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The Illegal Migration Act

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Illegal Migration Act

The Illegal Migration Act was passed by Parliament on 18 July 2023. It was introduced by the UK Government into the House of Commons on 7 March 2023, when UNHCR expressed profound concern at the implications of what would amount to an asylum ban in the UK. 

The Act extinguishes access to asylum in the UK for anyone who arrives irregularly, having passed through a country – however briefly – where they did not face persecution. It bars them from presenting refugee protection or other human rights claims, no matter how compelling their claim may be. In addition, it requires their removal to another country, with no guarantee that they will necessarily be able to access protection there. It creates sweeping new detention powers, with limited judicial oversight.

Full statement published 18 July 2023: UK Illegal Migration Bill: UN Refugee Agency and UN Human Rights Office warn of profound impact on human rights and international refugee protection system

UNHCR's previous statements, press releases and factsheets concerning the Illegal Migration Bill

UNHCR expressed profound concern in an initial public statement on 7 March 2023, noting that the Bill, if passed, would breach the UK’s obligations under international law.

On 22 March 2023 UNHCR shared formal legal observations on the Bill with the UK Government. 

Following the enactment of the Illegal Migration Act 2023, UNHCR shared with the UK Government on 9 October 2023 a series of recommendations about how specific provisions of the Act should be interpreted and applied in line with the UK’s obligations under international law.

UNHCR Recommendations on the implementation of the Illegal Migration Act 2023

These recommendations cover four key areas:

  • When and how the Home Secretary should exercise her discretion to grant leave to remain to refugees and stateless people in the UK;
  • How the requirement to come "directly" to the UK should be interpreted, taking into account the real risks that many people who have been forced to flee their home countries may face en route to the UK;
  • When an asylum or human rights claim should be considered in the UK, even though a person comes from a country designated as safe by the Act;
  •  the UK’s duty to carry out an individualized assessment of the safety of removal prior to removing a person to a third country.

UNHCR has also published a series of factsheets, in order to examine the facts behind small boat arrivals, and the consequences this Act:

The effect of the Act is to deny a fair hearing and to deny protection to many genuine refugees in need of safety and asylum. This is 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 UK 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 information on previous legislation and agreements please view the relevant pages: