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Will the Illegal Migration Act stop the Home Office raid on international aid funds?


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The Home Office may no longer be able to meet the rules it currently relies on to use the international aid budget to support people in their first year in the UK if the government brings more of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 into force. This is according to a new report “UK aid to refugees in the UK” from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the international aid spending watchdog.

International aid rules allow the cost of supporting asylum seekers and refugees for their first year after arrival to count as international aid spending. With a fixed target for international aid spending, this means that some of the money allocated towards international aid ends up actually being spent here in the UK.

The rationale for this is that “refugee protection is a legal obligation and providing assistance to refugees may be considered a form of humanitarian assistance”. The new report looks at the potential implications of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 for this spending, and therefore the UK’s aid budget as a whole.


Earlier this year, the watchdog revealed an exponential rise in Home Office spending of international aid funds on asylum support. A large proportion of this has been spent on the use of hotels as accommodation. This amounted to one third of the UK’s 2022 international aid budget on domestic asylum costs and led to severe cuts to international aid programmes. As Colin put it, “Essentially, the “international” aid budget is being diverted by the Home Office into the pockets of the UK private sector”.

The rules for what can be classed as international aid funding are set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. A spokesperson was asked about the implications of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 before it passed. They responded that the rules indicate that costs for those prevented from claiming asylum by the Act could not be counted as international aid but said that they had not yet looked in detail.

Apparently they have not been asked by the government to advise on this and so have still not provided a confirmed opinion. This new report does that instead, to the extent possible given that most of the Act is still not in force.

Effect of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 on international aid funding

There are three main strands to the rules where the government may be on increasingly shaky ground in its use of these funds.

The first is the humanitarian rationale underpinning the aid spending. On this point, the report refers to comments made by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights raising concerns about the Act being in breach of international law and the negative effect that it will have on human rights. It states that this has “implications for whether expenditure under the Act can fairly be described as humanitarian in nature and in support of the UK’s legal protection responsibilities”.

The second area that seems to create a difficulty for the Home Office is that the international aid rules define an asylum seeker as “a person who has applied for asylum and is awaiting a decision on status”. Under the Illegal Migration Act the Secretary of State would be under a duty to remove people caught by the relevant provisions and their asylum claim would not be admitted to the UK system. As this group would not be entitled to a decision on their status it is difficult to see how this definition would be met and the spending justified as international aid.

Eligible activities that can be covered by international aid spending include basic needs such as shelter, food and children’s education. Detention and involuntary returns or removals cannot. Again, this seems to mean that much of the operationalisation of the Act cannot be funded using the international aid budget.


The huge diversion in international aid spending to domestic needs by the UK is unusual. This is a problem not least for the potential to have a knock on effect to other countries who may also seek to reduce or divert their spending on international aid. The issue is whether there is any ability or desire by other member countries to try to curb the UK’s spending.

The second point is that even if the Home Office did lose this funding, would they care? Money is always available when it comes to asylum, as long as it is being spent to make things actively worse for people. It will be found somewhere, perhaps it will just no longer be taken from those most in need of international assistance. 

That is the impact that needs to be borne in mind here, namely that this is affecting the UK’s ability to provide funding to people overseas who are in desperate need. The government talks about deterrence and wanting to stop people from coming here, however providing international aid does have the potential to reduce the factors that drive some people to migrate, for example economic instability. Making and protecting these payments should form part of any genuine attempts at ‘stopping the boats’.

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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Sonia Lenegan

Sonia Lenegan

Sonia Lenegan is an experienced immigration, asylum and public law solicitor. She has been practising for over ten years and was previously legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association and legal and policy director at Rainbow Migration. Sonia is the Editor of Free Movement.