Rishi Sunak and home secretary Suella Braverman have announced plans to stop people arriving on small boats from claiming asylum, throwing the UK immigration system into the spotlight once again.
Ms Braverman says that the new legislation means that “if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay”, and that those who arrive by small boat will be detained and deported – either to their home country or to a “safe third country, like Rwanda”. There will be a small number of exemptions to this policy.
But it’s not just Channel crossings that the government has to worry about.
The backlog of all asylum claims – including people who reached the UK by other means – is more than ten times higher than it was in 2010, FactCheck analysis of Home Office data shows.
On the final day of 2010, some 14,882 applicants were still awaiting a decision. This figure includes main applicants and their family members. By the end of 2022 – the latest point for which we have data – that figure was 166,261. That’s an eleven-fold increase in twelve years.
Is it illegal to arrive in the UK by crossing the Channel in a small boat?
This is one of the questions readers ask us most. The answer is complicated.
Under existing British law, it’s illegal to enter the country without a visa or special permission. That means someone who reaches the UK on a small boat could face up to four years in prison.
But people who make the crossing are protected by international law if they claim asylum once they arrive. That means they can’t be punished while their application is being considered – and if they’re successful, they won’t be prosecuted for the way they arrived.
So, arriving by small boat is only illegal if you don’t claim asylum – or if you make an asylum claim and it’s rejected.
Though even then, the chances of someone being prosecuted are low. Robert McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, explained to FactCheck: “I don’t think people tend to be prosecuted for irregular arrival if they are unsuccessful in claiming asylum”.
What is the difference between a migrant and an asylum seeker?
This is another area of confusion.
While there’s no single definition of a migrant or an immigrant, these are generally used as umbrella terms to describe someone who moves from one country to another. This can include people who are moving for economic reasons.
“Asylum seeker” is a much more specific term. Under the UN Convention of 1951, it refers to someone who is asking for safety in another country “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” in their home nation.
If an asylum seeker is granted asylum, they are given refugee status.
What does the government say?
A Home Office spokesperson told FactCheck: “Our priority is to stop the boats and ensure that people who come here illegally are detained and swiftly removed.
“We are working to speed up asylum processing so that people do not wait months or years in the backlog, at vast expense to the taxpayer, and to remove everyone who doesn’t have a legitimate reason to be here.
“To ensure our processes remain robust and all claims are properly considered, we have recruited hundreds of caseworkers to crack through cases.
“As part of these efforts to speed up the asylum process for high-grant nationalities, 12,000 asylum seekers who have made legacy asylum claims will be asked to provide details in a new Home Office questionnaire to help determine their case. If they do not reply, their asylum claim could be withdrawn.”