Over 19,000 people fleeing war and persecution – including those escaping Ukraine - could face imprisonment under Government plans - Refugee Council
April 25, 2022

Over 19,000 people fleeing war and persecution – including those escaping Ukraine – could face imprisonment under Government plans

New analysis shows that Government plans to punish people who have been forced to take an irregular journey to Britain could see more than 19,200 people seeking asylum convicted and imprisoned. (1) This could include people fleeing violence and bloodshed in Ukraine and Afghanistan and is an act that goes against international law as established in the Refugee Convention.

These new figures have been released by the Refugee Council on the day that the Nationality and Borders Bill – condemned by campaigners as the ‘Anti-Refugee Bill’ – reaches its final stages in the Houses of Parliament, and set out to illustrate the harmful impact of the Bill’s proposals.

Under this new bill, the analysis suggests 19,288 people could be convicted and imprisoned each year, for arriving in the UK via what is deemed to be an irregular route, regardless of their country of origin and the circumstances they are fleeing from. The new analysis also lays bare the extortionate cost to the public purse of these plans – a staggering £835 million per year (2)

In previous research the Refugee Council highlighted that in the vast majority of cases the men, women and children forced to make terrifying journeys across the Channel would be successfully granted refugee status. These people are fleeing countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Eritrea where human rights abuses are rife and therefore their protection needs are clear (3).

As well as facing criminalisation and imprisonment they could also face being transported to Rwanda. Based on an analysis of official data the Refugee Council says that 172 people could have been sent to Rwanda last year had a deal been in place with the East African country. It estimates that this year the number is not likely to be much higher than that. (6)

The Refugee Council also reveals that more than 15,000 mainly vulnerable women and children who have become separated from their loved ones during conflict would be prevented from reuniting with their family member in the UK as a direct result of the bill which all but destroys one of the main legal safe routes. Refugee family reunion, which has recently been used for Ukrainian refugees, has provided a key safe route and enabled over 29,000 to find safety in Britain over the last 5 years (5).

The lack of Government safe routes means that people are forced to rely on smuggling gangs and take dangerous journeys such as boat crossings over the English Channel, as the only route to safety when fleeing war, conflict and persecution.

People like Ali who was forced to flee his home country of Iran where he was at risk of persecution. Ali travelled from Iran and eventually crossed the Channel to find safety in the UK. Should the proposals in the bill already be law, Ali could have been imprisoned on arrival in the UK.

Talking about this part of his journey, Ali says: “At the start of the journey someone dropped in the water and it was the hardest moment of my life, you only have two or three seconds to think you want to help and helping is very dangerous so you can be choosing between your life and his. I decided to try and save him but when I tried to pull him, he tried to pull me down, I got him on the boat but I have that same dream every night, him pulling and me trying to save him, that exact moment in my dreams.

 “Passing the Channel crossing is between bad and worse, there were no more options, it’s like a war, you never forget it. For 10 hours the only thing you can see is giant ships and water, nothing more. You have nothing to eat or drink, the only thing you have is hope.”

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said: “This analysis shows the real impact this bill will have on desperate men, women and children who are simply trying to find safety when fleeing the dangers of war and persecution.

“Punishing people, treating them like criminals and human cargo to be expelled to Rwanda is not only inhumane, cruel and nasty but it will do nothing to address the reasons why people take perilous journeys to find safety in the UK. It will do little to deter them from coming to this country, but only lead to more human suffering and chaos – at a huge potential expense of nearly a billion pounds each year.

 “The government is destroying a key principle of refugee protection – that we should not discriminate against refugees based on how they travel. People desperately fleeing war and persecution should always have a fair hearing on British soil.

 “The approach is wrong in principle and unworkable in practise. If the Government is serious about tackling people smugglers and operating an orderly asylum system, we need to see well thought-out, long-term solutions that address why people are forced from their homes and provides them with safe routes to the UK.”

 The return of the Bill to the House of Lords today comes over a week after the Government announced a deal with the Rwandan government that will forcibly remove some people seeking asylum in the UK, without their consent, and fly them four thousand miles to Rwanda, to enter the asylum system there.


Notes to Editors 

  1. Based on the number of people crossing the channel in 2021, and on the assumption that the government would seek to prosecute everyone arriving irregularly, with a conviction rate of 69% (the conviction rate for the last 5 years for similar offences in existing law).
  2. Estimated annual cost of £835 million based on 19,564 people being convicted each year multiplied by £42,650 (the average cost of a prison place in 2020)
  3. Refugee Council, ‘Channel crossings and asylum outcomes’, 17 November 2021, found here.
  4. Home Office Policy paper: ‘Nationality and Borders Bill: equality impact assessment’, 16 September 2021, found here.
  5. The Refugee Council has found that as many as 3,067 people per year being prevented from joining their families with as many as 15,335 being unable to access this vital safe route over the next five years. Home Office ‘New Plan for Immigration Policy Statement’, March 2021’ found here
  6. Calculated based on the number of people issued with a notice of intent in 2021, on the assumption that 2% of decisions following a notice of intent will result in the person being deemed inadmissible, (given that 2% of notice of intent decisions in 2021 resulted in being deemed inadmissible).