The long-awaited measures will be unveiled in full on Tuesday and aim to fulfil one of Sunak’s five New Year pledges – “stopping the boats” travelling to the UK via the English Channel.
This has been a contentious issue for some time, with the government claiming these illegal arrivals not only cost British taxpayers, but also enable exploitation of vulnerable refugees by criminal gangs.
Home Office figures show 2,950 migrants crossed the Channel in 2023 already. A record-breaking 45,756 arrived in the UK in 2022.
Home secretary Suella Braverman has also claimed that 100 million asylum seekers around the world could qualify for protection in the UK without these changes.
As the prime minister vowed to the Mail on Sunday: “Make no mistake, if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay.”
He also wrote in The Sun that it was time “to do what’s fair for those at home and those who have a legitimate claim to asylum – a plan to take back control of our borders once and for all”.
But what does it mean to arrive into the UK “illegally”, and how would the government even police that?
Here’s what you need to know.
What are the current rules for asylum seekers?
At the moment, asylum seekers coming to the UK have the right to seek protection under the UN’s Refugee Convention, which states a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. They also have the right for protection under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
New legislation introduced in November last year means it is now illegal for migrants to knowingly come into the UK without a visa or special permission. That applies to pretty much everyone who comes to the UK via a small boat.
The Nationality and Borders Act meant anyone who arrives via these illegal means can be jailed for up to four years and removed to a “safe” country.
But this was always unlikely to be used much in reality, because the UK has an international legal obligation not to criminally penalise anyone who is a refugee.
What are the new proposals?
Arriving on small boats is now a criminal offence
Cabinet minister Michelle Donelan told Sky News on Monday that this particularly applies to many people arriving on small boats as they travel “across many safe countries to get here...and if they’re travelling here illegally, they shouldn’t be allowed to stay here”.
This new rule will be applied retrospectively for all small boat arrivals, even if the bill does not pass into law for several months.
A new ban on several means to claim asylum
If it goes through, only under-18s and the genuinely ill (medically unfit to fly) or at real risk of serious and irreversible harm, who arrive into the UK will be permitted to apply for asylum and have their cases heard.
The Home Office will be able to curtail the migrants’ right to claim asylum, even if they claim they have been trafficked, subjected to modern slavery or say their Human Rights are at risk.
Loopholes in the Modern Slavery Act are to be tightened so caseworkers have to see proof of trafficking before it is claimed.
A Section 19B Statement will be attached to the law, where ministers admit they risk breaking commitments from the ECHR. Also known as the “Strasbourg Brake”, it means the government will stop people using using the Human Rights Act to prevent their own deportation.
No right to remain – or ever return to the UK
Aside from under 18s and the genuinely sick, everyone will be deported to their home country, or to a safe third-country – such as Rwanda. The UK struck a £140 million deal with the east African country last year.
These illegal asylum seekers would then be banned from returning permanently. That includes settlement, citizenship and general re-entry.
Before deportation, migrants will be kept in new accommodation
As they wait to be deported, refugees will be homed in military accommodation, cruise ships, student accommodation and holiday parks instead of the current system, where they stay in hotels.
It will also be possible to detain people for 28 days without bail or judicial review.
More safe and legal routes to emerge
The home secretary plans to make “the only route to the UK” a “safe and legal route” by banning people who arrive illegally from staying.
Even then, there will be an annual cap on the number of people entering via safe routes to be set by parliament to create an “orderly system”.
The government has also indicated that it will work with France again to tackle the uptick in crossings.
Duty to remove
The home secretary will also have a legal “duty to remove” anyone who arrives without permission.
Any other claims (aside from those allowed to seek asylum) will be heard remotely after they’ve been removed.
The questions around the legislation which are yet to be answered
Are there any legal alternatives?
The government is yet to identify any legal means for asylum seekers to reach the UK, but ministers have just promised that more “safe routes” will be unveiled in due course.
The Home Office has pointed to routes for people from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong to come to the UK safely – but these are specific schemes set up for people from those countries, due to political circumstances there.
Other routes only have a precise criteria for refugees.
Does it breach international conventions and deals?
The home secretary has admitted that the plan “pushes the boundaries of international law” but said it was still necessary because the entire asylum system is being “overwhelmed”.
Even though the High Court decided in December that the plan to deport illegal asylum seekers to Rwanda did not breach the UN’s Refugee Convention, it is still being challenged in the Court of Appeal.
No10 has also said that its new policy will not require the UK to leave the ECHR, but backbenchers such as former minister Simon Clarke have suggested that if the immigration bill is derailed by legal challenges, the UK needs to leave the ECHR.
What’s more, there is currently no return agreement with the EU when it comes to potential asylum seekers from the bloc.
That comes after the government put Albanian refugees at the centre of its anti-migrant rhetoric earlier this year.
Sunak does have a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron later this week though, so may be able to come to a compromise.
Previous deals with France about monitoring the French side of the Channel were pretty unsuccessful, despite the millions of pounds spent on increasing security.
Chief executive of Freedom from Torture, Sonia Sceats, has also accused the government of having “comprehensively shut down” legal routes for refugees coming to the UK.
She added that the new potential laws would “place a bomb” under the cardinal principle of refugee law, which states those fearing for their safety should be able to seek refuge in another country by any means possible.
Is it a ‘gimmick’?
Labour wants the government to create safe routes instead, speed up the processing of asylum claims and crack down on trafficking gangs.
“We’ve put forward our own proposals – taking the hundreds of millions of pounds that would be wasted on the Rwanda scheme, put it into the National Crime Agency so that we can start rounding up and arresting the criminal gngs that are trafficking people,” he said.
Similarly, the Lib Dems said it was an “immoral, ineffective and incredibly costly” plan for taxpayers.
After all, not one migrant has been sent to Rwanda yet.
The government also promised the Rwanda plan would discourage people crossing the English Channel, but there’s no evidence for that.
Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, Steve Valdez-Symonds, also said the proposals “promise nothing but more demonisation and punishment of people facing conflict and persecution who dark to seek asylum in the UK by means to which government has chosen to restrict them”.
What about a timescale?
At Monday’s lobby briefing, Sunak’s spokesperson refused to say when Sunak would expect to stop the boats.
The spokesperson said: “Obviously, we want to do this as quickly as possible. As we’ve always said, we recognise there will likely be challenges in many forms to this sort of legislation.”
When pressed over whether the PM meant stopping the boats would mean stopping all small boats reaching UK shores via the English Channel, the spokesperson said the public would have to judge whether that promise have been met.
Is it a potential incentive for gangs?
The Immigration Service Union suggested that announcing a plan to stop people arriving on boats could trigger a rush in people trying to get across.
When asked about the issue at the Downing Street lobby, a spokesperson just responded: “Of course, we always need to be alive to that sort of issue.”
Is the UK just dodging its own asylum responsibilities?
Chief executive of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said denying those crossing in boats asylum would “shatter the UK’s long-standing commitment under the UN Convention to give people a fair hearing regardless of the path they have taken to reach our shores”.
He added that it would “add more cost and chaos to the system”.
What about Rwanda?
The Rwanda deal is yet to result in any successful deportations, having been blocked repeatedly by campaign groups launching legal appeals.
As the Immigration Services Union – which represents border staff – told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, the plans are “quite confusing” and do not seem “possible” without the Rwanda deportation rules in place.
Solomon, from the Refugee Council, also claimed: “The government’s flawed legislation will not stop the boats but result in tens of thousands locked up in detention at huge cost, permanently in limbo and being treated as criminals simply for seeking refuge.”