New report lift barriers to removal of ‘undesirable but unreturnable’ migrants

Tuesday 27 September 2016

How can governments respond to migrants and asylum-seekers suspected of serious criminality without tying themselves into legal knots? A new report, launched today (27 September) before governments in Brussels and Geneva by the Refugee Law Initiative (RLI) at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, might just have the answer.

The report is called ‘Undesirable and Unreturnable? Policy challenges around excluded asylum-seekers and migrants suspected of serious criminality but who cannot be removed’. And it contains a set of proposals that represent a radical shake-up of policy responses in order to limit the number of (allegedly) criminal migrants ending up in legal limbo.

Recommendations address the worrying prevalence of short-term thinking surrounding suspected criminal migrants that, for legal or practical reasons, cannot be deported, and the legal gridlock that ensues. They could help create harmonised solutions that simultaneously uphold countries’ criminal laws and the human rights of the migrants, referred to as UBUs (undesirable but unreturnable).

Under the heading ‘directions of future policy solutions’ these measures include:

  • Decreasing the number of migrants considered to be ‘undesirables’ by narrowing the categories of crimes that may lead to refusal or revocation of citizenship or denial of asylum to only truly serious crimes, and investing more in criminal prosecution of such cases;
  • Increasing the number of returns and removals by investing in the criminal justice system in the country of origin, providing incentives for voluntary return and actively inducing countries to consider relocation by more actively engaging in setting up diplomatic assurances with third states.

‘Based on current trends, this problem will not go away but will rather grow swiftly,’ comments Dr David James Cantor, the RLI’s director. ‘Without long-term and sensible solutions, the number of people living in limbo will increase exponentially. This risks real hardship for them and their families, and also aggravated security and political challenges for society in the future.’

The 36-page report is the result of an ambitious two-year international project led in the UK by Dr David James Cantor, and funded by a research network grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Launched in 2014, it is run jointly by RLI and the Center for International Criminal Justice at Amsterdam’s VU University.

During the research period, academics and policymakers with wide-ranging expertise from countries including Brazil, Canada, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, the UK and the USA examined and mapped the problem of ‘undesirable’ and ‘unreturnable’ migrants. The research materials, and report of the conferences, are included in the ‘Undesirable and Unreturnable’ report.

The report address core legal and policy questions, such as: ‘How should humanitarian issues of “international protection” be balanced against international criminal law imperatives to counteract impunity?’ and ‘Do these cases represent the emergence of a “fundamental system error” in international law or merely a practical problem in the application of the law?’

It also points out that the measures currently taken by governments only limit the scale of the problem rather than solving it. It warns that, without long-term solutions, countries will continue to be faced with increasing numbers of ‘undesirable but unreturnable’ migrants who find themselves in a protracted situation of legal and social limbo.


Notes for editors:

1. For all enquiries, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8859 /

2. The Refugee Law Initiative at the Human Rights Consortium of the School of Advanced Study, University of London is the only academic centre in the UK to concentrate specifically on international refugee law. As a national focal point for leading and promoting research in this field, it works to integrate the shared interests of refugee law scholars and practitioners, stimulate collaboration between academics and non-academics, and achieve policy impact at the national and international level. The Refugee Law Initiative hosts seminars, workshops, short courses and other events to promote and facilitate cutting-edge research on the protection of refugees and other displaced persons. It leads and manages high-impact research, policy and training projects, and carries out consultancy work on refugee law and protection.

3. The Human Rights Consortium, founded in 2009, brings together the multidisciplinary expertise in human rights found in several institutes of the School of Advanced Study, as well as collaborating with individuals and organisations with an interest in the subject. The main aim of the Consortium is to facilitate, promote and disseminate academic and policy work on human rights by holding conferences and seminars, hosting visiting fellows, coordinating the publication of high quality work in the field, and establishing a network of human rights researchers, policy-makers and practitioners across the UK and internationally, with a view to collaborating on a range of activities.

4. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities and facilities across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2014-15, SAS welcomed 805 research fellows and associates, held 2,073 research dissemination events, received 23.1 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms and received 213,456 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. The School also leads the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities, Being Human. Find out more at or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.

5. The Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. 

6. The University of London is a federal University and is one of the oldest, largest and most diverse universities in the UK. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University is recognised globally as a world leader in Higher Education. Its members are 18 self-governing member institutions of outstanding reputation, and nine research institutes. Learn more about the University of London at