Proposals to further criminalise and imprison people seeking asylum to cost more than £400m per year - Refugee Council
July 19, 2021

Proposals to further criminalise and imprison people seeking asylum to cost more than £400m per year

Thousands of people who come to the UK seeking safety could be imprisoned for up to four years at a cost of £412 million a year under new legislation being debated in Parliament today. 

The Nationality and Borders Bill, which receives its second reading in Parliament today, includes provisions for people who have fled war, terror and oppression to seek asylum in the UK to be arrested and prosecuted under a new offence for arriving in the UK without a valid entry clearance.  Under the proposed new law – specifically affecting those who arrive by sea – these vulnerable people could face up to four years in prison.

The government’s intention to further criminalise people seeking asylum are unlikely to deter people from attempting to reach the UK and would be hugely expensive to implement.

We estimate that the majority of people who arrive via the channel could be convicted and imprisoned under the new legislation at a cost of £412 million each year or £1.65 billion for four years in custody (1). The cost of imprisoning people seeking asylum is estimated to be five times more than accommodating them in the asylum support system (2).

New polling by ourselves and the think tank British Future also reveals that the new legislation, which sets out plans to treat people seeking asylum differently depending on how they reach the UK, is in conflict with how the public think the government should respond to refugees.

The polling by ICM found that three out of five Britons (58%) agree that the asylum system does need to be improved but that any reforms must keep the core principle that those who need protection should get it. Only one in eight (13%) disagree.

The polling also found that more than half of Britons (52%) agree that everybody seeking asylum should get a fair hearing for their claim based on its merits not on how they arrived in the UK. Only just over one in five (22%) disagree (3).

We are proud members of Together With Refugees, a new coalition campaign of more than 280 organisations that is calling for a more effective, fair and humane approach to the UK’s asylum system.

Commenting today our CEO Enver Solomon, said:

“To treat vulnerable men, women and children who have put their lives at risk to reach safety in the UK as criminals is not only a huge waste of taxpayers’ money but also a brutal, cruel and cold-hearted response by this government.

“For generations Conservative prime ministers from Winston Churchill to Theresa May have given people fleeing war, terror and oppression a fair hearing on our soil.  Global Britain must not now turn its back on these British values of fairness and compassion.

“The majority of the public clearly believe that the UK must continue to protect our fellow human beings no matter how they arrived on our shores.”


  1. Calculation based on 69% of the 14,000 estimated number of people who will cross the channel in 2021 (9,660 people) being convicted of the new offence, multiplied by the average cost of prison place of £42,670 in 2019/20 according to Ministry of Justice data. The 69% figure is based on the average conviction rate for the last 5 years for offences committed under section 24 of the Immigration Act 1971. The estimated 14,000 number of people is based on the fact that so far in 2021 7,000 people seeking asylum have crossed the channel and it is estimated that it will double by the end of the year.
  2. Based on a comparison of the average annual cost per prisoner in the prison system being £42,670 in 2019/20 (MoJ source data) and the annual cost to the Home Office per person in the asylum system in 2019/2020 being £9,279 (Home Offfice source data)
  3. ICM Unlimited interviewed 2,005 GB adults aged 18+ online from 9-12 July 2021. Data were weighted to be representative of GB adults by age, gender, region and socio-economic characteristics including SEG. ICM Unlimited is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.
  4. Together With Refugees is a coalition of more than 280 national and local organisations, refugees and people from all walks of life who believe in showing compassion to refugees fleeing war and persecution. The coalition was founded by Asylum Matters, British Red Cross, Freedom from Torture, Refugee Action, Refugee Council and Scottish Refugee Council.
    1. The coalition is calling for a better approach to supporting refugees that: allows people to seek safety in the UK, no matter how they came here; ensures people can live in dignity while they wait to find out if they will be granted protection; and enables refugees to rebuild their lives and make valuable contributions to their communities. It also wants the UK to work with other countries to do its bit to help people forced to flee their homes. Find out more at the Together With Refugees website.