On 9 May 2024, the House of Lords is due to consider the following question for short debate tabled by Lord German (Liberal Democrat):

To ask His Majesty’s Government what estimate they have made of the number of people who have entered the United Kingdom without prior permission since 7 March 2023 and so have been deemed inadmissible to the asylum system, and what plans they have to deal with them.

1. What is illegal migration?

Most migration into the UK is through legal routes, such as visas granted for work or study. The UK also has some legal routes for those seeking asylum or humanitarian protection, such as for people fleeing the war in Ukraine, people from Hong Kong, or Afghans who assisted the UK armed forces during the war in Afghanistan.[1]

In recent years, concerns have been raised about levels of illegal or ‘irregular’ migration into the UK, particularly through small boat crossings in the English Channel. In 2023, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, pledged to legislate to “stop small boats” as part of his government’s “five key priorities” that year.[2]

In 2023, approximately 29,000 people arrived on small boats.[3] This was a decline of 36% compared to approximately 45,000 people in 2022.

The current law, as amended by the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, allows asylum claims to be declared inadmissible if the claimant has a “connection to a safe third state”.[4] Home Office guidance states that this is intended to support the safety of migrants by “encouraging asylum seekers to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach and deterring them from making unnecessary and dangerous onward journeys to the UK”.[5]

As part of the government’s policy to further reduce small boat crossings, it passed the Illegal Migration Act 2023. The act was originally introduced in the House of Commons on 7 March 2023 and it received royal assent on 20 July 2023. Section 5 of the act provides that asylum claims will automatically be deemed inadmissible for those who have arrived illegally since 20 July 2023.[6] Section 2 of the act places a duty on the secretary of state to remove such people from the UK. However, at the time of writing, sections 2 and 5 of the act have not yet been commenced. The act has been controversial. Concerns have been raised about its compliance with international law, including the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.[7]

The government plans to use the inadmissibility rules in conjunction with its Rwanda relocation scheme to remove those who have entered the UK illegally. In 2022, Boris Johnson’s government announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Rwanda to establish a migration and economic development partnership.[8] Under the agreement, people with asylum applications deemed inadmissible by the UK would be flown to Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed there. If their claim is granted, they would remain in Rwanda and would not be eligible to return to the UK.

In November 2023, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Rwanda scheme was unlawful.[9] The court held that Rwanda was not a safe country because of the risk that it would not decide asylum claims properly and it could send refugees back to countries that were unsafe.

In response to the judgment, the government upgraded the Rwanda agreement to a legally binding treaty and it passed the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024. The act declares that Rwanda is a safe country for the transfer and processing of asylum seekers. Both the treaty and the act came into force on 25 April 2024.[10]

Questions have been raised about the capacity for Rwanda to take asylum seekers from the UK even if the scheme works as intended. In 2022, the UK government said that Rwanda could initially accommodate 200 people, but it planned to “scale up capacity once flights begin”.[11]

2. How many people have arrived illegally since March 2023?

Around 40,000 people have entered the UK through irregular or illegal routes since March 2023. This estimate is comprised of the following elements:

  • 643 people who arrived on small boats between 7–31 March 2023[12]
  • 30,973 people who arrived through all irregular routes from 1 April–31 December 2023[13]
  • 7,567 people who arrived on small boats between 1 January–30 April 2024[14]
  • Total: 39,183

It should be noted that, except for the April–December 2023 period, the published data does not include those who may have arrived in the UK through an irregular route other than on small boats. There is also currently no data on how many of the above cohort have made an asylum application and therefore how many of those claims could be deemed inadmissible under the Illegal Migration Act 2023.

3. How is the government dealing with illegal migrants?

On 22 April 2024, Rishi Sunak gave a press conference on the day that the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill was passed by Parliament.[15] He said that the legislation provided an “indispensable deterrent” that would “finally break the business model of the criminal gangs and save lives”. He set out the government’s plans for operationalising the Rwanda scheme:

Starting from the moment that the bill passes we will begin the process of removing those identified for the first flight […] To quickly process claims, we’ve got 200 trained dedicated caseworkers ready and waiting. To deal with any legal cases quickly and decisively, the judiciary have made available 25 courtrooms and identified 150 judges who could provide over 5,000 sitting days […] And most importantly, once the processing is complete, we will physically remove people.[16]

Mr Sunak said he expected the first flight would “leave in 10 to 12 weeks”, followed by “multiple flights every month over the summer and beyond until the boats are stopped”.

On 28 April 2024, the Guardian reported that the government had initiated a “major operation” to detain asylum seekers throughout the UK “in preparation for their deportation to Rwanda”. The article stated:

Officials plan to hold asylum seekers who turn up for routine meetings at immigration service offices or bail appointments and will also pick people up nationwide in a surprise two-week exercise […] Detainees will be immediately transferred to detention centres, which have already been prepared for the operation, and held until they are put on planes to Rwanda.[17]

On 29 April 2024, the Times reported that thousands of people the government had earmarked for removal to Rwanda could not be located.[18] The report referred to an equality impact assessment on the Rwanda agreement published by the Home Office. The impact assessment stated that of the “5,700 people Rwanda has in principle agreed to accept, 2,143 continue to report to the Home Office and can be located for detention”.[19]

On 1 May 2024, the Home Office announced that the “first illegal migrants set to be removed to Rwanda have now been detained, following a series of nationwide operations”.[20]

4. Opposition views and external commentary

The Labour Party has criticised the government’s handling of illegal migration and specifically the Rwanda scheme. During the third reading debate in the House of Commons on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill in January 2024, the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said:

We have a failing Rwanda scheme that is costing Britain £400mn, that sent more home secretaries than asylum seekers to Kigali and that will only apply to less than 1% of those arriving in the UK […] If the government ever finally implement the Illegal Migration Act 2023, that will immediately create a list of 35,000 people the home secretary is supposed to send immediately to Rwanda. At this rate, it will take the government 100 years to implement their own failing policy.[21]

On 1 May 2024, Labour Leader Keir Starmer responded to suggestions that the party could retain the Rwanda scheme for a period if it formed a future government. Mr Starmer told Sky News that those reports were false. He said:

I don’t believe in the [Rwanda] scheme, I don’t believe it will work. I know we have to stop the boats. I want to get going with our plan to stop the boats on day one, which requires stopping the gangs that are running this vile trade.[22]

Mr Starmer said Labour would collaborate with law enforcement and international allies to share data and intelligence to disrupt the gangs trafficking people across the English Channel.

The Illegal Migration Act 2023 and the Rwanda scheme have also been criticised by refugee charities and human rights groups. In July 2023, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said it had “profound concern” about the legislation, which it said would “amount to an asylum ban” in the UK.[23]

In April 2024, the Refugee Council published the report ‘Cost, chaos and human misery: The impact of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 and the Rwanda plan’. The report estimated that over 105,000 people could be subject to the act’s inadmissibility conditions by the end of 2024. It claimed that “at the most 1,900” people could be removed to Rwanda, leaving the remainder in “permanent limbo” with their asylum claims “permanently inadmissible, but not removed from the UK”. The report said the policy could cause an asylum system “meltdown” and it called for the legislation to be repealed.

5. Read more

Cover image from Pixabay.


  1. Home Office, ‘Safe and legal routes’, 20 July 2023. Return to text
  2. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘Prime minister outlines his five key priorities for 2023’, 4 January 2023. Return to text
  3. Home Office, ‘Irregular migration to the UK, year ending December 2023’, 29 February 2024. Return to text
  4. Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, s 80B. Return to text
  5. Home Office, ‘Inadmissibility: Safe third country cases’, 29 April 2024, p 8. Return to text
  6. House of Commons Library, ‘The UK-Rwanda migration and economic development partnership’, 25 April 2024, p 5. Return to text
  7. House of Lords Library, ‘Current Affairs Digest: Law (July 2023)’, 3 July 2023. Return to text
  8. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘PM speech on action to tackle illegal migration: 14 April 2022’, 14 April 2022. Return to text
  9. R (AAA and others) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2023] UKSC 42. Return to text
  10. Home Office, ‘UK-Rwanda treaty completes ratification process’, 25 April 2024. Return to text
  11. House of Commons, ‘Written question: Asylum: Rwanda (97762)’, 6 December 2022. Return to text
  12. Home Office, ‘Migrants detected crossing the English Channel in small boats’, accessed 3 May 2024. Return to text
  13. Home Office, ‘Irregular migration detailed datasets and summary tables: Irr_D01’, 29 February 2024. Return to text
  14. Home Office, ‘Migrants detected crossing the English Channel in small boats’, accessed 3 May 2024. Return to text
  15. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s statement on the plan to stop the boats: 22 April 2024’, 22 April 2024. Return to text
  16. As above. Return to text
  17. Severin Carrell et al, ‘Home Office to detain asylum seekers across UK in shock Rwanda operation’, Guardian, 28 April 2024. Return to text
  18. Matt Dathan, ‘Home Office lost contact with thousands set for Rwanda flights’, Times (£), 29 April 2024. Return to text
  19. Home Office, ‘Migration and Economic Development Partnership with Rwanda: Equality impact assessment’, 29 April 2024. Return to text
  20. Home Office, ‘First phase of detentions underway for Rwanda relocations’, 1 May 2024. Return to text
  21. HC Hansard, 17 January 2024, cols 966–7. Return to text
  22. Sky News, ‘Sir Keir Starmer: Labour leader denies reports he would retain Rwanda scheme if elected’, 1 May 2024. Return to text
  23. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (the UN Refugee Agency), ‘UK asylum and policy and the Illegal Migration Act’, accessed 2 May 2024. Return to text