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25 April 2023

Research finds scope for policymakers to offer greater protection to migrants

The government’s efforts to prevent migrants from reaching the UK or to deport some of those seeking asylum to Rwanda may not be as popular as assumed and there may be greater scope for policymakers to protect those at risk of serious harm or death.


New research from a group of academics has found that, while the public generally supports limits on migration, they are far less likely to support enforcement policies or actions against migrants which would likely result in their serious harm or worse.

They are particularly less likely to support denying visas when it results in harms against refugees unable to board flights to the UK, harms from detention of those needing medical treatment, and the blocking of safe routes, causing migrants to turn to unsafe smuggling gangs.

The findings were revealed in a new study, Proportional Immigration Enforcement, co-authored by Dr Mollie Gerver, of King’s College London, Dr Dominik Duell (University of Innsbruck), and Dr Patrick Lown (University of Essex) and set for publication in the Journal of Politics.

Our findings show that voters express far more nuanced views than previously thought, including views sensitive to the harms migrants experience.

Research team

“These expressed opinions arise despite general opposition to increasing migration in both the UK and US. Given that these opinions are consistent with the principle of proportionality, policymakers have strong reasons to try and introduce enforcement consistent with this principle, bringing immigration closer to what justice requires.”

In the study, researchers carried out three sets of surveys with more than 7,000 participants in the UK and US, two nations deemed to have hostile policies towards migrants.

A report by the Institute of Race Relations in 2020 documented the cases of almost 300 people who had died attempting to cross the English Channel since 1999, while the high profile cases of the 39 Vietnamese people who died in the back of a refrigerated trailer in 2019 and the 31 people who drowned in the Channel in November 2021 have highlighted the dangers faced by migrants attempting to navigate immigration policy.

In the study, the academics make a case for an approach to migration policy that puts principles of proportionality at its heart, with a greater focus on balancing the aims of the policy with the risk of harm.

The researchers said: “The principle of proportionality holds that an act which involves far greater harm than justified for a given end is morally impermissible.

“For example, the death penalty for those who commit theft is wrong, as the end of deterrence does not justify the means of death. We argue, like others, that the ends of immigration deterrence do not justify states inflicting especially severe harm.”

The study, according to the researchers, has serious implications for current UK policies of blocking migrants from boarding flights directly to the UK, stopping migrants from crossing the English Channel, and requiring that some asylum seekers move to Rwanda.

In particular, “The Rwanda policy places migrants at risk,” explains Dr Gerver. “Risks include malnutrition, deportation to unsafe countries, and even being shot at for peaceful protesting. The government cannot claim this policy is upholding the will of the people; people do not want to see migrants’ lives at risk, even if they would like to limit the number of migrants arriving.”

The researchers suggest alternative immigration policies which are both morally proportionate and politically popular, including increasing visas so that fewer migrants are incentivised to pay smugglers, and decreasing the use of detention for a range of migrants.


You can read the study in full here.

In this story

Mollie Gerver

Lecturer in International Ethics