Managing migration through deterrence: an examination of UK policy

By Victoria Tecca


What are deterrence policies?

British immigration policy is largely shaped by the assumption that restrictive and punitive measures will deter people from migrating to the United Kingdom. The ‘Hostile Environment’ policies are an example of this theory in action. Now referred to by the government as the ‘compliant environment’,[1] the Hostile Environment is an umbrella term for a series of policies first introduced by the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016 and developed over the years via several legislative and administrative measures.[2] The Hostile Environment aims to make it exceptionally difficult for undocumented people to live in the UK, hoping that those without leave to remain will leave voluntarily and that those considering migrating to the UK will be discouraged from doing so.[3] It works by diffusing the border and scattering it throughout everyday life; immigration checks are no longer undergone solely upon entering the country, but also when attempting to rent a flat, find work, or maintain a bank account.

Restrictive policies such as the Hostile Environment form part of a wider array of measures – here referred to as deterrence policies – that aim to reduce migration to the UK. These policies have two distinct facets: prevention through border securitisation and general dissuasion of migration to the UK. The securitisation of the UK border includes its externalisation through juxtaposed controls, the development of border security infrastructure and surveillance technology along the southern border, and the financing of French police operations and asylum reception centres.

Dissuasion, on the other hand, is attempted simultaneously by internalising the border. This is achieved through policies such as the Hostile Environment, the subjection of asylum seekers to inhumane conditions in disused military barracks while they await long-term accommodation, the rejection of a significant number of asylum applications later granted upon appeal, performative threats to deport asylum seekers who arrive by boat, indefinite immigration detention, the ‘no recourse to public funds’ policy, and the newly introduced Nationality and Borders Bill which aims to create a regime restricting the rights of protection granted to those who arrive in the UK through irregular means. These two facets (prevention and dissuasion) are two sides of the same coin that is deterrence. They are intertwined in that border securitisation, and control mechanisms aim to deter future migrants from entering the UK using those same routes, while dissuasion policies also aim to identify, detain, and deport those living in the UK without leave to remain.


The push/pull factor myth

Deterrence policy is derived from the notion that a nation’s propensity to attract migrants can be measured in ‘pull’ factors, while its potential to generate emigrants can be measured in ‘push’ factors. The host of policies outlined above aims to reduce the UK’s ‘pull factors’ by making it a hostile place to live for those who do not ‘comply’ with immigration regulations. However, research consistently shows that this is not how most people (migrants or otherwise) make decisions. The widely critiqued push/pull factor model assumes that people will make rational, economically-driven decisions, that migrants are most often attracted to entire nations rather than to regions or communities, and that migrants are well-informed about the conditions of their reception in the destination country.

In reality, migration is a complex, culturally and socially embedded process. Decisions about where to migrate can be based on limited options, family ties, smugglers’ influence, language, colonial histories, chance, and a host of other factors specific to the person migrating. Often, while perceptions of a country’s associated opportunities are significant, the particular policies of the destination country play little part in making this decision.[4] The Home Office itself commissioned a study in 2002 that found that “[asylum seekers in the UK] are guided more by agents [smugglers], the presence or absence of family and friends, language, and perceived cultural affinities than by scrutiny of asylum policies or rational evaluation of the welfare benefits on offer.” Moreover,  there is “very little evidence that [they] had a detailed knowledge of: UK immigration or asylum procedures; entitlements to benefits in the UK; or the availability of work in the UK.”


Case study: offshore processing in Australia

To better exemplify this, it is helpful to turn to the Australian policy of offshore processing as a case study for measuring the effectiveness of deterrence policies, drawing from a recently published report by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law:

The Australian government has intermittently used offshore processing as a way to deter people from seeking asylum for the past 20 years. Offshore processing is the practice of removing asylum seekers to third countries for the duration of their asylum claims. For this purpose, Australia makes use of locations in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG). Since 2013, all asylum seekers who arrive by boat and are processed offshore are barred from ever settling in Australia, and most are deported to the country from which they departed. The main objectives of this policy are to:

1. Deter irregular maritime migration.

2. Save lives at sea, and

3. “break the business model” of people smugglers.

In all three objectives, the offshore processing model has failed. After the policy’s introduction, there was “no noticeable change in the rate of arrivals, with boats of varying numbers…continuing to arrive on average several times per week.” Further, offshore processing has resulted in eighteen deaths, including six reportedly committing suicide, one homicide (reportedly by Australian and Manusian guards), and two deaths from medical conditions after treatment was withheld or delayed by the Australian government. The conditions in offshore processing centres are harmful and deadly, and by 2019, nearly all asylum seekers still in Nauru and PNG had to be medically evacuated to Australia. Finally, the continuation of boat arrivals despite the offshore processing policy testifies to the fact that the ‘business model’ of smuggling was not broken, and that “there is no single ‘business model’ but rather a variety of models,” that are dynamic and amenable to changes in the policy and border control landscape.

Further failures are exemplified by the exorbitant financial cost of offshore processing (approx. 1 billion AUD annually since 2015), the consistent violation of international law, repeated legal challenges to the policy, and the systemic violence ensuing from the policy. Today, “[w]hile offshore processing formally remains part of Australia’s asylum policy in 2021, Australia has spent considerable effort and money since 2014 trying unsuccessfully to extract itself from its arrangements in Nauru and PNG.”

Additional research has shown that offshore processing in Australia has been unsuccessful as a deterrent because restrictive immigration policies do not impact the common perception of Australia as a democratic civil society, even among those who experienced offshore processing themselves. One research paper (commissioned by the Australian government) concludes that “policies and processes relating to the asylum procedure in destination countries are generally not well known and therefore not highly significant in influencing choice of destination.” The social support networks, historical and colonial ties, and the perception that a country respects the rule of law and human rights are more important factors in determining where to migrate.


The Borders Bill: a further attempt at deterrence

Returning to the UK context, Home Secretary Priti Patel stated that the aims for the latest round of deterrence mechanisms as outlined in the Nationality and Borders Bill were “to deter illegal entry into the UK, breaking the business model of people smugglers and protecting the lives of those they endanger”.[5] These stated aims are exactly the same as those of the Australian model. Nevertheless, despite the clear failure of this model and the wealth of research on migrant decision-making referenced above, the Bill relies on the fallacy that people will be dissuaded from migrating to the UK if immigration policy is both restrictive and punitive.

The measures introduced in the Bill have been sufficiently outlined elsewhere, but at a brief glance, the legislation introduces differential treatment of refugees depending on whether they have been resettled or have arrived spontaneously through irregular means (clause 10). The Bill exempts irregular arrivals from the protections afforded by Article 31 of the Refugee Convention, which safeguards refugees from being prosecuted for their means of entry (clause 34). Any asylum seeker who enters the UK irregularly (including all who cross the Channel by boat or lorry), will face a sentence of up to four years imprisonment (clause 37). Those who are not imprisoned will have their asylum claim rendered inadmissible (clause 14) and be subject to removal (despite the UK having no bilateral agreements with the EU or other countries that would enable such a removal).

Those whose asylum claims are eventually considered in the UK and are successful will have their granted protections curtailed dramatically:

  • Their protection will be temporary.
  • They will continually be reassessed for deportation.
  • Their rights to family reunion will be restricted.
  • They will be subject to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ limitation.

The Bill does not introduce any replacement for regular routes to asylum that were, before Brexit, provided via the Dublin III Regulation, such as family reunification. Therefore, the Bill’s omission of replacement routes effectively reduces the means of entry available to would-be asylum seekers. Finally, among other measures not listed here, the Bill introduces a new ‘priority removal’ process (clauses 18-22) and standardises the use of large camp-style accommodation centres such as Napier Barracks and Penally camp (clause 11).

The Bill is also the first step in enabling the Home Secretary to develop an Australian-style offshore processing system for asylum seekers. It does so through the expansion of large-scale accommodation centres, the introduction of ‘designated places’ from which people may claim asylum, and the newfound ability of the state to remove asylum seekers from the UK while their case or appeal is still pending (schedule 3). Indeed, the Australian model has been cited repeatedly in the media and by policy-makers as the ‘solution’ to the UK’s immigration ‘problem’.

In light of the evidence disproving the effectiveness of deterrence policy, it seems there is little reason to predict that the Bill will achieve the Home Secretary’s stated aims of deterring irregular migration, saving lives, and ‘breaking the business model of people smugglers’. Despite nearly a decade of increasingly restrictive deterrence policy in the UK, the number of people seeking asylum in the UK has steadily increased. Most recently, a new record of boat arrivals was set on 21 August of this year, when 828 people crossed the Channel in a single day.[6] The previous record was reached less than a fortnight before, on 12 August when 592 people arrived. Heavy-handed policies have been ineffective in reducing these numbers.


The real effect of deterrence policy

Rather than deterring migration, one of the primary effects of these policies is to push migrating people into increasingly dangerous and precarious situations. Once in the UK, people subject to immigration control are at disproportionate risk of destitution and homelessness due to the Hostile Environment policies among others, are hesitant to seek medical care because of the Home Office’s history of demanding data from the NHS, are at risk of exploitation by employers for those who do not have the right to work, and have attempted suicide as a result of being placed in unsafe and re-traumatising asylum seeker accommodation.

Just as the Australian model has not deterred migration, the measures introduced in the Nationality and Borders Bill will compound these forms of violence while ignoring the conditions and processes that lead people to seek asylum in the UK. Deterrence policy that aims to reduce ‘pull factors’ does not take into account the root causes of migration nor does the considerable amount of research illuminating how and why people migrate. Until these elements are seriously examined and policy goals and approaches are adapted accordingly, immigration policy will continue to fail to achieve the government’s stated aims while having violent consequences for those migrating.




[2] Goodfellow M., ‘The Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats’ (2020)


[4] Crawley, H. and J. Hagen-Zanker (2019) ‘Deciding Where to go: Policies, People and Perceptions Shaping Destination Preferences’ International Migration 57(1), pp.20-35.




The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.


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