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

Safe Passage report: the case for safe routes 

Last week, we at Safe Passage published our Routes to Safety report, which makes recommendations for a new compassionate and competent approach to dangerous journeys across the channel.  Implementing our proposals could disrupt the smuggler’s business model, save lives and uphold the UK’s commitment to protect refugees.  

Safe routes work 

At Safe Passage, we know that refugees will choose official routes over smugglers where they exist andoperate effectively and efficiently. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, two highly flexible and well-resourced safe routes to the UK were opened – only one Ukrainian made the journey across the Channel. The Ukraine schemes clearly demonstrate how streamlined, well-resourced and flexible safe routes can effectively break the business model of the smugglers by cutting demand for dangerous journeys. 

Meanwhile, there has been a total failure to open new safe routes beyond nationality-restricted schemes, a failure to implement existing routes effectively and further failure with some routes shutting down altogether. Between 2010 and 2020, our research found only 6% of unaccompanied children who got asylum in the UK arrived via a safe route.  And this was even before two vital schemes for unaccompanied children were closed.  

Before Brexit, Safe Passage successfully reunited hundreds of unaccompanied children with their families in the UK via the EU’s Dublin III Regulation and linked schemes. This disrupted the smuggler’s business model – we even faced threats from criminal gangs because of it. But now children can only rely on the UK’s extremely slow and restrictive immigration rules. 

Our legal teams are finding it increasingly difficult to advise clients knowing that the legal journey will be long and challenging, with no guarantee of a successful outcome. 

A roadmap for UK policy 

We recommend three priorities based on clear evidence of what prevents people turning to dangerous journeys.   

Open new safe routes and fix existing ones 

As an immediate response to reduce Channel crossings, we propose the introduction of an ‘emergency protection scheme’ which would operate solely from the EU. This would swiftly offer safe passage to those fleeing humanitarian and human rights crises, who are already in Europe trying to reach the UK. After all, in the last two years, nearly 60 percent of people crossing the Channel came from just five countries – Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea – that are internationally recognised as conflict or crisis areas.  

As a longer-term solution, the introduction of a ‘refugee visa’ could offer safe passage to a wider group of refugees, based on protection needs, expanding beyond well-known or reported emergencies. To effectively reduce the need for dangerous journeys, this refugee visa must be accessible from areas of displacement. We recommend this starts as a pilot before it’s scaled up and eligibility for both new safe routes should be decided by a newly established independent advisory body.  

Safe Passage has long reported on the failure of existing safe routes. Crucial changes should include reforming the immigration rules to restore access to family reunion and fixing the slow and restrictive Afghan routes. Family reunion is so slow and ineffective that more than a quarter of the children we have supported to reunite, have lost faith in the legal process, and we believe travelled to the UK irregularly.  The decision-making is so poor, that 94% of our cases are successful on appeal. 

Importantly, we emphasise that safe routes are complementary and must neverreplace the right to seek asylum for those arriving irregularly. This could otherwise allow the UK to offload its obligations under the Refugee Convention onto third countries – which is fundamentally wrong. 

Renew Britain’s commitment to international cooperation    

Refugees’ reliance on dangerous journeys is a global problem and requires cooperation beyond our immediate neighbours. We recommend the government pursues a new framework deal with the European Union that underpins EU-UK cooperation on refugee protection and safe routes.  

The UK should also seek closer bilateral cooperation with France on family reunion. A compassionate and responsible approach to the shared border must respect the rights of people on the move, with an approach based on compassion, fairness and dignity.  

Restore the right to seek asylum  

Key policies that deny refugees protection, criminalise those who arrive irregularly and threaten deportation to Rwanda are wrong in principle, have disastrous consequences on the international protection framework and don’t even meet the Government’s own stated aims to deter refugees from taking dangerous routes to the UK. 

A new policy approach on Channel crossings must scrap current punitive deterrence policies and re-affirm Britain’s commitment to the Refugee Convention and the rule of law. If this is not done, policy responses will fail in three fundamental ways: to help vulnerable people seeking protection; respect the rule of law; and lay the ground for international cooperation.  


Our report sets out a roadmap for an evidence based case for any government serious about addressing the issue of channel crossings, drawing on our experience of providing legal support to unaccompanied children. It is the compassionate and competent alternative to current failed policies. Now is the time for real leadership and change – the time to save lives, restore public confidence and renew Britain’s international reputation.    

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Alamara Khwaja Bettum

Alamara Khwaja Bettum is the head of UK legal at Safe Passage International.