international analysis and commentary

The case of illegal migration in the UK: from a small boat to a political flashpoint


Despite the poly-crisis comprising a war at the EU’s border, alignment between Russia and China, food supply threats, energy and economic challenges and climate change, migration still appears to be a top priority among many European governments.

This is the case for Italy and other southern European countries in the Mediterranean region that are considered the first safe harbor for many migrants escaping from their countries in Africa and the Middle East. It is also the case for the United Kingdom, one of the most advanced democracies in Western Europe, which has just scored 93/100 in the Freedom House Index, due to its political and civil rights.

When it comes to migration, one cannot say that UK is not doing its part. In the last 40 years, the number of immigrants entering the United Kingdom has been constantly increasing. In recent times, the UK has welcomed  thousands of refugees from Ukraine, including in London – a multicultural city where 37% of citizens were born outside the UK. Yet, the challenge is illegal migration, as people often arrive to the UK by boat, in breach of immigration laws, travelling through a safe third country, and without the documents to legally enter in the UK.


Read also: The politics of future migration: hoaxes, nightmares and few certainties


Illegal migration is perceived as such a major challenge that it is part of the five priority plan presented by Prime Minister Rushi Sunak in January 2023. He made clear that, together with the need to boost the economy, stop inflation, create better jobs and improve the NHS, illegal migration has to be stopped for the safety and good of his country.

According to the Illegal Migration Bill, which completed illegal migrants and their family members, including children, should be removed and, unless there are exceptional circumstances found by the Home Secretary, will not be able to ask for asylum and will be sent to Rwanda or another “safe” third country. Although the bill allows those persons to challenge their removal by presenting sound documentation of “serious and irreversible harm” they would encounter if removed, no formal process has been established yet. On the contrary, as things stand, after a migrant has been deemed to have entered the country illegally, the court will not even consider challenges to human rights as grounds to stop the removal.

A protest against the Illegal Migration Bill in London


According to detractors of the bill, the law infringes international law, and would not serve the purpose claimed by the government of discouraging people from risking their lives or of breaking the human traffickers’ business model. Contrary to the case of Ukrainians or Hong Kongese, when sponsorships schemes were applied, illegal migration is a consequence of the lack safe routes for people in a state of need.  Since the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict, 226,200 visas have been issued to Ukrainians, while, over the past two years, Instead, in 2022 alone, more than 45,000 people their lives to cross the English Channel and the number of asylum seekers entering the UK irregularly doubled from 2021 to 2022, reaching 45,755 – more than 150 times the number in 2018.

Yet, the number of illegal migrants within the whole migration wave is very minimal. According to the Office for National Statistics estimation, long-term immigration reached 1.1 million in 2022, while asylum seekers only make up around 18% of all migration to the UK. For the government though, the cost of the asylum system  has reached out of which £6 million are spent daily just for housing. Moreover, many illegal migrants come from safe countries, with the result that more than 160,000 asylum requests are still unresolved.


Read also: E’ possibile in Europa un dibattito razionale sull’immigrazione?


Yet, in 2022, three migrants out of four had their asylum claim accepted. Additionally, even when asylum seekers are considered illegal migrants and have to be removed, as for the , there are still no formal agreements in place with the EU member countries or others to transfer them. At the same time, arrangements with non-EU countries, such as Rwanda are still not operational. Against this backdrop, the bill could result in even more people being held at the UK taxpayer’s expense, waiting for the court to deal with their cases, with an estimated cost that ranges from £219 million to £1.4 billion per year.

Thus, why are the Conservative supporting the bill? It is likely due to internal political reasons. According to Poll of Polls, the leading Conservative party lays at 28%, while the opposition Labour Party would reach 46%. As things stand, it is very unlikely the Conservatives will win the next general election, which could take place by the end of 2024. Yet, since migration has been at the center of many successful political campaigns, such as Brexit, this might be considered by the government as a toll to win back support from those older and whiter clusters of citizens, living in the peripheries of the country, who are afraid that migration could cut their welfare or destroy their national culture. Such a strategy, however, could come at the cost of losing the most liberal voters.

The in the Parliament and went through the to be examined in detail will have to undergo through a  third reading at the House of Common, pass through the same steps in the House of Lords and finally reach the Royal Assent and become an applicable law. Yet, in the words of Home Secretary Suella Braverman, there is more than a 50% chance that provisions in the new law are not compatible with international treaties signed by the UK, such as the European Convention on Human Rights.

Even in this case, there would be no formal repercussion for the UK, apart from reputational damage within an international arena that is already too busy on the “eastern front” at the moment. On the contrary, if the UK passes the bill into law, more countries in western Europe might end up challenging the European and international systems too and follow its example. Indeed, if the UK, a leading supporter of the rule of law, democracy and human rights, can do it, why should others not?