Blog post by Holly Grey who has recently completed the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies

Yet again, the UK is undergoing changes to its asylum policy and at the time of writing, the Illegal Migration Bill sits with the House of Lords. Initially, this piece was inspired by the Nationality and Borders Act, which only passed in 2022. What’s striking about these most recent legislative changes is an asylum system that is becoming increasingly restrictive.

It is necessary to look back at UK asylum policy to try and understand where we are now, with proposed laws that wish to make asylum almost impossible to access. Therefore, this blog analyses academic literature on changes to the UK asylum system during the period 1999-2022, covering asylum policy under both Labour and Conservative governments. Each section includes a description of the policy change, background information pertaining to its introduction, and any significant responses from the public, media outlets, scholars and charitable organisations.

Immigration and Asylum Act 1999

The 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act was introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government. It overhauled the UK asylum system with drastic changes made to support entitlements of those seeking asylum. Firstly, it created the social group of people seeking asylum as distinct from people with Refugee Status. It therefore stigmatised people in the asylum system as it represented separation and essentially extended borders into society. For example, the Act removed Local Authority responsibility to house and financially support people in the asylum system and instead directed these needs to be met by the Home Office. Secondly, people seeking asylum were no longer entitled to mainstream benefits. A voucher scheme was introduced and accommodation was provided on a no choice basis.

The Labour government justified such policy changes as a means of deterring people from making false asylum claims, particularly ‘economic migrants’ rather than ‘genuine refugees’, as discussed in the White Paper: Fairer, Faster, and Firmer – A Modern Approach to Immigration. The government argued that the previous cash payments in place acted as a motivator to those making false asylum claims. It was therefore assumed that by replacing cash with vouchers the number of applications for asylum would decline. This possibly demonstrates that the narrative of people falsely claiming asylum was ignited by the rising number of asylum applications in the UK throughout the 1990s. For instance, asylum applications stood at 43,965 in 1991 compared to just 4,256 in 1987, yet decisions on asylum claims did not increase at the same rate and created a backlog when Labour came into power.

The changes to asylum support faced criticism from numerous scholars, charitable organisations and media outlets. Namely, Oxfam refused to be part of the voucher scheme in its shops, especially because legislation forbade sellers from providing any change. Equally, the voucher system was disapproved  by NGOs of as it meant families in the asylum system had to make tough decisions on how funds were spent. The introduction of dispersal accommodation was similarly condemned by academics since it arguably led to ‘dumping’ people seeking asylum in certain areas that were not equipped to provide the necessary support. For instance, in dispersal towns, the NHS was unprepared to respond to the complicated health needs of newly arrived people seeking asylum, whilst most legal representatives were concentrated close to airports and docks. In addition, The Economist published an article that questioned the government’s intense deterrence efforts whilst accepting high numbers of Kosovan refugees, therefore indicating a level of hypocrisy.

Clearly, the introduction of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 is a fundamental moment for UK asylum policy, with the surrounding narrative inherently critical. Most of the literature, published both at the time and now, focuses on the changes made to welfare entitlements of people in the asylum system. This emphasis is justified because separating people seeking asylum from the rest of the UK population laid the foundations for the direction of future policymaking on asylum.

Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002

In their second term of office, Labour swiftly introduced further legislation impacting the asylum system: the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Considering major reform had only just been implemented in 1999, the hasty arrival of this Act was a surprise in itself. Like its predecessor, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 continued to lessen support entitlements of people seeking asylum. Specifically, one of the most controversial reforms related to Section 55(1), whereby housing and financial support could be refused if people did not claim asylum ‘as soon as reasonably practical after the person’s arrival in the United Kingdom’. Generally, this was considered to be within 72 hours of arrival. Consequently, those who were refused asylum support had to rely on the support of their community or local charitable organisations. Such measures put people seeking asylum at risk of extreme deprivation. Webber (2004) draws on case studies of newly arrived individuals who attempted to formally claim asylum but obstacles, for example not knowing where to go and a lack of English, led to them being denied support under Section 55 and becoming destitute.

The White Paper: Secure Borders, Safe Haven – Integration with Diversity in Modern Britain also included plans to use accommodation centres, which were equally criticised. Accommodation centres were proposed to support people seeking asylum from their arrival up until their decision including any further appeals, whilst providing food and provisions for education and health. Human Rights Watch published concerns, questioning whether the centres were built for administrative ease instead of out of protection needs. It is noteworthy that following the implementation of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, many people seeking asylum were dispersed to economically and socially deprived areas, which led to social tensions that were later used to justify this policy of separation.

The accommodation centres would continue to exclude people seeking asylum, arguably taking the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 a step further by physically removing people from the rest of UK society. Home Office attempts to construct such centres were not met without objection. Local residents and organisations in areas like Bicester and Newton protested against the proposals, arguing their rural locations meant they lacked the necessary infrastructure required to host the high number of people who would be moved to such centres. Following the protests, the Home Office still presented their plans to the retrospective Local Authorities of Bicester and Newton, but both maintained the rural locations were inappropriate and subsequently the plans were rejected. Overall, accommodation centres were generally unsuccessful: due to limited availability of suitable sites which was then coupled with opposition from communities and Local Authorities.

The drastic changes made to UK asylum policy under this Labour government came within quick succession and have been paramount in creating the landscape for those seeking asylum in the UK today. For example, the creation of support entitlements under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 leaves a legacy that continues to this day. People seeking asylum remain financially supported by the Home Office and are still accommodated on a no-choice basis until their claim is concluded. Undoubtedly, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 attempted to separate people seeking asylum even further from society by physically moving people into accommodation centres. Yet, such attempts can be regarded as less successful. The Acts have revealed that asylum was a pertinent issue for the UK regardless of which of the two main political parties is in power.

Immigration Act 2014

This section now turns to policy changes under the Conservative government that came to power in 2010. The Conservatives were fixated on reducing overall migration to the UK whilst penalising those living here illegally, creating what became known as ‘the hostile environment’. Defining the hostile environment is difficult due to the fact it has become embedded throughout various policies. Additionally, the government did not introduce a White Paper, a principal policy document, or an official definition or aim. Yet, it is mostly accepted as a term used to identify policy intended to make it progressively more difficult for migrants, including irregular (or so-called ‘illegal’) migrants, to live in the UK. It is recognised that the premise of the hostile environment has been around long before Conservative power, as clearly evidenced by Labour’s policies outlined above. Nonetheless, this post has chosen to define the hostile environment as beginning with this era of Conservative rule because the Immigration Act 2014 arguably ‘cemented’ the hostile environment through legal means whilst demonstrating a harsh move to the right in UK immigration policy.

The Immigration Act 2014 consisted of changes which affected people’s access to housing, healthcare, work, education and even bank accounts, depending on their immigration status. These changes not only impacted immigrants, but wider society. More precisely, the Act obliged the average person working in the above sectors, like landlords and doctors, to carry out immigration checks to ensure a person’s eligibility for these services, arguably legitimising border control as part of everyday life. The response and impact of these immigration checks spanned across multiple sectors. For instance, health practitioners were concerned about how it affected relationships with patients and the ethos behind providing medical care, which should be based upon ‘confidentiality, compassion and care for the patient and public as a whole’. Alike, Patel and Peel (2017) reported on how these policies led to racial profiling, especially amongst landlords checking people’s right to rent: out of the landlords they surveyed, 51% raised concerns over renting to people originating outside the EU.

Although the Immigration Act 2014 was not precisely designed for people in the asylum system, it is still worth examining because it is useful in exemplifying UK attitudes to immigration as a whole. Furthermore, the policies did impact people who had failed asylum claims and often left them without any support other than that from charitable organisations. The hostile environment was also spread via media campaigns organised by the Home Office in this era. One of the most striking were the Go Home Vans’ that patrolled ethnically diverse boroughs in London. The vans read: In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest…Text HOME for free advice…106 arrests last week in your area. As noted by someone with a failed asylum claim, the vans made it evident the UK was not their home, as in the eyes of the Home Office they belonged somewhere else. Similarly, for people seeking asylum, the hostile environment had an increased influence that spread beyond historically hostile settings like detention centres or reporting centres.

Clearly, the Immigration Act 2014 and the overarching hostile environment does impact people seeking asylum, whether that be directly through policy, or its overflow into everyday interactions and scaremongering. The difficultly in defining the hostile environment was clear within the literature, evidencing its multifaceted nature. Yet, similar to its predecessor’s Acts, the Conservative’s 2014 Immigration Act and hostile environment also demonstrated a separation and continual erosion of access to welfare, which spanned further into the health, education and economic sectors. Analysing this period of Conservative rule is therefore relevant and contributes to an understanding of the UK’s increasingly restrictive asylum policies.

The EU referendum 2016

Turning to the Conservative’s second term in office, ‘Brexit’ takes centre stage because the UK public had positioned immigration as one of the most significant issues in the UK during that time. Despite their efforts, the Conservative party were unsuccessful in meeting their aims of reducing migration to the tens of thousands, which perhaps partly explains why public attitudes were fixated on this subject. The timing of the referendum also happened to correspond with the ‘refugee crisis’, and in 2015 the number of people arriving to the EU via sea had increased four-fold compared to 2014 levels. This was partly due to the Syrian conflict. Despite Brexit and the ‘refugee crisis’ being separate subjects, the two were frequently intertwined ahead of the referendum and used to argue choosing to leave the EU.

In particular, the Leave campaign played on immigration as a reason to the leave the EU, with the slogan ‘take back control’ commonly used across media channels and in public debate. Throughout the campaign, migrants were often blamed for straining public health services like the NHS and housing, contributing to unemployment and bearing the guilt for a changing culture and demographic amongst the UK population. According to Virdee and McGeever (2018) the idea of migrants as a security threat was also pertinent and specifically Muslim culture was considered by some in the UK Independence Party (UKIP) as contrary to that of being British. The Leave campaign was able to spread such messages using the support of right-wing newspapers like the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express.

It is worth drawing attention to the ‘refugee crisis’ and its interconnectedness with Brexit. For example, ahead of the referendum, UKIP created a striking campaign poster that read ‘breaking point: the EU has failed us all’ alongside an image of people, supposedly seeking asylum, queuing at (an unknown) border. Clearly, the notion that the EU could not handle the ‘refugee crisis’ was critical to arguments of some of the Leave campaigners. Although the Remain campaign tried to counteract arguments by calling upon the inability of Brexit to actually control migration, it appeared the Leave campaign registered with more of the British public. As found in Crawley et al’s (2016) research, someone seeking asylum acknowledged feeling scared and judged by British media, which affected their everyday life; as a result they even decided to leave a busy train in case people knew of their immigration status. Such feelings are entirely understandable given that the outcome of the referendum led to a rise in racial and religious hate crime for up to six weeks after the vote.

Although there was limited literature on how Brexit impacted people seeking asylum specifically, it quickly became evident that immigration was a key factor in the EU referendum with a specific focus on the Leave campaign. Similarly, since the referendum coincided with the ‘refugee crisis’ it meant this event could not be ignored within this research project. Reflecting on this Conservative period in its entirety, it could be said the combination of the hostile environment and the focus on immigration ahead of the Brexit vote created an anti-immigrant sentiment that was strong enough to pave the way for the proposal of the Nationality and Borders Act.

Nationality and Borders Act 2022

The Nationality and Borders Act passed on 28 April 2022 and was described as the ‘biggest overhaul of our asylum system in decades’. Undoubtedly, our asylum system needed change: at the end of June 2021 the number of people awaiting a result on their claim had increased by 70% since the previous decade, indicating an alarming backlog. The Nationality and Borders Act wished to enact such change by concentrating on deterring ‘illegal’ entry into the UK whilst putting an end to the use of people smugglers, ensure that those people with no right to stay in the UK are removed, and make the asylum system fairer in support of people who need asylum.

The policy statement titled ‘New Plan for Immigration’ focused on ‘illegal’ immigration, outlining how someone arrives to the UK could affect their claim for asylum and the rights they are entitled to upon a positive decision. Some of the travel routes considered as ‘illegal entry’ by the UK government include via boat, inside a shipping container or lorry. The policy statement outlined this two-tier approach with a ‘temporary protection status’, which included fewer rights for those upon a successful asylum claim: it will only last for 30 months with less access to rights such as family reunion. There is also mention in the policy statement about the possibility of offshoring asylum claims.

The New Plan for Immigration coincided with an increased number of small boat crossings to the UK. According to the Home Office, 8500 people made this journey in 2020. In the views of the Refugee Council, the rise in small boat crossings evidences a change of travel method and does not necessarily reflect a high number of asylum claims. For example, the number of asylum claims at the end of June 2021 was 4% lower than 2020. People entering the UK ‘illegally’ was also a prominent issue in 2014, yet the main modes of transport at that time were via hiding on ferries, trucks, cars and trains. As a result, the UK toughened security at the France-UK border, which perhaps explains the rise in small boat crossings.

In response to the New Plan for Immigration, the government initiated a consultation process which itself received criticisms. Refugee Action condemned the consultation as ‘poorly designed, confusing and inaccessible, which failed to consider the Lived Experiences of those who have sought asylum in the UK. Likewise, UNHCR voiced concern about the UK neglecting its commitments to international law, specifically the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Prior to the Act’s passing into law, the Bingham Centre produced multiple reports analysing the specificities of the Nationality and Borders Act and its legality. Notably, it claimed the UK is breaching international law by creating a secondary category of Refugee Status dependent on mode of transport for arrival. Despite these concerns, the Nationality and Borders Act still passed into law.

Within the same month of passing the Nationality and Borders Act, the plan to offshore asylum claims to Rwanda was also announced. This announcement sent shockwaves across the country. The first flight from the UK to Rwanda was due to take off in June 2022. However, intervention from the European Court of Human Rights led to its cancellation at the last minute. Yet, the current Home Secretary has stated it’s their ‘dream’ and ‘obsession’ to be responsible for flights to Rwanda to recommence. This insinuates a commitment to the plan despite the legal challenges.

It is hoped this blog has aided understandings of the steps that have incrementally but decisively led to the introduction of the most recent asylum policy in the UK, including the Nationality and Borders Act and the Illegal Migration Bill (currently still with the House of Lords) and their ever-increasing restrictiveness.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.