Report Launch: “No Such Thing as Justice Here”

New research shows how people arriving on small boats are being imprisoned for their ‘illegal arrival’. Among those prosecuted are people seeking asylum, victims of trafficking and torture, and children with ongoing age disputes.

This research provides broader context surrounding the imprisonment of Ibrahima Bah, a Senegalese teenager, who has recently been found ‘guilty’ of both facilitating illegal entry and manslaughter. He was sentenced to 9 years and 6 months imprisonment on Friday 23rd February. In their statement, Captain Support UK argue that “Ibrahima’s prosecution and conviction is a violent escalation in the persecution of migrants to ‘Stop the Boats’.”


  • Read the full report here, and the summary here

  • You can join for the launch of the report at Garden Court Chambers on the 7th March. To register for this hybrid event, click here.


The research

This report, published by the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford and Border Criminologies, shows how people have been imprisoned for their arrival on a ‘small boat’ since the Nationality and Borders Act (2022) came into force. It details the process from sea to prison, and explains how this policy is experienced by those affected. Analysis is based on observations of over 100 hearings where people seeking asylum were prosecuted for their own illegal arrival, or for facilitating the arrival of others through steering the dinghy they travelled on. The report is informed by the detailed casework experience of Humans for Rights Network, Captain Support UK and Refugee Legal Support. It also draws on data collected through Freedom of Information requests, and research interviews with lawyers, interpreters, and people who have been criminalised for crossing the Channel on a ‘small boat’. 



In late 2018, the number of people using dinghies to reach the UK from mainland Europe began to increase. Despite Government claims, alternative ‘safe and legal routes’ for accessing protection in the UK remain inaccessible to most people. There is no visa for ‘seeking asylum’, and humanitarian routes to the UK are very restricted. For many, irregular journeys by sea have become the only way to enter the UK to seek asylum, safety, and a better life.

Soon after the number of people arriving on small boats started to increase, the Crown Prosecution Service began to charge those identified as steering the boats with the offences of ‘illegal entry’ or ‘facilitation’. These are offences within Section 24 and Section 25 of the Immigration Act 1971. However, in 2021, a series of successful appeals overturned these prosecutions. This was on the basis that if the people on a small boat intended to claim asylum at port, there was no breach of immigration law through attempted ‘illegal entry’. The Court of Appeal found that those who arrive by small boat and claim asylum do not enter illegally, as they are granted entry as an asylum seeker.

In response, in June 2022, the Nationality and Borders Act expanded the scope of criminal offences relating to irregular arrival to the UK. First, the offence of ‘illegal arrival’ was introduced, with a maximum sentence of 4 years. Second, the offence of ‘facilitation’ was expanded to include circumstances in which ‘gain’ was difficult to prove, and the maximum sentence was increased from 14 years to life imprisonment. During Parliamentary debates, members of both Houses of Parliament warned that this would criminalise asylum seeking to the UK. 


Who has been prosecuted since the Nationality and Borders Act (2022)?

New data shows that in the first year of implementation (June 2022 – June 2023), 240 people arriving on small boats were charged with ‘illegal arrival’ off small boats. While anyone arriving irregularly can now be arrested for ‘illegal arrival’, this research finds that in practice those prosecuted either:

  1. Have an ‘immigration history’ in the UK, including having been identified as being in the country, or having attempted to arrive previously ( for example, through simply having applied for a visa), or,
  2. Are identified as steering the dinghy they travelled in as it crossed the Channel.

49 people were also charged with ‘facilitation’ in addition to ‘illegal arrival’ after allegedly being identified as having their ‘hand on the tiller’ at some point during the journey. At least two people were charged with ‘facilitation’ for bringing their children with them on the dinghy. 

In 2022, 1 person for every 10 boats was arrested for their alleged role in steering. In 2023, this was 1 for every 7 boats. People end up being spotted with their ‘hand on the tiller’ for many reasons, including having boating experience, steering in return for discounted passage, taking it in turns, or being under duress. Despite the Government’s rhetoric, both offences target people with no role in organised criminal gangs. 

The vast majority of those convicted of both ‘illegal arrival’ and ‘facilitation’ have ongoing asylum claims. Victims of torture and trafficking, as well as children with ongoing age disputes, have also been prosecuted. Those arrested include people from nationalities with a high asylum grant rate, including people from Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, and Syria.


Those imprisoned are distressed and harmed by their experiences in court and prison

This research shows how court hearings were often complicated and delayed by issues with interpreters and faulty video link technology. Bail was routinely denied without proper consideration of each individual’s circumstances. Those accused were usually advised to plead guilty to ‘illegal arrival’ at the first opportunity to benefit from sentence reductions, however, this restricted the possibility of legal challenge. 

Imprisonment caused significant psychological and physical harm, which people said was particularly acute given their experiences of displacement. The majority of those arrested are imprisoned in HMP Elmley. They frequently reported not being able to access crucial services, including medical care, interpretation services including for key documents relating to their cases, contact with their solicitors, immigration advice, as well as work and English lessons. People shared their experiences of poor living conditions, inadequate food, and routine and frequent racist remarks and abuse from prison staff as ‘foreign nationals’.


Children with age disputes are being imprisoned for their arrival on small boats

Research (see, for example, here) by refugee support organisations has highlighted significant flaws in the Home Office’s age assessment processes in Dover, resulting in children being aged as adults, and treated as such. One consequence of this is that children with ongoing age disputes have been charged as adults with the offences of ‘illegal arrival’ and ‘facilitation’ for their alleged role in steering boats across the Channel. 

Humans for Rights Network has identified 15 age-disputed children who were wrongly treated as adults and charged with these new offences, with 14 spending time in adult prison. This is very likely to be an undercount. The Home Office fails to collect data on how many people with ongoing age disputes are convicted. These young people have all claimed asylum, and several claim (or have been found to be) survivors of torture and/or trafficking. The majority are Sudanese or South Sudanese, who have travelled to the UK via Libya.

Throughout the entirety of the criminal process, responsibility lay with the child at every stage to reject their ‘given’ age and reassert that they are under 18. Despite this, the Courts generally relied on the Home Office’s ‘given age’, without recognition of evidence highlighting clear flaws in these initial age enquiries. Children who maintained that they were under 18 in official legal proceedings faced substantial delays to their cases, due to the time required by the relevant local authority to carry out an age assessment, and delays to the criminal process. Due to this inaction, several children have decided to be convicted and sentenced as adults to try to avoid spending  additional time in prison.

These young people have experienced serious psychological and physical harm in adult courts and prisons, raising serious questions around the practices of the Home Office, Border Force, Ministry of Justice, magistrates and Judges, the CPS, defence lawyers, and prison staff.


Read the full report here, and the summary here. You can join for the launch of the report at Garden Court Chambers on the 7th March, 2024. To register for this hybrid event, click here.