Updates, commentary, training and advice on immigration and asylum law

Free Movement review of the year 2023

Every year I try to take stock, look back at the year that was and look ahead to the year that will be. I also take a quick look at what’s been going on at Free Movement.

There were only two Home Secretaries appointed in the year just gone. That’s literally half the number of appointments made in 2022. We’ll probably have at least two this year in 2024 as well.

In last year’s review I suggested that Sunak would get the blame for the worsening immigration mess and that “unfortunately, Braverman’s career may well outlive her tenure as Home Secretary”. Yep. She’s clearly lining herself up for a serious run at becoming Leader of the Opposition and she might just manage it. Meanwhile, Jenrick seems to have lined himself up as her putative Shadow Home Secretary.


The big asylum news of 2023 is that the asylum backlog finally started to fall. As I predicted last year, Rishi Sunak failed to meet his pledge to abolish the backlog by the end of 2023. But it is at least coming down now. This has the potential to reduce the toxicity of asylum as an issue. Fewer asylum seekers in hotels and a reduced asylum support budget would remove two of the main asylum media stories and sources of legitimate public concern. There could also be knock-on effects, with more resources eventually being allocated to the rest of the asylum system, including appeals and removals.

But the government shows every sign of shooting itself in the foot. If the Illegal Migration Act 2023 is brought into effect, the government will stop taking decisions on asylum claims made after a certain date. The plan is supposedly for all asylum seekers to be removed to Rwanda instead. Only relatively small numbers, if any, will ever be removed to Rwanda yet tens of thousands will continue to arrive. So the backlog will come back with a vengeance.

Personally, I expect that the Illegal Migration Act will be brought into effect. The government will probably leave it as late as possible so that the consequences of doing so are not clear by the time of the election. It will be done partly to set a trap for an incoming Labour government, which would then have to repeal the Act. Some Conservatives will then claim, rather implausibly, that had the Act been properly implemented then small boat crossings would have ceased.

Small boat crossings look set to rise next year compared to 2023, although perhaps not up to the levels seen in 2022. The decline in 2023 was due to a lot of Albanians arriving by boat in 2022 and very few arriving that way in 2023. Many other nationalities are on the rise, though.

And the increase in the volume of asylum decisions is causing new problems. The rapid creation of lots of newly recognised refugees combined with refusal to allow them to get a job while waiting and a cliff edge termination of Home Office support — the run up to which was actually shortened not lengthened — is leading to severe problems. Imagine you’ve been prevented from working by the government for two years, despite being very keen to support yourself. The same government then suddenly gives you a positive asylum decision and evicts you from your accommodation with only a few days’ notice. Of course you can’t find a job and accommodation in that time. Many in this situation are therefore becoming homeless and local authorities are struggling to provide support.

The government did in December quietly restore the original notice period between receipt of a decision and eviction, and changes were made to allow universal credit claims to be made earlier. But the notice period was already too short so many refugees will still find themselves homeless.

As I discuss in my updated asylum briefing, those who are refused asylum are a relatively small minority at the moment; only around a quarter of decisions are refusals. But the absolute numbers of those refused asylum are rapidly rising, meaning lots of new appeals being lodged. Many of us expect the asylum grant rate to fall in 2024. This will partly be legitimate, because officials will run out of high grant-rate nationalities to grant asylum to. But it will be partly because newly recruited officials make very poor quality decisions. Anecdotally, we’re already seeing some real shockers come through.

There are very few legal aid asylum lawyers left and even when there were fewer refusals many asylum seekers could not find a lawyer to represent them. With legal aid rates so low there is no chance of the few remaining legal aid firms being able to recruit sufficient lawyers. So many will go unrepresented.

Unrepresented asylum seekers who do not understand legal process and do not speak English will slow down the appeals process and there are bound to be miscarriages of justice. The appeals backlog will grow. Waiting times are already eleven months on average.

Will we see a flight take off for Kigali? Maybe. The new Bill the government has introduced looks like it might make it harder to secure interim relief to prevent a removal going ahead. We may therefore see a relatively small number of people being removed to Rwanda and having to fight their legal cases from there. But it is hard to believe that interim relief would really be refused by a judge given that the Supreme Court recently held Rwanda is not in fact safe. A government legislating to force the judiciary to accept a fact recently rejected by the Supreme Court is, as far as I know, unprecedented. The issue of whether Rwanda is actually a safe country for refugees is, I think, still live. The issues certainly therefore look arguable.

So I don’t know which way to call this one. I’ve always thought we’d see a small number of people being forced onto a flight to Rwanda. But the decisions of the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court seem to make that very difficult for the UK government, even with the new Bill. 


The big immigration news in 2023 was the sustained rise in inward immigration and net migration. This was partly deliberate government policy and partly mistake. The increase in student dependents was unintended, for example. The increase in care worker dependents was also unintended, although that was eminently predictable.

The government likes to cast itself as being anti-immigration while presiding over record levels of immigration. In order to maintain this fiction, various measures which sound plausibly “anti-immigration” to a lot of people are introduced but which actually have no impact on immigration. In truth they are anti-immigrant measures, not anti-immigration ones. 

The eye-watering increase in immigration fees in late 2023, the massive increase in the Immigration Health Surcharge expected in January 2024, the cruel increase in the minimum income requirement for spouses and partners to be eligible to sponsor their loved ones scheduled for March 2024 all fall into this category. They hurt those affected but do little or nothing to actually reduce immigration.

One thing to watch for on immigration levels is the situation in Ukraine. If things go very badly there, it is likely there will be a truly massive influx of refugees to Western Europe.

Here on Free Movement

There were two really big changes here at Free Movement last year. One was the appointment of Sonia Lenegan as Editor in August. It has been great working with Sonia and she and I have received some lovely feedback on the work she’s done. It’s not just anecdotal, though. As you will see in a moment, she has made a measurable difference to the website.

The other big change was the launch of live training. We’ve now run three live ‘learn immigration law’ courses pitched at OISC level 1. They’ve all sold out and feedback has been excellent. We’re running another in January 2024 which is also sold out and we’ll be running the course every two months from now on. We’ve tried to bring a different approach to the market by limiting the group size and spreading out the sessions over the course of a month to give the trainees time to really get to grips with the material. It seems to be working well. 

Following launch of our online OISC Level 2 course, we’ll also be launching a live version of that in April. Bookings for that will open soon. That course will run every three months.

We will also be trying out two other types of course on a regular basis. One will be in-depth small group seminars on different topics. We’re intending some of these to be aimed at lawyers and others to be aimed at the wider immigration and asylum advice sector. Topics might include no recourse to public funds, how the the asylum process works and similar. The other will be uncapped online talks. We ran the first of these talks in December on Palestinian refugees and have some others planned.

Google analytics tells me we received 4.22 million page views over the last year, up from 3.5 million in 2022. Interestingly and pleasingly, there was a significant increase in the baseline number of visits in September 2023. Simultaneously, there was also a significant increase in time spent on the site by each user. The fact this happened shortly after Sonia had taken over as Editor is surely no coincidence.

Membership is also up. We now have 3,755 active members, up from 3,445 last year. We also have 30,785 email subscribers, up from around 29k last year. I personally now have 46.2k Twitter/X followers, up from 40k, and @freemovementlaw has 12.5k, up from 11.8k. Given I’ve been posting to Twitter a lot less that seems surprising. I’ve tried using Threads and Bluesky but neither has the reach or je ne sais quois of Twitter. I may give Twitter another go in the coming year.

We did just about manage to update the website software in 2023 and we’re still ironing out a few wrinkles. That will lead to a few more significant changes over the coming months as we’ll be looking to advertise our own training courses a bit better. The new software will enable us to apply a members discount to our live training courses and I’m also considering splitting off the OISC level 1 and 2 courses for new members.

Finally, let’s all hope for a new government in 2023. As I wrote on Twitter just before Christmas, I’m thoroughly sick and tired of the present government’s way of doing business. It’s all politics and no substance, it’s often counterproductive and the sheer incompetence is just exhausting.

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Colin Yeo

Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.