The Illegal Migration Bill is now law. What does this mean for people seeking safety?

By Julia Tinsley-Kent and an asylum seeker in Home Office accommodation

When the Nationality and Borders Act became law last year, many of us thought the UK’s hostile approach to asylum and immigration couldn’t get any worse. We were wrong.

The Illegal Migration Bill was introduced in early March 2023 and was met with widespread condemnation. Despite its unmistakable cruelty, the announcement wasn’t a shock. In December 2022, the Prime Minister signalled that tougher legislation to stop ‘small boats’ was on the horizon, so many of us working in migration advocacy were anxiously awaiting what the Government had in store.

After parliamentary ‘ping-pong’ (this refers to the ‘to and fro’ of amendments to Bills between the House of Commons and the House of Lords) and fierce campaigning by migrants rights activists, the Illegal Migration Bill received Royal Assent on 20 July 2023, becoming law.

Government concessions and Lords defeat

The House of Lords attempted to introduce a series of amendments which would have ensured the Act’s provisions were consistent with the UK’s obligations under international human rights treaties. Some concessions were made by the Government in response to Lords amendments. This includes:

  • Pregnant women can only be detained for a maximum of 72 hours unless extended to seven days by a minister,
  • Unaccompanied children granted immigration bail after eight days of detention,
  • The Home Secretary’s duty to remove anyone entering the country through an irregular route will no longer apply to those that arrived before 7 March 2023.

However, further amendments were withdrawn and defeated on 17th July. As an abolitionist migrants’ rights charity, it was difficult to support reformist amendments that aimed to uphold the already damaging and cruel status quo, particularly the amendments focused on detention. Detaining someone due to their immigration status suggests the State believes they did something wrong and effective imprisonment is the appropriate response. One hour in detention is too long nor can we support measures that are just aimed at one group. Our solidarity must be unconditional. We want to see detention end for all groups, not just one select group.

Modern slavery

Another notable aspect of the Act is its attack on victims of trafficking and modern slavery. The stark truth is this legislation will do nothing to actually address the root causes of modern slavery and shifts the blame onto the victims. A lack of safe reporting mechanisms and a climate of suspicion towards victims means that many will stay with their abuser rather than present themselves to the authorities and risk deportation.

The Act is a clear attack on the rights of, and protections for, victims of modern slavery and trafficking. The Act states that if someone has “entered the UK illegally and is identified as a potential victim of modern slavery” the Government will return them to their home country or to another “safe country”. Whilst this is undoubtedly a clear regression of protections and shirking of responsibility by the Government, it demonstrates the State’s inherent suspicion towards victims of modern slavery based on the idea modern slavery protections are an incentive for people to come to the UK.

However, if we are to effectively tackle discriminatory and cruel immigration policies, we must be honest about who they are aimed at.

The issue of ‘small boats’ became a key focus point for debates around the legislation. While small boats are not the only irregular means by which people reach the UK, Channel crossings do provide some insight into the motivations behind the Act: specifically, who it is aimed at. Criticism of the Act is that the Government is criminalising people arriving via irregular routes, whilst restricting safe routes for them to come to the UK.

Four out of the top five most common nationalities forced into making the dangerous journey across the Channel are from Muslim-majority countries. These are Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, followed by Eritrea, Egypt, and Sudan which make the top ten.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, there was a clear disparity between how Ukrainians were welcomed in Europe and the West in comparison to how those fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan have been treated. In the case of Sudan, for example, the UK’s response (or rather lack of response) shows the link between Islamophobia, racism, and how this manifests in refugee protections. As the armed conflict in Sudan unfolded, the Home Secretary ruled out introducing safe routes for people seeking safety in the UK. In contrast, almost 300,000 visas have been issued to Ukrainians, including 193,000 for the homes sponsorship scheme which launched in March 2022. Another 94,900 have been granted for a family scheme allowing Ukrainian refugees to join relatives in the UK.

What does this mean for people seeking safety?

The journey of seeking asylum is undoubtedly very challenging and overwhelming, especially in a country where people seeking safety are not welcomed. For many asylum seekers who arrived in the UK through irregular routes, their remaining shreds of hope to seek safety and belonging were stripped away the moment the Act was passed. It is unimaginably hard being in an unfamiliar path full of uncertainties in a country that is fixated on criminalising people seeking safety. 

The impact of this Act leaves many asylum seekers who courageously crossed the Channel with the fear of being deported to Rwanda. The dread of being deported leaves asylum seekers and modern slavery victims stressed and depressed. Whether it’s the fear of being deported back to their country of origin or to Rwanda, they fear revisiting the trauma they thought they had left behind. A widespread feeling among sanctuary seekers is that they will not have a fair chance at a hearing, regardless of how they arrived in the country. Some asylum seekers have lost hope in the system and are willing to abandon the asylum process altogether. This will result in people going underground and likely increase cases of exploitation, modern slavery, and human trafficking.

It is worth noting that a significant number of individuals who bravely crossed the Channel had no alternative means of reaching here. Several asylum seekers attempted to apply for a visa, clearly stating their intention to seek asylum, only to face rejection. Providing accessible and straightforward procedures for applying for UK visas and or other routes will deter asylum seekers from taking dangerous journeys and falling prey to human traffickers.

Instead of enforcing policies that strip away the hope and dignity of asylum seekers, it is essential for the UK Government to adopt a more humane approach, regardless of where they came from or how they arrived. Rather than focusing on punitive measures that treat people differently just because of the routes they used, the Government should focus on creating safe routes for people seeking safety.

Julia Tinsley-Kent is Policy and Strategic Communications Manager at the Migrants’ Rights Network. She specialised in the prevalence of post-colonial discourse in the British media at university and has a qualification in Public Policy Analysis from the London School of Economics (LSE). She also has extensive experience in working with refugees and migrants. Whilst undertaking her undergraduate degree, she co-founded and ran a student-led project which taught refugees English, winning a Pride of Newcastle award in 2017. She is also currently involved in refugee mentoring and advocacy alongside her role at the Migrants’ Rights Network.

The Migrants’ Rights Network is a UK charity that stands in solidarity with all migrants in their fights for rights and justice. They co-curate campaigns using anti-oppression practices to create transformational change, extending beyond the individual impact on migrants’ lives, to tackle oppression at its source.

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