Skip to main content

New research by Refugee Council finds Illegal Migration Act won’t reduce boat crossings but will drive asylum seekers underground out of fear


Briefings by Sue Lukes and Richard Williams examine impact of Illegal Migration Act on asylum seekers and those working with them

Date of Publication:
04 December 2023

The Refugee Council last week published a number of important new briefings on the impact of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 (IMA).

Refugee Council logoA 13-page briefing here looks at the impact of the IMA on people seeking asylum, and a 12-page briefing here considers the impact of the IMA on those working with refugees and people seeking asylum. In addition, a 5-page report here summarises the human impact of the IMA and the Government's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Research for the briefings was commissioned by the Refugee Council and was carried out by Sue Lukes and Richard Williams, two well-known names in the asylum sector. Lukes and Williams authored the two briefings. The authors surveyed and interviewed dozens of representatives from organisations across the asylum and refugee sector for their research.

Overall, the research found that the IMA will not reduce small boat journeys to the UK, but it will lead to a greater fear of, and less incentive to engage with, statutory services. As a result, asylum seekers will be driven underground and placed at risk of harm and exploitation.

There was consensus from participants in the research that significant numbers of people will attempt to avoid all contact with authorities, in case they are detained and removed. One participant from the voluntary sector said: "A lot of people are going under the radar (we have gone from 70 clients down to 40). I fear that people are falling away from certain services fearing they might be rounded up and sent to Rwanda."

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said refugees are avoiding contact with vital services and face being exploited and abused by those seeking to coerce and traffic them. In particular, Solomon noted that unaccompanied child asylum seekers face being trapped in perpetual fear and will disappear, creating a serious safeguarding crisis.

Solomon added that the Government's plans for sending asylum seekers to Rwanda are causing huge distress to vulnerable people and are pushing them into unsafe and dangerous situations.

The two briefings also highlight the difficulties asylum seekers face in obtaining legal advice and representation.

One of the briefings says: "People claiming asylum, whether in accommodation or detention, need reliable information and advice and that is increasingly difficult to access. … Most importantly, people seeking asylum need legal advice. Immigration advice is a regulated profession, so however willing other agencies or volunteers are to help, only lawyers and regulated advisers can provide this. But legal aid, and specifically legal aid for people seeking asylum, has gone beyond a crisis. By 2021, researchers reported that 6,000 new applicants could not get access to legal aid. In the next year this rose to 25,000 people, nearly half of all new asylum applicants. There are large areas of England with no legal aid whatsoever available for people seeking asylum."

Under the IMA, people entering the UK illegally will be liable for swift removal to their country of original or a safe third country, which will add further pressures to a legal aid sector already in crisis.

The briefing adds: "Those who want to challenge a removal notice will be entitled to legal aid, but as noted above, there are whole areas of the country where legal aid is not actually available to anyone who is seeking asylum, and it is likely that, as now, people will get their decision in a variety of places all over the country: detention, large scale sites or asylum accommodation. The Ministry of Justice has offered an increase in some legal aid fees, but practitioners do not believe it will be enough to ensure the provision necessary. It is not obvious who, other than legal representatives, will have access to detention centres and some of the larger sites with security, such as the barges. Medico-legal reports may also be needed to prove 'serious and irreversible harm' and these will take time to compile."

The authors noted that everyone who participated in the research for the briefings shared concerns about access to decent legal advice and legal aid.

According to one of the briefings, the deficit of legally aided advice means 45% of people making an asylum application are now unable to get access to crucial advice. Firms doing legal aid closed at an average rate of two a month last year, while those that remain open have difficulties retaining and recruiting staff. A representative of organisation is quoted as saying: "We have had calls from people to whom all the different versions of the rules apply to – old, new, potentially new. We notice increased distress and difficulty accessing legal advice. People are in remote areas where there are no services or cities where services are full."

In concluding, the authors urge the UK Government to protect the right to asylum instead of excluding more and more people from the UK's asylum process.

Numerous recent media articles have reported, however, that the Government is continuing to pursue its Rwanda policy after the Supreme Court found it would be unlawful as Rwanda is not a safe county for asylum seekers.

According to the Guardian today, Home Secretary James Cleverly is understood to be close to finalising a new treaty with Rwanda so that Parliament can claim the African nation is a safe destination for asylum seekers who arrive in the UK.

BBC News also reported that it has been told a new deal is now close, which could see British lawyers stationed in Rwandan courts as part of efforts to address the Supreme Court's concerns. Details are expected to be announced tomorrow.