these crimes will be less able to help criminal prosecutions.” The government did not budge.

Victims of human trafficking have enjoyed protections in the UK since 2009.
These safeguards were extended in 2015 after the passing of the Modern Slavery Act. Under this law, anyone experiencing modern forms of enslavement and forced or compulsory labour would get support. They would be referred through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), and would receive legal advice, accommodation and protection from harm (including deportation) for at least a period of 45 days, during which their case was being evaluated.

However, the government of Rishi Sunak claims that irregular migrants falsely claim to be victims of modern slavery as they want to avoid deportation. It has been asserting that removing modern slavery protections for non-UK citizens who enter the UK illegally will make them easier to detain and deport, and act as a deterrent for others.

Home secretary, Suella Braverman, has said that the government wants to help “genuine” victims of modern slavery. However, according to the Illegal Migration Act, migrants who have been exploited or trafficked to the UK are likely to be deported without receiving the support they are entitled to under the Modern Slavery Act. Prosecutions under the Modern Slavery Act depends upon victim testimonies, but as per the Illegal Migration Act, there are no guarantees of any protection to the victims, which means that only a few people will be in position to testify in court. This vindicates the point raised by scholars like Emily Kenway, who argue that most anti-trafficking initiatives by governments everywhere frame policies in a such way that creates problems for the vulnerable by making laws that are anti-migrant in nature.

Increased vulnerabilities of unaccompanied children 

Apart from its problematic approach to the question of victims of modern slavery in the country, the Illegal Migration Act is also not fair to unaccompanied minors. The Act states that unaccompanied children, under 18 years of age, who enter the UK in an illegal manner from a “safe country” may be returned to their home country and decision on this would be taken on a “case-to-case” basis. There is also a provision of detaining these children, but after demands were made for amending this provision, the government conceded that after detention, unaccompanied children would be granted immigration bail after eight days.

The Act allows the Home Secretary to arrange for accommodation to the unaccompanied children, until a local authority takes them into their care, after being directed to do so. The Home Secretary also has the power to introduce new rules for assessment of age and the establishment of a National Age Assessment Board in order to avoid disputes related to the age of these children.

Professionals working on the issue of child rights have criticised the Act and say it is detrimental for children as they will disappear before they reach their 18th birthday, as they will face the threat of expulsion and would prefer to run away, instead of being deported back to their home country or a third country.

International response 

Migration experts view the Illegal Migration Act as an incident which makes them “uncomfortable.” It has also prompted sharp condemnation from human rights groups, which say it is a break from the UK’s commitments under international law. People fleeing from war and persecution do not get a chance to choose safe and legal routes. They might not also have the chance to keep necessary documents like passport and visa with them while fleeing their country. As a result, the Refugee Convention, 1951, recognises that those seeking refuge may enter a country in an illegal manner.

UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, has said that the bill is setting “a worrying precedent for dismantling asylum-related obligations that other countries, including in Europe, may be tempted to follow, with a potentially adverse effect on the international refugee and human rights protection system as a whole.” He urged the UK government to renew its commitment to human rights and reverse the law.

However, there is no going back now. There is copious anti-immigrant sentiment among a large section of the British population, who voted for Brexit. And this sentimentality is not unique to the UK only. Over the years, with the ascension of far-right and conservative governments in countries like Italy, Finland, Greece, Sweden, and the UK, there has been a spurt in countries with an anti-migrant stance.

Europe witnessed the arrival of nearly 800,000 refugees seeking asylum in the aftermath of the civil war in Syria in 2015, out of an estimated 4.5 million displaced Syrian migrants. The image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose body was found on the shore of a Turkish town shook the world out of oblivion and Germany took the lead in opening its gates for these displaced refugees. Many countries in Europe followed suit, but very soon, the effects of refugee inflows started creating a strain on these host countries. This ultimately led to the creation of a rift between refugees and the host population. In 2023, the public sentiment in many European countries for “outsiders” is full of disdain and mistrust.


Upon introduction of the bill in the parliament, Home Secretary Suella Braverman presented a memorandum that she could not confirm that the provisions of the bill were compatible with European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), but the government wished to proceed with it. This has raised questions on the accountability of nations to the problem of refugees and the future of the asylum system.

The present situation can be taken up as a case study on how nations are bailing out of their previous commitments to common issues of migration. Once the small boats issue has been resolved, the UK government intends to start capping the number of people entering the UK via safe and legal routes, which will be decided through a vote in parliament. This points to a larger trend among European countries developing an anti-migration stance as has been discussed in this article. However, if, instead of coming up with this law banning irregular migrants, the UK had decided to examine and work upon the problem of international migratory flows with other countries, its efforts would have been appreciated. In future, migration is bound to rise with threats of political instability, impending ecological disasters, and natural disasters. Simply outlawing irregular migrants will not solve the problem.

(Author: Dr Sona Singh has a PhD in International Relations. Her research interests include themes like migration, human trafficking, modern slavery, and gender)


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