How is the UK stopping Channel crossings and what are the legal routes to the UK?

Migrants standing in a queue waiting to be processed in Kent.
Image source, Getty Images

New ex-military sites will accommodate thousands of migrants, the government has announced.

It is part of plans to tackle small boat crossings after record numbers came to the UK this way in 2022.

What is the government’s main plan to tackle migrants?

Under the Illegal Migration Bill, published at the beginning of March:

  • the home secretary has a duty to detain and remove those arriving in the UK illegally, either to Rwanda or another “safe” third country
  • migrants would not be granted bail or able to seek judicial review for the first 28 days of detention
  • under-18s, those medically unfit to fly or at risk of serious harm in the country they are being removed to would be able to delay departure
  • people removed from the UK would be blocked from returning, or seeking British citizenship in future
  • there is a cap on the number of refugees the UK will settle through “safe and legal routes”

The law will apply retrospectively, with anyone arriving illegally from Tuesday 7 March at risk of deportation.

Can asylum seekers currently reach the UK legally?

It is already illegal for migrants to knowingly enter the UK without a visa or special permission.

The UK also has an international legal duty to not criminally penalise anyone seeking protection as a refugee.

However, some are only available to people from specific countries such as Afghanistan and Ukraine, or British National status holders in Hong Kong.

Other asylum routes only accept a limited number of refugees:

  • UK Resettlement Scheme – prioritises those from regions in conflict. In 2022, 887 grants were made under this scheme
  • Community Sponsorship Scheme – for local community groups to provide accommodation and support for refugees. In 2022, 272 grants were made
  • Refugee Family Reunion – for partners and children under 18 of those already granted protection in the UK. In 2022, 4,473 people were granted visas
  • Mandate Resettlement Scheme – to resettle refugees who have a close family member in the UK who can offer a home. The scheme has resettled about 430 refugees since 2004, but just four people in 2022

Organisations including the Refugee Council and Amnesty International say there are no safe and legal routes for most people to seek asylum in the UK.

What does international law say about refugees?

Critics of the government’s asylum proposals, such as the Refugee Council, say they break international law.

The main principle of the Refugee Convention states that refugees should not be returned to a country where they faced threats to life or freedom.

The government argues that its Rwanda plan is in line with international law because it is a safe third country. Critics disagree.

The Nationality and Borders Act changed the law so that asylum seekers in the UK could be rejected if it can be shown they passed through a safe third country before reaching the UK. But this has no basis in the Refugee Convention.

The ECHR protects the same rights of refugees as the Refugee Convention. It commits signatories like the UK against sending asylum seekers to countries where their lives may be at risk.

What has the government said about migrant accommodation?

It hopes the move will deter asylum seekers from coming to the UK, and reduce the amount of money spent on accommodation.

However, Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick conceded that “these sites on their own will not end the use of hotels overnight”.

He also confirmed reports that the government was “exploring the possibility” of using ferries to house migrants, but said no final decision had been taken.

What else has the government said it will do about small boats?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak previously announced a new Small Boats Command Centre bringing together the military and National Crime Agency (NCA).

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,

The government has promised better cooperation between the agencies responsible for immigration

What happens when people arrive in the UK?

Asylum seekers have an initial interview and – if their case is accepted – they can apply to remain in the UK.

The Home Office says applicants should receive a decision within six months, but in the year to June 2022 70% had not heard back within that time.

Asylum seekers usually cannot work while their case is considered.

If their application for asylum is accepted, they can stay in the UK. If rejected, they face being returned to the country they came from, but can appeal.

Clarification 2 December: This article has been amended to make clear that the government’s “safe and legal” routes are only available to certain groups of people who have already been recognised as refugees, or family members of refugees already in the UK.