UK Asylum and Policy

Illegal Migration Bill

UNHCR is profoundly concerned by new legislation introduced by the UK Government into the House of Commons on Tuesday 7 March 2023.

The legislation, if passed, would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how compelling their claim may be. The effect of the Bill (in this form) would be to deny a fair hearing and to deny protection to many genuine refugees in need of safety and asylum.

This would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention and undermines the United Kingdom’s longstanding, humanitarian traditions.

The vast majority of refugees have no way to legally reach the UK to claim asylum, regardless of how strong their need for protection is. A majority of those arriving over the Channel would be likely to be found to be refugees, were their claims to be considered by the Home Office on their merits.

At present, safe regular pathways to the U.K. are open only to Ukrainian refugees and a limited number of Afghan refugees for whom the UK government has established distinct pathways (including 2,000 a year through UNHCR resettlement). Such pathways, while critical, are severely limited, and are intended to complement, rather than substitute, for asylum.

At present the UK has no arrangements in place that would enable the transfer of asylum-seekers to safe third countries in practice. The Rwanda arrangement does not meet the requisite standards and has been subject to legal challenge.  In the absence of such arrangements (and appropriate safeguards) people in need of asylum and protection will instead remain in limbo, and possibly in detention.

Alternatives to address current challenges and combat smuggling while protecting refugees are available, and we urge the UK Government and UK parliamentarians to re-direct their attention to more humane and effective measures as a matter of urgency.

Read the UNHCR statement in full released 7 March 2022.

For UNHCR's Position Papers and Statements on Asylum Issues in the UK, please visit our Asylum and Policy page.

Migration and Economic Development Partnership

UNHCR believes the UK’s announced Migration and Economic Development Partnership with Rwanda (MEDP) will externalize the UK’s fundamental obligations to people seeking asylum in the country. The partnership proposes an asylum model that undermines the established international refugee protection system. It risks the arbitrary denial of access to asylum and lacks realistic durable solutions for the refugees affected.

UNHCR does not consider the MEDP to comply with the United Kingdom’s obligations under international law and finds the arrangement to be inconsistent with global solidarity and responsibility-sharing.

Below we have listed the legal observations and public statements UNHCR has released regarding the passage of the Nationality and Borders Act during its course through Parliament, and since the announcement of the MEDP on 14 April 2022.

19 December 2022: News Comment: UNHCR notes UK High Court judgement on transfer of asylum-seekers from the UK to Rwanda

3 December 2022: News Release: UNHCR appeals to UK to uphold its international legal obligations

UNHCR Analysis of the Legality and Appropriateness of the Transfer of Asylum-Seekers under the UK-Rwanda arrangement

UNHCR's written evidence to the International Agreements Committee inquiry into the UK-Rwanda Memorandum of Understanding.

The Nationality and Borders Bill

The Nationality and Borders Bill has now passed through the legislative process and has become law.

UNHCR will continue to work with and for asylum seekers and refugees, regardless of how they arrived in the UK. We will work to ensure that the harm this Bill could cause to asylum seekers and refugees is minimised, and that international law is respected.

"UNHCR regrets that the British government’s proposals for a new approach to asylum that undermines established international refugee protection law and practices has been approved.

The UK is a nation that rightly prides itself on its long history of welcoming and protecting refugees. It is disappointing that it would choose a course of action aimed at deterring the seeking of asylum by relegating most refugees to a new, lesser status with few rights and a constant threat of removal."

Read: The High Commissioner for Refugees statement in response to the passing of the Nationality and Borders Bill.

During the course of the Bill's passage through Parliament, UNHCR raised serious concerns. 

Through the publication of comprehensive legal analysis and media statements which can be viewed below, UNHCR warned that the Bill undermines the 1951 Refugee Convention, the agreement which has protected refugees for decades and of which the UK is a signatory. At the same time, if implemented, the policies will risk the lives and well-being of vulnerable people. UNHCR believes this Bill will undermine, not promote, the Government’s stated goal of improving protection for those at risk of persecution. 

Statements and legal opinions released by UNHCR, 2021 - 2022

Watch: UNHCR Representative to the UK Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor explains some of our key concerns as we urge the Government to rethink.

March 2022

Press release - UNHCR welcomes Lords’ amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill and calls on government to back them.

January 2022

UNHCR's legal observations have been updated to reflect recent changes to the Nationality and Borders Bill.

The first 23-page section summarizes UNHCR’s main concerns with the legislation, while the subsequent annex provides detail and evidence of the findings.

Key changes to the Bill reflected in this publication include:

  • The removal of any deadline for how long an asylum claim can be suspended on the grounds that it is "inadmissible", which risks leaving people in limbo indefinitely.
  • Allowing the Secretary of State to act without regard to the law of the sea, as well as to try to return people to other countries, such as France, without that country's consent.
  • Welcome, but still troublingly limited, protections against criminal prosecution for people saving the lives of asylum-seekers at sea.
  • Details of new rules about age assessments for children and young people seeking asylum in the UK, including the use of unreliable and potentially harmful medical methods of age assessment, as well as powers for the Home Office to override the decisions of local authorities about young people in their care.
  • Deprivation of nationality without notice, leading to risks of statelessness, including for children.

UNHCR Updated Observations on the Nationality and Borders Bill

October 2021  

UNHCR released a detailed legal opinion

For the Summary see: UNHCR Summary Observations on the Nationality and Borders Bill, Bill 141, 2021-22 

September 2021  

UNHCR’s Representative to the UK, Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, gave evidence to the House of Commons Bill Committee outlining UNHCR’s legal analysis of the Bill. 

“This Bill would undermine, not promote, the Government’s stated goal of improving  protection for those at risk of persecution. It seems to be aimed at deterring refugees, but  there’s no evidence that would be the result.” 

-Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR Representative in the UK 

Press release - UNHCR: UK asylum bill would break international law, damaging refugees and global co-operation

UNHCR Summary Observations on the Nationality and Borders Bill, Bill 141, 2021-22 

May 2021   

UNHCR Observations on the New Plan for Immigration policy statement of the Government of the United Kingdom 

Press release - UNHCR deeply concerned at discriminatory two-tier UK asylum plans, urges rethink

“It is entirely possible for the UK to protect its borders, and security, while implementing  fair, humane and efficient policies towards asylum-seekers in line with the 1951  Convention. These are not mutually exclusive.” 

-Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR Representative in the UK