Migration to the UK: Asylum

13th August 2015
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Rob McNeil

This briefing sets out key facts and figures, as well as information gaps, relating to the number of asylum seekers applying to stay in the UK, who these asylum seekers are, how many are rejected, what the overall impacts of asylum seekers are on UK migration statistics and what happens to asylum seekers after their applications have been processed.

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Key points

  • Asylum applications (excluding dependents) rose from 4,256 in 1987 to a peak of 84,130 in 2002. They stood at 24,914 in 2014.
  • Asylum applicants and their dependents comprised an estimated 8% of net migration in 2013, down from 49% in 2002 but up from 4% in 2010.
  • In 2014, 59% of asylum applications were initially refused. A majority of refused applicants lodge appeals. In 2014, 28% of appeals were allowed.
  • Men made up nearly 3 out of 4 (73%) main applicants for asylum in 2014.
  • In 2014, the UK received 5% of asylum claims made in EU countries (plus Norway and Switzerland), making it the sixth highest recipient of asylum claims.

Understanding the evidence

Asylum applicants or 'asylum seekers' are individuals who come to the UK and apply for protection as refugees. A refugee is someone who has fled his or her own country, and cannot return for well-founded fear of persecution there. The UK adheres to UN and European agreements on refugees and human rights and therefore must not return asylum applicants to a place where they are likely to face torture or persecution.
Asylum adds to the UK resident population in several ways. First, it adds to the legal, permanent ('settled'), population. A minority of applicants gain permission to stay in the UK ('leave to remain'), and may remain long enough to settle in the UK. Leave to remain might mean official recognition as a refugee or permission to stay for 'humanitarian protection' (HP) or through 'discretionary leave to remain' (DL). In each case, the protected individual can stay in the UK for five years and then has the opportunity to apply for indefinite leave to remain.
Second, asylum adds to the temporary population. Applicants who are unsuccessful and eventually leave the UK nonetheless will live in the UK for some time as they await a decision. Any such applicant who lives in the UK for at least 12 months is classified as a 'long-term international migrant'.
A third group is more difficult to count – individuals whose applications for asylum have been rejected, but who have not departed the country. Some of this group applies for 'hard case support' (aka Section 4) while awaiting departure, and are tracked in Home Office data. Others may have departed outside of official removal or voluntary departure schemes; still others may remain illegally in the UK out of contact with immigration control, and thus uncounted.
The Home Office counts applications, decisions (initially and on appeal), and grants of leave to remain for asylum applicants. This includes dependents who arrived with the main applicant as part of the initial application. These data provide good estimates of the first two routes into the population for asylum seekers: 1) those who gain leave to remain in the UK, and 2) those that live in the UK temporarily while their cases are in process. The challenges in understanding the make-up of the third group, those whose application have been rejected but still remain here without legal permission, are discussed in the  Evidence gaps and limitations section.
Throughout the briefing, data used are for the most recent full calendar year available.

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Asylum applications peaked in the early 2000s. They stood at 24,914 in 2014, excluding dependents

Asylum applications increased from 1987 to 2002, but played a declining role in overall migration since 2003. As Figure 1 shows, asylum applications increased from 4,256 in 1987 to 84,132 in 2002, before falling to 25,712 in 2005. After little change until 2009, applications declined further, falling to 17,916 in 2010. Since then, the numbers have risen each year to reach 24,914 in 2014. These numbers include only 'main applicants', excluding 'dependents' who are family members accompanying the principal person making the application.

Figure 1

As a component of overall migration into the UK, asylum accounted for all or nearly all of net migration as estimated by the ONS’ LTIM figures in the early 1990s. Figures 2 and 3 show how asylum seekers contributed significantly to net increases in migration in 1995 and again in 2000. Between 1994 and 2003, asylum seekers’ share of annual net migration ranged from 25% to 54% in annual data. This trend had changed decisively by 2004, as net migration again increased but asylum declined. Between 2004 and 2012, asylum ranged from 4% to 11% of net migration, and was estimated at about 8% for 2013.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Net migration calculations depend on a crucial assumption about asylum-related outflows. The ONS calculation of asylum seeker departures includes asylum applicants who were returned to their country of origin, those who withdrew applications and were known to have left the UK, and 'a small number' of those who had been 'refused asylum in the previous year or who had withdrawn their application and were not known to have left the UK'. This latter number is unverifiable without complete data on departures from the UK (ONS 2008:11).

Data on grants of settlement to migrants also show asylum constituting a falling share of the total from 2005 to 2010; during this period the share of asylum applicants among all settlement grants fell from 37.9% to 2.0%. Numbers here began to rise again, reaching 16.7% in 2014 (see Figure 4). An August 2005 policy change contributed to the sharp decline from 2005-2011. This change meant that asylum seekers granted leave to remain are no longer immediately granted settlement. As a result, this delayed settlement for those granted refugee status, humanitarian protection (HP) or discretionary leave to remain (DL).

Figure 4

On the other hand, it appears that a significant share of settlements from 2005-2011 came from government efforts to address backlogs of undecided asylum applications and refused asylum applicants who remain in the UK. This is detailed in our briefing 'Settlement in the UK'.

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In 2014, 59% of asylum applications were initially refused. 28% of appeals were eventually approved

Aside from settlement in the UK, what other outcomes occur? Available data show decisions in asylum cases, along with removals and voluntary departures. These data are available as events in each year (or quarter). Since 2004, data are also available by annual entering 'cohort' - the group of people who applied for asylum in Britain in a given year.

Looking first at decisions by year, Figure 5 shows that the majority of initial decisions were refusals in each year since 1994. In 2014, 59% of initial decisions were refusals. These initial decisions are often appealed: among the 2004-2013 cohorts, 76% of rejected applicants lodged appeals on average, with a success rate of 24%. As shown in Figure 6, over 2007 to 2014, successful appeals ranged from 22.5% to 28.5% of total appeals.

Figure 5

Figure 6

Cohort data gives a useful portrait of outcomes for a set of individuals arriving in a given year, including results after appeals. For example, among 2005 asylum applicants, 30% had gained leave to remain in the UK either as refugees (19%) or through HP or DL (11%) by July 2014, and 66% had been refused protection. Among those refused, 41% of the initial cohort were known to have left (either through enforced removals or voluntary departures). There are no data showing how many of the remaining refused asylum seekers remained in the UK and how many departed in another way without being detected in Home Office data. Meanwhile 4% of 2005 applications remained unresolved or had unknown outcomes as of July 2014. Similar data are available for cohorts up to 2013, and appear in Figure 7.

Figure 7

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Men made up nearly 3 out of 4 (73%) main applicants for asylum in 2014

Available demographic data show that main applicants are predominantly male adults from nations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, although a large share came from Europe in the early 2000s, due to conflicts in areas such as Kosovo. In 2013, asylum applicants (excluding dependents) were 72.8% male and 27.1% female. Young adult main applicants were especially likely to be male, as seen in Figure 8. However, dependents were more likely to be female, especially between the ages of 21 and 49.

Figure 8

The nationality of asylum seekers changes as crises come and go across the globe, since asylum seekers come mainly from countries embroiled in political and military conflict (Crawley 2010). In 2013 the leading sources of asylum applicants in the UK were Pakistan, Iran, Sri Lanka, Syria, Eritrea, Albania, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Iraq and Somalia have dropped out of the top ten after previously comprising a large share of asylum applicants in Britain, reaching high points 2002 for Iraq (14,570 applicants, 17% of that year’s total) and 1999 for Somalia (7,495, 11% of total).  By contrast, applicants from Syria increased by several hundred in recent years, from 1,289 in 2012 to 2,081 in 2014, rising from fifth to third on the list of leading sources of UK asylum applicants. Eritrea was the leading source country for asylum applicants in 2014, increasing from 1,377 applicants in 2013 to 3,239 in 2014.

Table 1 - Top ten nationalities, UK asylum applicants, 2014

CountryNumber of applicants
Share of total
Sri Lanka1,2825.1%
Source: Home Office, Immigration Statistics Table as.01

As recently as 2000, the UK received more than 20,000 asylum seekers from Europe, more than from Africa or the Middle East, including thousands from Serbia and Montenegro and thousands more from 2004 EU Accession states. Resolution of crises, as well as EU enlargement, seems to have reduced the number of asylum seekers in the UK: European asylum seekers in the UK accounted for only 3,025 cases in 2004 and fell further to 2,407 in 2014.

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UK share of asylum applicants: Per capita, less than European average

Eurostat figures provide information on asylum applications across Europe. As seen in Figure 9, UK asylum applications since 2008 have stayed relatively stable compared to Europe-wide trends. In 2014, asylum claims in European countries (EU-28 plus Norway and Switzerland) reached 661,448, according to Eurostat. The UK’s share of Europe’s asylum claims has declined as well, from approximately 10% in 2008 to about 5% in 2014.

Figure 9

Figure 10 shows Eurostat data for the top five European countries and the UK, in terms of 2014 asylum applications. The highest numbers of claims were seen in Germany (202,815), Sweden (81,325) and Italy (64,625).

From 2013 to 2014, the countries experiencing the greatest annual increase in applications were Italy (142% increase from 26,620 to 64,625) and Hungary (126% increase from 18,900 to 42,775). Germany saw a yearly increase of nearly 60% from 126,995 to 202,815 in 2014. Meanwhile, applications to France remained roughly stable between 2013 and 2014 (decreasing slightly from 66,265 to 64,310) although this is still higher than in 2008 when 41,845 applications were made. The data for the UK, seen in Figure 1 but reproduced here for comparison, show an yearly increase of about 5% from 29,875 in 2013 to 31,433 in 2014. 

Figure 10

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Evidence gaps and limitations

Information on rejected asylum applicants—and whether or not they leave the country—is a critical weakness in existing data sources. Some rejected applicants depart by government removal or various voluntary departures schemes for which data are available. Others, as noted above, might either depart without notifying authorities or remain in the UK as part of the irregular migrant population.  Reliable data do not exist to discern between these two categories.

Indeed, lack of data on departures from the UK is a weakness in asylum data and migration data generally in the UK. The Home Office has begun to use passenger data from airlines and other sources to try to track previously unknown departures, but it may be some time before the data can be used reliably for statistical purposes.

Thus, estimates of asylum’s role in net migration are uncertain, as total outflows can currently only be guessed. The Office of National Statistics assumes the departure of some percentage of asylum seekers in its widely-used estimate of Long-Term International Migration, or LTIM, as in Figure 1 (ONS 2008: 10-11).

Official data have at least one other key omission. Dependents arriving in the UK after the initial decision on the main applicant are counted in entry statistics as dependents, but are not distinguished as dependents of asylum- seekers or refugees. Similarly, dependents are counted in settlement statistics only if they were granted settlement at the same time as the main applicant they accompany (ICAR 2009). Thus, we cannot accurately capture the total number of people coming to the UK with asylum seekers, as some may arrive later to join a successful applicant.

Compared to other nations, there are additional gaps in UK asylum data. Demographic data about asylum seekers are limited to age, sex, and nationality. By contrast, nations such as Sweden and Australia collect additional information on asylum applicants’ marital status, ethnicity, religion, parents’ countries of birth, date of migration, education, prior occupation, health, language, and future migratory intentions (Stewart 2004).

An additional note: most published administrative data count the number of events in a given month, quarter, or year. Thus, data for a given time period show, for example, how many asylum applications were made, how many applicants were recognised as refugees, and how many refugees were granted settlement. But each of these pieces of information refers to a different set of people. Many applicants whose claims were decided in 2009 applied in an earlier year, for example. Thus, it would be incorrect to calculate the percentage of 2009 asylum seekers granted settlement by taking the number of settlement grants in 2009 and dividing by asylum applications in 2009. The Home Office’s new tracking of annual 'cohorts' of asylum applicants helps with this problem. Cohort data show the eventual outcomes for each yearly group of applicants since 2004. For more recent years many cases remain undecided, however.

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  • ICAR. "Key Statistics about Asylum Seeker Applications in the UK." ICAR Statistics Paper 1, Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, London, December 2009 update.
  • Crawley, Heaven. "Chance or Choice? Understanding Why Asylum Seekers Come to the UK." Refugee Council Report, Refugee Council, London, 2010.
  • ONS. "Methodology to Estimate Total International Migration 1991 to 2008." Office for National Statistics, Newport, 2008.
  • Stewart, Emma. "Deficiencies in UK Asylum Data: Practical and Theoretical Challenges." Journal of Refugee Studies 17, no 1 (2004): 29.

Further readings

  • Aspinall, Peter and Charles Watters. "Refugees and Asylum Seekers. A Review from an Equality and Human Rights Perspective." Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report 52, Equality and Human Rights Commission, Manchester, 2010.
  • Robinson, Vaughan and Jeremy Segrott. "Understanding the Decision-Making of Asylum Seekers." Home Office Research Study 243, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, London, 2002.

Related material

Migration Observatory briefing - Settlement in the UK

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