The Illegal Migration Bill is now an act, bringing with it significant unnecessary harm. Here’s what the government could, and should, have done to protect vulnerable migrants and improve Home Office efficiency.

Today, the Illegal Migration Bill is expected to receive royal assent and become law. This is one of the most damaging Bills in recent memory, putting the world’s most persecuted people at risk, undermining the UK’s commitment to international law, and damaging our human rights framework.  

In the course of all this harm, this Bill does not address the fundamental problems with the UK’s asylum system.  It makes no significant progress in reducing the asylum backlog, which currently stands at around 165,000 people waiting for a decision – families in limbo for months and years, some close to destitution, and many in unsuitable and costly hotel accommodation. Nor does it create any new safe routes for refugees to the UK – the one proven method of reducing unsafe sea crossings to this country.

All of these measures will cost the tax-payer billions of pounds each year   

Instead, among the Bill’s inhumane measures, hundreds of thousands of refugees, including children, will be put in immigration detention. Some will be forcibly deported, including to countries where their lives or their human rights could be at risk. For others, the Government will not be able to deport them. This is because the Government has so few removal agreements with other countries, and the Court of Appeal recently ruled that it is unlawful for the Government to send people to Rwanda, which is the main country the UK does have a removal agreement with.

However, the Bill also prevents the Government from processing those people’s asylum claim in the UK. Unable to work, those who cannot be deported will be reliant on Home Office accommodation and support, with no way to build a home and a future here or elsewhere.  

All of these measures will cost the tax-payer billions of pounds each year. 

An alternative approach is needed. To properly address the crisis of dangerous crossings, and to fix the broken asylum system in the UK, any future Government must repeal the Illegal Migration Bill, and commit to a serious and sustainable approach to tackling the issues we face. This must include at the very least the following measures: 

  1. Provide more safe routes 

The best way to prevent people being forced onto small boats across the Channel is to provide safe routes to the UK for those in need of asylum. When we look, for example, at people fleeing Ukraine, we can see that very few, if any, are arriving in the UK via small boats across the Channel. This is because of the scheme in place which allows Ukrainians to come to the UK safely.  

The UK must make such routes available to reduce loss of life and exploitation taking place off our shores

Just like those from Ukraine, most of those who are making the dangerous journey across the Channel are coming from countries where they face great risks to life and health, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Eritrea.

For most asylum seekers, there is no way to safely and legally come to the UK. The UK must make such routes available to reduce loss of life and exploitation taking place off our shores, across Europe and further afield. 

  1. Fix Home Office asylum decision making 

Around 165,000 asylum-seekers are currently waiting for a decision in their case in the UK. Most have been waiting for six months or more. The Home Office has hired more caseworkers to try to address this backlog, but the average number of decisions per month per caseworker has slowed significantly at the same time as more being hired. The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has noted that a shortage of technical staff, inadequate training for staff, low morale and high turnover, have all contributed to this decline in the pace of decision-making. While hiring more caseworkers may be an important part of addressing the backlog, steps must also be taken to improve the Home Office’s productivity, such as by improving training for decision-makers. 

Improving decision-making for particular groups of asylum seekers is essential but must be implemented in a way that ensures the process is accessible, effective and sustainable

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also recommended improved triage systems which would enable quick processing of applications from countries with high grant rates. While the Government’s new streamlined asylum processing policy makes important movements towards this sort of system, its implementation has been poor – it involves asylum seekers filling out a complicated form (only available in English) and currently, most of these forms are being filled out incorrectly. Asylum seekers struggle to access lawyers whose support they need to engage with the process. Steps to speed up and improve decision-making for particular groups of asylum seekers are an essential part of addressing the backlog, but they must be implemented in a way that ensures the process is still accessible to asylum seekers and is effective and sustainable. 

  1. Enable people to access proper legal advice and representation 

There is a crisis in access to immigration legal services. Cuts to legal aid have decimated the supply of advice and representation, creating geographical ‘advice deserts’ and undermining the sustainability and quality of service that lawyers are able to provide. The Law Society estimates that 66% of people in England and Wales do not have access to a local immigration and asylum legal aid provider.  

As recognised by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the passing of the Illegal Migration Bill will only make this problem worse, creating significantly more demand for legally-aided advice and representation. In the face of the existing capacity constraints in the sector, the MoJ has proposed higher hourly rates for legal aid work resulting exclusively from the Illegal Migration Bill. In reality, to address the crisis in the immigration legal aid sector, we need higher rates across all areas. 

Without proper legal advice and help for those seeking asylum, the whole system is clogged

A lack of access to legal advice and representation puts the human rights of refugees and others in our immigration system at risk. But on top of this, it prevents our asylum and immigration systems from functioning. The Home Office has recognised that part of the reason for the asylum backlog is the poor-quality information and paperwork provided by individuals seeking asylum, as well as appeals against initial decisions. A lack of access to legal advice means that applicants may not provide the right information to the Home Office.

This means that initial decision-making is not well-informed, increasing the likelihood of incorrect decisions and appeals. The appeals process in turn is slowed down by a lack of access to high quality representation.  

Without proper legal advice and help for those seeking asylum, the whole system is clogged and made more expensive, and those who need asylum cannot be given it in a timely manner. 

We need an urgent plan to address the crisis in immigration legal services, including: 

  • Increasing funding for legal aid solicitors to ensure the sustainability of the sector and the supply of legal services. Internal advice to the Lord Chancellor recommended that legal aid fees should be increased by at least 15% to attract solicitors to represent asylum seekers. An increase of at least this proportion is required. 
  • Developing a long-term strategy to address ‘advice deserts’ and ensure sustainable funding for the future, such as through grant funding individual organisations who can provide legal advice. 
  • Expanding the scope of immigration legal aid. Currently, for most immigration issues other than asylum, people cannot automatically access legal aid to get advice and representation. Our research shows that this system creates significant barriers to justice and poor value for money. Bringing immigration cases back into scope of legal aid will mean that cases are resolved earlier, relieving pressure on other parts of the system.

Looking forwards

The passing of the Illegal Migration Bill represents a low-point in the UK’s history on immigration, undermining the asylum system we helped to forge in the aftermath of the Second World War. We know that we can do better than this, as we have demonstrated in the way we have welcomed refugees from Ukraine and Hong Kong.

The next Government must restore the UK’s commitment to a global system of refugee protection, and take the steps needed to build a fair and humane immigration system here in the UK.