Do the UK policies deter people from claiming asylum?

Danielle Cohen
By Danielle Cohen Immigration Law Solicitor Linkedin
Danielle Cohen has over 20 years of experience as a lawyer and a reputation for offering professional, honest and expert advice.
26 April 2024

According to the Immigration Observatory Report of January 2024, the UK Government has a policy of deterring people from seeking asylum in the UK through removal to safe third countries.

The Government is focussing on the argument that people who pass safe countries on their way to the UK should be removed without having their asylum claim heard, in order to deter others from coming to the UK. The UK currently has an agreement with only one third country willing to accept asylum seekers, Rwanda.

The Government also suggested that when asylum seekers cannot be removed, they will remain in the UK, but if they succeed on their asylum claim the Government initially proposed penalising them by giving them fewer rights. This policy was suspended in July 2023. However, the Illegal Migration Act goes much further than this and envisages leaving certain affected asylum seekers in the UK indefinitely and without legal status. The Prime Minister pledged ‘to stop the boats’, but it is not clear what is meant by stopping the boats. A literal interpretation suggests zero small boats reaching the UK, but that seems highly unlikely in the short and long term. Will a very large reduction in small boats arriving be reasonably described as delivering on the pledge ‘to stop the boats’?

One of the problems in assessing the deterrents of asylum immigration is that it is prone to large fluctuations driven by unrelated events in the destination countries of asylum seekers, for example political repression and worse civil conflict, environmental shocks, economic crises etc. For example, the civil war in Sudan affected migration of asylum seekers to other countries including the UK. Therefore, the Immigration Observatory says that it is not possible to disentangle the effects of some factors from the effects of the particular policy such as the Rwanda Scheme or the Illegal Migration Act.

If the arrival of boats goes up, this does not necessarily mean that policies have not worked. It could be argued that had the Government not implemented its policies boats arrival would have gone up even more. At the same time, a decline in the arrival of boats is not proof that the Government policies were responsible for all the change. The report argues that there is no way to establish precisely that the policies have a deterrent impact. More problematically, a decline in detected small boats arrival could reflect diversion into other regular routes such as arriving by lorries, containers or private vehicles.

Furthermore, prospective asylum seekers do not always know about policies they will face when they arrive in the UK; information they receive may be misleading and the decision whether or not to come to the UK may be affected not just by policy but many other factors such as the presence of family members. The Home Office provided an estimate of the deterrence effect of the nationality and border bill in its impact assessment of the proposed legislation and concluded that the impact is difficult to estimate with any certainty.

There is no guarantee that migrants will be deterred by the slim chance of ending up in Rwanda, especially given that the act is not entirely bulletproof. Individuals can appeal on the basis that Rwanda is unsafe for them because of their individual circumstances, though the bar is high. Removals are now likely to go ahead, but the government has refused to comment on whether it has found an operation for the flights. This is partly because human rights charities have launched a campaign to dissuade airlines from getting involved. In theory, asylum seekers threatened with removal can still appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. However, the bill specifically instructs UK authorities to ignore any interim orders from Strasbourg.