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Timeline: The Criminalisation of Asylum

Updated Tuesday, 16th February 2016

This timeline looks at the illegalisation of asylum seeking and the consequences it can have on people seeking sanctuary.

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

Daily Herald Archive / SSPL / Getty Images.

The Criminalisation of Asylum

Are more people illegally entering Britain, or have more laws made it difficult to enter legally? This timeline looks at the illegalisation of asylum seeking and the consequences it can have on people seeking sanctuary.

Aliens Act Established


Aliens Act established as first piece of immigration legislation in Britain. Control at borders becomes the responsibility of the Home Secretary. Details (such as names and nationality) are collected by the captain and given to the state. The act includes powers to detain and deport, and immigrants must prove they are self-sufficient. It was, in some senses, a way to deter and control poor immigrants and Jews fleeing pogroms.

Aliens Restriction Act


Aliens Restriction Act 1914 is developed at beginning of First World War and allowed the Secretary of State emerge powers to deny entry and control foreign residents (rather than just those entering at the border). Followed just after the War with Aliens Restriction Amendment Act 1919 to increase police powers and introduce a form of ID card to monitor migrants. 

Published by Century Co, NY, 1921 - The Russian Bolshevik Revolution (free pdf from

Leon Trotsky refused asylum in Britain


The Russian Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the founder of the Red Army, is refused asylum in Britain. A form of ‘discretionary control’ continues into the 1930s  (meaning the Home Office decides case by case rather than responding to persecuted groups) and further restrictions are placed on primary immigration.

© Miller / Stringer / Hulton Archive / Getty images
Home Secretary Sir John Gilmour opens the Metropolitan Police laboratory

Immigration anxieties rising


As persecution against Jews in Germany increases, more leave in search of refuge. On 5th April, Home Secretary John Gilmour raises the question of refugees to the Cabinet for the first time, particularly concerns about destitute refugees arriving in Britain. Anxieties that it would set a precedent for allowing entry to other refugees lead to the United Kingdom delaying the 1933 League Convention concerning the International Status of Refugees.

With kind permission of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The demonization of Jewish refugees


The Daily Mail prints a heading stating ‘German Jews pouring into this country’ after a magistrate judge declares, ‘The way stateless Jews are pouring in from every port in this country is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to its fullest’. The Second World War, and consequently the Jewish Holocaust, would unfold the following year. 

Allan/London Express/Getty Images
August 1939: Polish refugees come ashore in Britain at the outbreak of World War Two

Jewish refugees flee to Britain


By 1939 more than 3000 Jewish refugees had fled to Britain. Echoing earlier fears of an employment crisis and with growing anxieties around impending war, the British government continue attempts to repatriate them to Germany. 

Popperfoto / Getty Images.
22nd June 1948, Some of the first Immigrants from the Caribbean island of Jamaica arrive at Tilbury, London, on board the ' Empire Windrush'

Empire Windrush arrives


The loss of life in the aftermath of the Second World War (1939-1945) left significant gaps in the British workforce. To ensure post-war reconstruction, Caribbean workers from British colonies were encouraged to move to England as a form of managed economic migration. The first ship, Empire Windrush, arrives with 492 workers.

Unknown - Franklin D Roosevelt Library website
Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights


In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is developed by the United Nations and includes the right for everyone to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. The declaration is supported by Britain. 

By USHMM, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, PD-US,
Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis attempt to communicate with friends and relatives in Cuba.

1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees


In recognition of international failures in responding to the genocide of Jews prior to and during the Second World War, the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was established. This stated that those in ‘fear of persecution for reasons relating to race, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’ had the right to seek asylum. The Convention (and its 1967 Protocol) was ratified by Britain, who also helped draft it.

Daily Herald Archive / SSPL / Getty Images.
Nigerian immigrants, London Airport, 1 July 1962. Passengers pass into the immigration interview room as the Commonwealth immigration act comes into force at London Airport.

Commonwealth Immigrants Act


Commonwealth Immigrants Act is passed to restrict the number of Commonwealth migrants travelling or relocating to Britain. Aimed mostly at people from Caribbean colonies, the Act facilitated immigration controls by introducing a limited number of employment vouchers and the deportation of immigrant people with criminal convictions. Amended with further controls in 1968.

Thumbnail image By Allan Warren - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Enoch Powell - Rivers Of Blood Speech

Race Relations Act


The Race Relations Act comes into force under the Labour government. It makes it illegal to refuse housing, public services or employment to people based on their ethnic background or heritage. In response, Enoch Powell delivers his now famous ‘River of Blood’ speech. Act amended in 1968.

© ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP / Getty Images.
Harmondsworth Detention Centre

First detention centre built


Harmondsworth Detention Unit, Greater London, opens and is the first detention centre in the United Kingdom to be built with the purpose of detaining Commonwealth citizens who are denied entry to Britain. By 2015 it would become the biggest detention centre in Europe, holding 615 men at any given time.

Public Domain
Commonwealth realms

Immigration Act 1971


Immigration Act 1971 took away the automatic rights of Commonwealth citizens to stay in the UK, meaning citizens of British Colonies would face the same restrictions as any other country. Introduced ‘right of abode’ so those with family connections in Britain faced fewer restrictions in light of the changes.

(c) David Bagnall/REX Shutterstock

Immigration Carrier's Liability Act


The Immigration (Carrier’s’ Liability) Act is introduced in Britain. First legislation to fine airlines and shipping companies for each passenger brought in to the UK without necessary documents (£1000). By 1998, sanctions are extended to Eurostar and haulage companies moving through Calais in France are targeted by border control officials checking for illegalised migrants. By 2001, this includes the Eurotunnel.

By derivative work: Danlaycock (File:Schengen Area participation.svg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
States included in Dublin Regulation

Dublin Regulation Established


This is an agreement amongst a number of European states, including the UK, which holds the first country that a refugee arrives in responsible for their asylum application. For example, if a person in France is found to have been first identified in Italy then Italy is responsible for their claim. This can mean Southern states which are closer to conflict areas (Italy, Greece) process a disproportionate number of applications to richer Northern states. Later superseded by Dublin II Regulation (2003) and then Dublin III Regulation (2013).

Jane Mingay/REX Shutterstock

Asylum and Immigration Act 1996


Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 makes it a criminal offence to employ anyone without permission to live and work in the UK.

Linda Stewart - iStock

Increasing criminalisation of asylum seekers


By now, the impact of criminalising asylum seekers becomes evident in some courts. In Uxbridge magistrates court for example (which is close to Heathrow airport) more than half of all criminal cases heard this year related to entry to Britain with false documentation. 

© PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP / Getty Images.

Sangatte Opens


The Red Cross opens ‘Sangatte’, a refugee camp near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel. The camp aimed to provide shelter for thousands of refugees, but also acted as a buffer between Britain and France, preventing people crossing the channel to apply for asylum in the UK. It is shut down in 2002. 

© Scott Barbour / Getty
Lunar House, London

The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999


The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 creates 35 new immigration related offences. It also removes choice from accommodation provision for asylum seekers in Britain (dispersal), swaps cash provision to vouchers, and increases the number of airline liaison officers based abroad to reduce the number of immigrants travelling to Britain on forged papers.

© ODD ANDERSEN / AFP / Getty Images
Fire in Yarl's Wood, 2002

IRC Yarl's Wood


IRC Yarl’s Wood opens to house women, children and families who are awaiting deportation. Controversy about detaining women and children unfolds. By 2002, a fire is started by residents in response to a detainee being physically restrained.  5 people are injured when staff adhere to the order of keeping them locked up. Further controversies follow, including multiple hunger strikes and numerous deaths in custody.

The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002


The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 increases the number of immigration related offences even further. Offences now include assisting unlawful immigration by non-EU citizens; knowingly helping an asylum seekers to enter the UK; and assisting entry to the UK after an exclusion or deportation order has been placed on the individual.

© SAKIS MITROLIDIS / AFP / Getty Images.
Frontex Guards

Frontex established


Frontex is established to manage border control securitisation in Europe. It is a European Union agency which aims to stop illegal migration.

© Vicky Canning
Global Passports

The Asylum and Immigration Act 2004


This Act introduces measures to criminalise individuals entering the UK without a valid travel document and without a reasonable excuse for not having one. By March 2005, 230 applicants had been arrested and 134 convicted of passport related offences (mostly Chinese and Iranian nationals). Asylum lawyers and refugee advocates point out that many states remove political activists’ passports or documentation so they cannot travel, and some people fleeing conflict may not be able to obtain documentation due to loss of infrastructure.

The price of poverty


The Joint Committee on Human Rights claims that the level of destitution amongst asylum seekers means Britain’s ‘government’s treatment of asylum seekers breaches the Article 3 European Convention on Human Rights threshold of inhuman and degrading treatment’. Asylum seekers typically receive £5 per day for all food, travel, sanitary products and phone use. 

MJ Fine
Picture drawn by child depicting life in detention

Britain promises to end the detention of children in IRCs


After many years of controversy, the newly elected Coalition government in Britain promise to end the detention of children in IRCs. Between 2010 and 2015, around 660 children were still entered into immigration detention.

© Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images.

Jimmy Mubenga dies

November 2010

Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan national who had lived in Britain since 1994, suffocates on a British Airways flight whilst being deported to his Country of Origin. His death is ruled an unlawful killing, and the 3 G4S guards who had forcefully held him down whilst he died are later found not guilty of manslaughter. The case fuels debate on the practice of deportation and the inclusion of G4S – the third largest private security company in the world – in British border control.

By ukhomeoffice (Flickr: The entrance) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Increased immigration detention


By 2013, around 30,000 people per year entered into asylum detention in Britain. By now there are 10 Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) in the United Kingdom, most of which are in England. Between 2000-3,500 people are held in detention under Immigration Act powers at any given time.

© Tullio M. Puglia / Getty Images.
Coffins awaiting burial in Lampedusa

360 people drown near coast of Lampedusa

November 2013

Approximately 360 people drown near the coast of the Lampedusa near Italy, all attempting to migrate to Europe from North Africa. The boat was mainly carrying refugees fleeing areas such as Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. In another shipwreck later in the month, 34 people die and around 250 are rescued near the original site.

Darren Johnson - IDJ Photography, Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Protesters at Yarl's Wood

Rashida Manjoo denied access to Yarl's Wood


Rashida Manjoo, the UN’s rapporteur on violence against women, is denied access to Yarl’s Wood. This raised questions about the wellbeing of women detainees. Just months earlier, in 2013, reports of sexual violence and abuse in Yarl’s Wood had made headlines in British press and around the world.

© Denis Charlet / AFP / Getty Images.
Asylum Seekers in Calais, 2015

Poor conditions in Calais


Conditions for people seeking asylum around Calais and near the Channel Tunnel deteriorate. Tens of thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty in areas such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea and Somalia live in squalid conditions, most attempting to cross the border to England.  Despite ongoing conflict in many areas, The British Home Secretary signs an agreement to pay 7 million pounds toward the deportation of migrants at the camp.


71 people are found dead in the back of a lorry

September 2015

71 people are found dead in the back of a lorry. All were Syrian and had suffocated in cramped conditions trying to cross from Hungary to Austria on their way to Europe. Visa restrictions make it very difficult for people fleeing conflict to legally enter many European countries or cross national borders. As such, clandestine entry can seem the only option for people to cross borders in Europe, often in cramped and dangerous conditions.

© AAMIR QURESHI / AFP / Getty Images.

12 people die trying to cross from Calais into Britain

September 2015

Between January and September, 12 people die trying to cross from Calais into Britain. Lack of passport or visa documentation, alongside the Dublin Regulations, mean most people seeking asylum are prevented from entering legally.

With kind permission of Rafat Alkhateeb,

Alan Kurdi is found washed up on a beach

October 2015

The body of 3 year old Alan Kurdî is found washed up on a beach in Turkey and images reported globally. The Syrian boy had drowned alongside 12 other refugees fleeing conflict and attempting to enter mainland Europe by boat, en route to Canada. His mother Rehanna and 5 year old brother Ghalib also drowned. His father Abdullah later returns to Syria. Governments across the world urge the European Union to consider a collective remodelling of the illegalisation of refugee entry.

First reading of Immigration Bill 2015 is presented to parliament

October 2015

First reading of Immigration Bill 2015 is presented to parliament. Legislation would allow up to 6 months imprisonment for working illegally and for any wages earned to be seized by immigration officers as ‘proceeds of crime’. Landlords are expected to undertake visa checks and could face prison if their tenant is in the country illegally. Those opposing the Bill argue that it may lead to racial profiling of job applicants and tenants, and increased criminalisation of mostly poor migrants. 

© ELVIS BARUKCIC / AFP / Getty Images.
Croatian - Hungarian Border with military and police

Hungary closes its southern border with Croatia

November 2015

Hungary closes its southern border with Croatia in an attempt to stop migrants crossing the country, adding further barriers for refugees attempting to enter Central, Western and Northern Europe.

By Mstyslav Chernov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Islamic State (IS) terrorists attack Paris

December 2015

Islamic State (IS) terrorists attack seven locations in Paris, France, killing 130 people and injuring 360 more. It later emerges that 2 of the 9 attackers had travelled to France via Greece, entering Europe on 3rd October. Although media reported that some were Syrian refugees, all 9 were European nationals. 

Taken from

EU governments call for further tightening across European borders

December 2015

EU governments call for further tightening across European borders, and increasing restrictions for entry from Syria and the Middle East. Within a space of 48 hours, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia block their borders to migrants. 

By Irish Defence Forces -, CC BY 2.0,
Irish Naval Service personnel from the LÉ Eithne rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton, June 2015.

Death at the border

January 2015

More than 700,000 people had entered Greece since the start of the year, most fleeing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan. Thousands more flee Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia. By 1st December, 3,551 people had drowned trying to enter Europe, or were missing and presumed drowned. 

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The easiest way to explore this timeline is to click the arrow on the right hand side (or swipe right on a tablet - best viewed landscape), which will take you through all of the entries. 

You can also drag and explore via the grey timeline section at the bottom, although this is in beta at the moment and may have a few hiccups!

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