The name sign outside the government Home Office building situated in Marsham Street, Westminster.
London. UK- 01.08.2023. The sign outside the government Home Office building situated in Marsham Street, Westminster. Credit: Yau Ming Low

The ‘Illegal Migration Bill’: implications and shortcomings for international development and humanitarian efforts

The so-called “Illegal Migration Bill” is currently making its way through parliament.

The proposals of this Bill contradict Britain’s responsibilities to people seeking safety and protection. If enacted, the legislation would deny sanctuary to people who are fleeing conflict and persecution and currently have no alternative safe way to claim asylum in the UK.

Although it’s a piece of domestic legislation, it matters to the development and humanitarian sectors too. On a moral level, it challenges our commitment to universality within the Sustainable Development Goals – the idea that our needs and rights are the same, regardless of geography – and it targets the people that we aim to serve as a sector. With the UK government diverting almost a third of its Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget towards refugee costs in the UK – spending three times as much at home as it did in Africa last year – further shortcomings in Britain’s domestic refugee response could also have immediate, practical implications for the UK aid budget.

Addressing the gaps: three key shortcomings of the Bill

First, let’s be clear about who this Bill targets. The majority of new arrivals are from countries where conflict, violence and persecution are rife: almost half of people arriving on small boats last year came from Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, Eritrea and Iran. Two-thirds of people arriving are recognised as refugees, so a clear majority have a genuine need for protection. We as a sector know the challenges that these people face in their home countries and the reasons that they are forced to flee, and we have a responsibility to bring this to light for our politicians and the public.

Let’s also be clear about the numbers. Although the government has implied that up to 100 million displaced people would want to come to the UK, this is far from reality. In fact, over 60 million displaced people have not even left their own borders, and the vast majority of refugees worldwide (83%) are already hosted in low- and middle-income countries. We as a sector can bring this global perspective to light.

Secondly, all the evidence suggests that deterrence measures are not only inhumane, but don’t work. Figures show that a year after the Rwanda deal, the number of people crossing the Channel has not declined, undermining the government’s claims that a hostile asylum policy acts as a deterrent. The small number of those who come here have strong and specific reasons to seek safety in the UK, such as familial ties and proficiency in English. These factors suggest that they will continue to take risks, regardless of deterrence measures, to reach safety and rebuild their lives.

Thirdly, compassionate and effective alternatives do exist. The government says it has tried to address channel crossings ‘every other way’ and it has not worked. This is simply not true. There are many compassionate, fair and effective alternatives which we must advocate for.

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Recommendations for government action

1. Strengthen the asylum system

First and foremost, the UK government should strengthen the asylum system so we can respond to those seeking safety on our shores in a humane, effective and organised way. All claims must be heard fairly, decisions made quickly, and we must allow the people at the heart of the system to move on with their lives. An efficient and fair system that respects human rights can provide refugees and asylum seekers with a sense of dignity, safety and hope for the future.

2. Scale up safe routes

If we want fewer people to take dangerous journeys in search of safety in the UK, the best solution is to scale up safe routes. This can prevent refugees and asylum seekers from falling prey to trafficking or exploitation and eases the pressure on high refugee-hosting countries. Inclusive resettlement schemes, humanitarian visas, and family reunion schemes all offer regular, orderly routes to protection for the most vulnerable. Expanding commitments to resettlement places, for example, by welcoming an additional 10,000 refugees a year under the UK Resettlement Scheme, would be a pragmatic and attainable commitment that provides an invaluable lifeline for refugees experiencing extreme vulnerabilities.

3. Support displaced people in fragile and conflict-affected states

We can step up our support to people forced to flee their homes and help them rebuild their lives. This could mean diplomatic engagement to secure better protection for civilians in conflict, or reinvigorating global mechanisms to prevent famine in places where conflict and climate change intersect dangerously. Or it could mean ring-fencing at least half of the UK aid budget for fragile and conflict-affected countries, where humanitarian needs are greatest. Sudan is just one example of how conflict can so quickly upturn lives and force people to flee their homes.

Concrete, pragmatic and humane options exist. A more compassionate and just approach to the asylum system is possible. The sector can play a role in trying to bring those to fruition.