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UK policies to deter people from claiming asylum

04 Apr 2023

by Peter William Walsh and Madeleine Sumption

Over the years, the UK has introduced numerous policies to make seeking asylum in the UK less attractive. Most recently, 2021 to 2023 has seen the UK government propose measures designed explicitly to deter people from seeking asylum in the UK. This briefing note brings together statistics and research evidence to inform discussion about these policy measures.

Key questions

  • How do current and proposed asylum policies aim to deter people from seeking asylum in the UK?
  • Will ‘deterrence policies’ for asylum seekers have their intended effect?
  • Will the Illegal Migration Bill mean more people are removed from the UK?
  • How many people will be affected by asylum deterrence policies?
  • How will deterrence policies affect immigration detention in the UK?
  • How will deterrence policies affect the integration of refugees in the UK?
  1. Understanding the Policy

    The UK already had some policies in place before 2021 designed in part to deter people from claiming asylum. These included restrictions on asylum seekers’ right to work, and restricting asylum seekers’ access to benefits. However, this briefing note focuses on measures introduced or announced since 2021. These include the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, the policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, and the Illegal Migration Bill 2023. ...Click to read more.

    The Nationality and Borders Act 2022

    If the Illegal Migration Bill becomes law, it will largely supersede the provisions introduced in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 for many asylum applicants. The Nationality and Borders Act provisions would still apply to a cohort of people entering the UK or claiming asylum between 28 June 2022 and 6 March 2023, as well as to people who enter legally but overstay their visas and claim asylum whilst without immigration status. The provisions of the Nationality and Borders Act have been described in more detail elsewhere, such as in this House of Lords Library briefing. The key provisions designed to deter people from seeking asylum were:

    • Deeming people ‘inadmissible’ to the UK asylum system if they were believed to have a connection with a ‘safe third country’, such as France. In theory, the government would attempt to remove them to that country or any other safe third country. In practice, if they could not be removed (for example, because no safe country was willing to take them back), they would eventually be admitted to the UK asylum system.
    • Penalising refugees for irregular entry. If the government considered that a person had not ‘come directly’ to the UK or did not have good reason for their irregular entry or stay—but nonetheless recognised that they had a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin—they would grant them ‘Group 2’ refugee status, with fewer rights attached. This included a ten-year (instead of five-year) path to settlement and restrictions on the ability to bring their partner or child to join them in the UK.

    Note that a similar inadmissibility policy had been in place in the Immigration Rules since 1 January 2021.

    The Rwanda deal

    In April 2022, the government announced that it would send some asylum seekers to Rwanda under an agreement concluded with that country. Under the scheme, the UK’s legal responsibilities for people who have claimed asylum would largely end once they have been relocated to Rwanda. People affected by the policy would not be able to apply for asylum in the UK. Instead, they would be able to apply for asylum in Rwanda and have their claims processed there, within Rwanda’s asylum system. If their claim was successful, they would be offered protection in Rwanda, not the UK. Even if their claim were successful, they would not have the option to return to the UK. The Rwanda policy had not been implemented as of early 2023, pending the outcome of legal challenges.

    A more detailed discussion of the Rwanda policy is available in the Migration Observatory’s Q&A: the UK’s policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

    The Illegal Migration Bill

    New asylum legislation introduced in March 2023 envisages substantial new restrictions on access to the asylum system for people who enter the UK without authorisation. Among its many provisions, the Bill would deem most asylum claims from people who entered through irregular means ‘inadmissible’ and prevent the Home Office from making decisions on their claims. The Bill would create a ‘duty’ on the Home Secretary to make arrangements for their removal, primarily to ‘safe third countries’. If people could not be removed (for example, because there is no safe third country to remove them to), they would remain in the UK indefinitely without legal status unless they qualified for an exemption. If people in this position are destitute they would be eligible indefinitely for housing and asylum support.

    The bill also gives the government greater discretion to detain asylum seekers. It would remove almost all protections for victims of modern slavery and trafficking who are targeted for removal, including removing the obligation to grant victims of trafficking permission to stay in the UK.

    There are exceptions for trafficking victims who are cooperating with criminal investigations into their alleged traffickers; and for unaccompanied children, who are not automatically subject to the duty for arrangements to be made for their removal, although the Home Office does have the power to remove them as minors – something the Home Office has said will be used in “very limited circumstances”.

    The provisions in the bill have been described in detail by the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association and the government’s Explanatory Notes for the Bill.

How do current and proposed asylum policies aim to deter people from seeking asylum in the UK?

The UK government has an explicit policy of deterring people from seeking asylum in the UK. The policies discussed in this briefing apply regardless of whether the person’s asylum claim is likely to succeed and include people from countries with high asylum success rates, such as Afghanistan and Syria. Two of the key types of policy designed to deter people from claiming asylum are (a) policies that aim to make it easier to remove people to ‘safe third countries’ without assessing their asylum claim; and (b) policies to give fewer rights to refugees who cannot be removed and remain in the UK.

Removal to safe third countries

Public statements about recent asylum measures have focused on the argument that people who pass through safe countries on the way to the UK should be removed without having their asylum claim heard in order to deter others from coming here. Removing people to their countries of origin is often not possible: the government has determined that most people who have claimed asylum in recent years are refugees who would be at risk if they were sent home. As a result, government policy has largely focused on removing people to safe third countries. As described in more detail below, the UK currently has an agreement with only one third country that is willing to accept asylum seekers: Rwanda. This agreement was not operational as of early 2023.

Fewer rights for asylum seekers who remain in the UK

When asylum seekers cannot be removed (for example, because there is no country willing to take them), they will remain in the UK. If such people go on to be successful in their asylum claims, the government has proposed penalising them by giving them fewer rights. The Nationality and Borders Act envisaged classifying them as ‘Group 2’ refugees, who would have a ten-year route to permanent status instead of the usual five, with restrictions on bringing family members to join them in the UK. However, the Illegal Migration Bill goes much further than this and is expected to leave certain affected asylum seekers in the UK indefinitely without legal status. People affected by the 2023 proposals would not be allowed to work but would be eligible for financial support and accommodation if they are destitute.

The proposed 2023 asylum legislation also expands powers to detain asylum seekers and removes legal protections against detention or removal. For more details, see ‘Understanding the Policy’, above.

Will ‘deterrence policies’ for asylum seekers have their intended effect?

The government has said that the purpose of recent asylum policies is to deter people from entering the UK to seek asylum, especially those who cross the English Channel in small boats.

Much of the evidence on whether asylum policies deter people from seeking asylum comes from other high-income countries whose policies are more moderate than what the 2023 bill proposes for the UK. It is thus difficult to state conclusively what the impact of these new policies will be. However, the available evidence suggests that the deterrent effect of asylum policies tends to be small. This is because:

  • Policy has been found to not be the most important factor influencing changes in the number of people claiming asylum. Global developments, such as conflicts in countries of origin, appear statistically to be more important.
  • Prospective asylum seekers do not always know what policies will face them when they arrive. The information they have may be inaccurate or misleading and not particularly detailed.
  • Decisions about where and how to move depend not just on policy. Many other factors, such as the presence of family members, also play a role.

An internal Home Office report[1] released in response to a freedom of information request examined the drivers of asylum seekers’ choice of destination country. It stated that the “role of welfare policies, economic factors and labour market access as potential drivers of migration to the UK is limited as many asylum seekers have little to no understanding of current asylum policies and the economic conditions of a destination country”.

A 2002 report commissioned by the Home Office drew on 65 interviews with asylum-seekers and found that seven main factors led to migrants seeking asylum in the UK. None of the reasons were related to asylum policy. The researchers found little evidence that the respondents had a detailed knowledge of UK asylum procedures, benefit entitlements, or the availability of work in the UK. There was even less evidence that the respondents had a comparative knowledge of how these conditions varied between different European destination countries.

Qualitative research in other countries has come to similar conclusions, often finding that asylum seekers often do not have a clear picture of what policies will face them after they arrive and that perceptions of different destinations are formed based on higher-level factors, such as a country’s overall reputation as a safe or welcoming environment[2][3][4]. Research has found that the information that asylum seekers have is often inaccurate. Another study found that “preventive migration policies, particularly those concerned with deterrence, appear to matter little” to asylum seekers’ choice of destination country. The qualitative research based on interviews with asylum seekers is in broad agreement that asylum policy, especially that concerning the treatment of asylum seekers after they arrive, is not likely to be a powerful tool for influencing individuals’ decision-making.

Quantitative studies on the determinants of asylum-seeking are broadly consistent with this qualitative research, with some partial exceptions. Hatton found that policies restricting access to a country’s territory, and a lower application success rate, were associated with fewer asylum applications to that country but found no evidence that policies governing the treatment of asylum seekers after arrival reduce applications (in this, it is consistent with the main findings of qualitative research). Brekke et al. found that restrictions to asylum seekers’ rights after arrival did reduce asylum applications, but not by much. Both Hatton and Brekke et al. agree that geopolitical factors – specifically, conflict, terrorism, and poor economic conditions in origin countries – are much bigger drivers of asylum-seeking than policies governing the treatment of asylum seekers after arrival. Thieleman (2013) similarly found that the key determinants of an asylum seeker’s choice of host country are historical, economic, and reputational, which “lie beyond the reach of asylum policymakers”[5]. In particular, he found no evidence that measures intended to return asylum seekers to so-called ‘safe third countries’ reduced asylum applications.

International examples of policies, such as returns agreements that have aimed to deter people from arriving to seek asylum—such as in Australia or the EU-Turkey deal—have often also combined deterrence policies with physical enforcement. Physical enforcement may be more effective in reducing asylum applications than deterrence policies. For example, Australian analyst Henry Sherrell has argued that the main reason that Australia was able to reduce the number of people arriving by small boat was that it turned boats around at sea – an argument also made by The Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.

Will the Illegal Migration Bill mean more people are removed from the UK?

The Bill places a legal duty on the Home Secretary to make preparations to remove asylum seekers without assessing their claims. But this can only be done if other countries agree to receive them. Legislation alone cannot create returns agreements with other countries. The legislation also contains provisions that make certain asylum seekers more difficult to remove. As a result, one expected impact of the legislation is to create a new cohort of people with no legal status in the UK and limited prospects of being removed.

Agreements with ‘safe third countries’

The UK currently has an agreement with one country willing to accept asylum seekers, namely Rwanda. This policy has yet to commence.

Rwanda is expected to have capacity, at least initially, for a small fraction of the UK’s asylum applicants. A ministerial statement in November 2022 stated that initial capacity was 200 people. A March 2023 press release stated that Rwanda had confirmed it could take “thousands of people”.

The Home Office’s May 2022 review of Rwanda’s asylum system showed that Rwanda processed 200 asylum claims per year, on average, in the four years from 2017 to 2020, raising the question of how much its capacity can realistically and safely be expanded in the medium term. As the UK has learned from its growing asylum backlog, increasing capacity to process asylum claims can be a challenge. For more information on the Rwanda policy, see the Migration Observatory’s Q&A on Rwanda.

The lack of safe third countries willing to accept asylum seekers from the UK is one reason few people have been returned under existing policies. Around 18,500 people were assessed for connections with safe third countries from 1 January 2021 to 30 September 2022, but only 21 had been removed by 30 September 2022 – equivalent to 0.1%.

Figure 1

Even where the UK has had agreements with safe third countries to accept asylum seekers without hearing their claims, this has not necessarily led to large numbers of returns. For example, under the pre-Brexit ‘Dublin III Regulation’, a small fraction of asylum seekers were returned to other EU member states. In the five-year period from 2016 to 2020, around 194,000 people applied for asylum in the UK, and there were only around 1,250 Dublin transfers out of the country (Figure 2). A handful of other European countries do return more people under Dublin than the UK did, although low use of the Dublin system is common in many EU countries. A 2015 report from the Migration Policy Institute identified a number of logistical challenges to moving people with pending asylum claims between EU countries, including coordination between member states.

Figure 2

Making some asylum applicants unremovable

One effect of the Illegal Migration Bill’s proposed requirement not to hear asylum seekers’ claims is that people who would have been refused asylum under the current system will no longer receive a refusal. The legislation does not envisage sending people back to their countries of origin without hearing their asylum claim unless they are from EEA countries or Albania. As a result, it would, in theory, become harder to remove refused asylum seekers from many countries that currently have below-average asylum grant rates.

While most asylum claims have been successful in recent years, the nationals of some countries have low success rates (Figure 3).

Figure 3

In recent years, the number of asylum seekers who have left the UK, either via an enforced removal or voluntary departure, has fallen (see Figure 5 in our briefing, Deportation and voluntary departure from the UK). There have been previous periods in which returns of asylum seekers were considerably higher (Figure 4). It is, therefore, possible, in theory, for refused asylum seekers to be returned to their countries of origin, even if this has not been the norm in recent years.

Figure 4

In summary, it is possible that the proposed policies together might even reduce the UK’s ability to remove people from the country. Future removals will depend, among other things, on whether any expansion of removals to third countries (such as Rwanda) is offset by any decline in removals to people’s home countries. The net impacts are difficult to predict with any confidence.

How many people will be affected by asylum deterrence policies?

The different proposals discussed in this note are expected to affect different groups of people (see Table 1). In all cases, the number is uncertain, as it depends on how many people arrive to claim asylum in the future and how policies are implemented.

Illegal Migration Bill 2023

The proposed 2023 legislation targets people arriving in the UK through irregular routes. ‘Sur-place’ claimants are not caught by the legislation. This refers to people who make an asylum claim whilst in the UK on a valid visa, say, due to a deterioration of conditions in their home country. There are also some relatively narrow exceptions for human trafficking victims aiding a police investigation and unaccompanied children under 18. But the majority of asylum applicants who enter the UK via irregular routes, such as small boat or lorry, are expected to be affected.

The Home Office does not publish data on the number or share of all asylum seekers who have arrived through irregular routes. However, it has published information on the number of asylum applicants who arrived via small boat. In 2022, 40,300 people claimed asylum after arriving by small boat (including dependants), and 45% of asylum applicants arrived by small boat. The Home Office does not publish data on how many people detected arriving through other routes, such as lorries or by air with inadequate documentation, also claimed asylum.

The number of people arriving through irregular means and claiming asylum is expected to change over time. However, the 2022 data indicate that if recent trends continue, the number of people subject to the new measures is likely to be in the tens of thousands. This is especially the case if the measures do not have the intended effect of deterring people from arriving—as past research suggests they may not.

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and Group 2 refugees

The Nationality and Borders Act classifies as ‘Group 2’ refugees people whom the government deems did not ‘come directly’ to the UK or cannot show ‘good cause’ for having entered or remained in the UK without legal status. If the 2023 bill becomes law, the Nationality and Borders Act provisions would continue to apply to people who overstayed their visas before claiming asylum, as well as to the cohort of people who entered between 28 June 2022 and 7 March 2023.

Who is not affected by either the 2022 or 2023 provisions?

As discussed above, one group that is not affected by either the Nationality and Borders Act or Illegal Migration Bill is ‘sur-place’ claimants. These people claim asylum while being legally resident in the UK after entering safely on a regular visa, such as a work or study visa. Official data suggest that the number of people who arrived on a work, family, or study visa between 2011 and 2016 and had been granted asylum by the end of the fifth year after arrival averaged only around 1,300 per year (Home Office Migrant Journey statistics, Table MJ_01). While some sur-place claimants may be excluded from these figures, the data suggest that the size of the group is likely to be small.

Some people may avoid the deterrence penalties if they claim asylum at ports of entry, such as airports. In 2022, 14% of asylum claims were made at ports of entry (this excludes boat arrivals, which are not classified as claims at ports of entry). Such claims are less likely to involve a dangerous and irregular route. However, they could be considered by the authorities to have involved ‘deception’, where asylum seekers entered on visas that would have been denied had the person said they planned to claim asylum on arrival. Under the 2023 bill, entry by deception is considered a mode of irregular entry.

In summary, the potential scope of the deterrence provisions in the 2022 Act and proposed 2023 policies is large and is likely to cover most asylum seekers in the UK.

Table 1: Which asylum seekers are affected by which legislation?

Type of asylum applicantNationality and Borders Act 2022RwandaIllegal Migration Bill 2023
Irregular entrant (e.g., small boat, lorry)YesYesYes
Entrant via regular port on false documents or by deceptionUnclearNo (because journey not “dangerous”)
Sur-placeNoNo (because journey not “dangerous”)No (because entry lawful)
Visa overstayerYes (could become Group 2 refugees)No (because journey not “dangerous”)No (because entry lawful)

Source: Migration Observatory analysis.

How will deterrence policies affect immigration detention in the UK?

Public statements about the Illegal Migration Bill have emphasised the government’s desire to detain people who claim asylum to facilitate their removal. This focus on detention as a policy goal contrasts with government policy on immigration detention over the past decade, which states that detention “must be used sparingly” and for the shortest period possible. One reason for this is the negative impact of detention on individuals. For example, a government-commissioned review published in 2016 stated that research on detention consistently found negative impacts on detainees’ mental health, with larger impacts the longer people are detained.

The UK’s detention estate had capacity at any one time for between 2,000 and 2,500 people in 2021 and 2022. In 2022, just over 20,400 people entered detention, according to Home Office statistics (Figure 5). If the number of people coming to the UK through irregular routes continues at recent levels, detaining a higher share of them would require a substantial increase in the UK’s detention estate. This raises challenging policy questions such as how and where people would be detained and whether the government can ensure appropriate provision, such as healthcare, for detainees—including vulnerable adults. For example, a 2018 review of detention argued that attempts to increase detention capacity by adding extra beds in existing rooms had led to “unacceptable conditions”. More recently, overcrowding at the Manston processing centre in Kent in October and November 2022—which provoked concerns about unsanitary conditions and a lack of support for vulnerable people—illustrates the risks of holding large numbers of people in detention-like conditions.

Figure 5

Given these challenges, it is plausible that the government will not attempt to detain everyone who claims asylum after entering the UK through an irregular route, even if legislation is passed that expands its powers to do so. However, if people who have claimed asylum remain in the UK indefinitely with no legal status and limited prospects of being removed, they will need to be supported and given accommodation. The Explanatory Notes to the bill confirm this. This raises the question of how the government would provide suitable accommodation for people who are neither granted status nor removed—especially if the proposals’ intended ‘deterrent’ effect does not materialise and the number of people affected continues to rise.

How will deterrence policies affect the integration of refugees in the UK?

Policies to deter refugees from coming to the UK by giving them fewer rights highlight a tension between different migration policy objectives. On the one hand, the government wants to deter people from entering the UK irregularly by restricting refugees’ rights to settle in the UK and reunite with family. On the other hand, its refugee integration policies have traditionally aimed to help refugees who will remain in the UK long term to establish themselves socially and economically.

The provisions in the Nationality and Borders Act of 2022 involved removing support that previous research suggests improves migrants’ integration. For example, Home Office analysis drawing on integration research has found that stability, access to citizenship, and the presence of family members all support integration. However, the provisions of the 2022 Act make some successful asylum applicants ‘Group 2 refugees’ with a longer path to permanent status and restrictions on family unification.

The proposed 2023 legislation goes substantially further by significantly reducing the prospects of asylum seekers receiving any status at all. If the majority cannot be removed from the UK, past research on the impacts of lacking legal status suggests the measures would have significant impacts on the individuals concerned. For example, of the most extensive empirical studies of irregular migrants in the UK, based on 175 interviews, found that over half reported stress and anxiety resulting from their status. Another study, drawing on 75 interviews with young undocumented migrants in the UK, also documented substantial impacts on individuals’ well-being. These findings are discussed in more detail in the Migration Observatory briefing, Irregular migration in the UK.

In summary, both sets of policies seek to deter people from claiming asylum by restricting rights that have traditionally been considered important for integration. This is significant because many of those affected by the policies can be expected to remain in the UK long-term or permanently.

Evidence gaps and limitations

The effects of the Illegal Migration Bill and other deterrence policies on prospective asylum seekers’ decisions will be hard to measure in practice. All forms of immigration fluctuate over time for reasons unrelated to policy, so any increase or decrease in small boat arrivals will not necessarily be the result of government intervention. It is also possible that policy proposals may deter people from applying for asylum without deterring them from entering the UK irregularly. Small boat arrivals are easier to detect than other irregular arrivals, so if people divert course from small boats to other routes, fewer may appear in the statistics.


This research was made possible thanks to the support of Oak Foundation and Trust for London. With thanks to CJ McKinney for detailed comments on a draft of this briefing note.


[1] Home Office Analysis and Insight (2020). Sovereign Borders: International Asylum Comparisons Report: Section 1: Drivers and impact on asylum migration journeys. London: Home Office (released in response to a freedom of information request).

[2] Crawley, H. (2010). Chance or Choice? Understanding Why Asylum Seekers Come to the UK. London: Refugee Council.

[3] Crawley, H., & Hagen‐Zanker, J. (2019). Deciding where to go: Policies, people and perceptions shaping destination preferences. International Migration, 57(1): 20-35.

[4] McAuliffe, M. and Jayasuriya, D. (2016) ‘Do asylum seekers and refugees choose destination countries? Evidence from large‐scale surveys in Australia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka’. International Migration, 54(4): 44-59.

[5] Thielemann, E. (2006). ‘The Effectiveness of Governments’ Attempts to Control Unwanted Migration’, in Parsons, C. and Smeeding, T. M. (eds), Immigration and the Transformation of Europe, pp. 444–74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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