This briefing examines the migration of Afghan asylum seekers and refugees to the UK. It presents statistics on the number of Afghans arriving via small boat, and those given protection in the UK under the two main resettlement schemes for Afghans: the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), and Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS).
- In each of the five quarters from 1 April 2022 to 30 June 2023, more Afghans reached the UK by small boat than through the bespoke resettlement schemes for Afghans.
- From 1 January 2022 to 30 June 2023, three times as many Afghans claimed asylum than were resettled in the UK.
- An estimated 21,500 people received settlement in the UK under the two main schemes for resettling Afghans, ARAP and ACRS, as of 30 June 2023.
- Of the roughly 21,500 people given status under ARAP and ACRS to 30 June 2023, 70% arrived in the evacuation of Kabul.
- On 30 June 2023, around 11,000 people resettled under ARAP or ACRS were in settled accommodation, with around 6,600 in ‘bridging’ accommodation.
- The EU has also seen an increase in Afghan asylum claimants since the fall of Kabul.
- At the end of 2022, an estimated 9.3 million Afghans were displaced worldwide.
- In each of the five quarters from 1 April 2022 to 30 June 2023, more Afghans reached the UK by small boat than through the bespoke resettlement schemes for Afghans.
Understanding the Policy
There are four main routes through which displaced Afghans are likely to end up living in the UK following the rise of the Taliban. Click to read more.
Two are bespoke immigration routes for Afghan nationals and their family members opened in response to the fall of Kabul:
1) Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP). Launched on 1 April 2021, this is for Afghan citizens (and their family members) who worked as interpreters or other staff for the UK in Afghanistan and were hence at risk of reprisal from the Taliban. Many of these were evacuated from the country during Operation Pitting. The scheme will run indefinitely and has no limit on numbers. It can be applied for online.
2) Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS). Opened on 6 January 2022, this is for people who came to the UK under the evacuation in summer 2021 (Pathway 1) and other vulnerable Afghans who are at risk in Afghanistan or have already fled to neighbouring countries. Those outside Afghanistan will be resettled under the ACRS after being selected for resettlement by the UN (Pathway 2) or as part of an NGO-led referral process (Pathway 3).
People given status in the UK under ARAP or the ACRS are granted settlement on arrival. This grants the right to study, work, use public services such as the NHS, and claim benefits. After five years in the UK, people given status under these routes will be entitled to apply for British citizenship under the usual existing rules and subject to the normal application fees.
The remaining two routes are for all nationals rather than Afghans specifically and have formed a central part of the UK’s protection system since long before the fall of Kabul:
3) Asylum system. Some Afghans will make their own way to the UK and claim asylum through the normal asylum process, which requires making an in-country application. Afghans are one of five nationalities subject to “streamlined asylum processing”, meaning those who submitted their claim before 28 June 2022 would typically have their asylum claim determined on the basis of a completed questionnaire rather than a face-to-face interview.
4) Refugee family reunion. Others will enter the UK as the close family members of Afghans whose asylum applications resulted in a grant of asylum or the similar ‘humanitarian protection’ status.
Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS)
As a resettlement scheme, the ACRS gives refuge in the UK to Afghans who have been forced to flee their homes, face threats of persecution, or have supported the UK in Afghanistan. It was announced on 18 August 2021 and opened formally on 6 January 2022. The ACRS is modelled on the UK’s previous Syrian resettlement scheme, known as the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), which ran from 2014 to 2021.
Refugee resettlement is separate from the asylum process. In the UK’s asylum process, people must apply for asylum and be in the UK to do so. It is not possible to apply for asylum from outside the UK. There is no asylum visa, so no legal way to travel to the UK for the specific purpose of claiming asylum. By contrast, it is not possible to apply for refugee resettlement. Instead, refugees are selected by the UN for resettlement and transferred to the UK with the agreement of the Home Office, where they receive refugee status on arrival.
Afghan citizens will need to be referred for resettlement under this scheme, and there will be no formal application process.
The Syrian resettlement scheme aimed to resettle 20,000 people in five years. In early 2020, it had resettled more than 20,000 people. The ACRS similarly aims to resettle 20,000 people, with 5,000 in its first year of operation and up to 20,000 “over the coming years”.
Although most people resettled through the ACRS will be Afghan citizens, nationals of other countries can be eligible (for example, to allow the resettlement of mixed-nationality families). Eligible individuals can be joined by their spouse or partner and any children under the age of 18. Other family members, such as elderly dependent relatives or adult dependent children, may be resettled only in exceptional circumstances. Unaccompanied children may be offered resettlement if it is in their best interests, though it may be determined that the best interests of a child are better served by remaining closer to home if, say, they are more likely to be reunited with family there.
How are Afghan refugees selected under ACRS?
The ACRS prioritises two categories of people: (1) those who have assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and “stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and the rule of law” (for example, judges, women’s rights activists, academics, journalists); and (2) vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk, and members of minority groups at risk (including ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT people).
It is not possible to apply to the ACRS. Instead, refugees will be referred for resettlement to the UK under one of three pathways:
Pathway 1. This is for people who arrived under the UK’s evacuation programme, Operation Pitting, which ran from mid-to-late August 2021. These were the first people to be resettled under the ACRS. People notified that they were eligible for evacuation but who were not able to board flights will be offered a place on the scheme if they later come to the UK.
Pathway 2. The UN selects Afghan refugees for resettlement to the UK in the same way that it did for the Syrian scheme and as it does for the UK Resettlement Scheme.
Pathway 3. This is designed for “people at risk who supported the UK and international community effort in Afghanistan, and people who are particularly vulnerable, such as women and girls at risk and members of minority groups”. This pathway will resettle people (and their eligible family members) from three groups: British Council contractors, employees of GardaWorld (a security contractor), and alums of Chevening, the UK government’s international scholarships and fellowships programme. After the first year of Pathway 3, the UK government has said that it “will work with international partners and NGOs to welcome wider groups of Afghans at risk”.
All people considered for resettlement will be screened, according to a statement by the government. This includes taking biometric information and checking security and other databases. The Home Office’s general policy guidance on UK refugee resettlement identifies two sets of checks, the first by UNHCR, and the second by the Home Office. First, UNHCR screens out people who have committed a crime against peace, a war crime, a crime against humanity, a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge, or who have been guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. Second, the Home Office conducts its own screening, examining factors such as the person’s military service, arrest or detention history, past involvement in the conflict they are fleeing from, links to terrorism or extremism, occupational history, and travel history.
Understanding the Evidence
TThis briefing mainly uses administrative data from the Home Office. Some of these data are published quarterly as part of the Home Office’s official Immigration System Statistics release. These data are complemented in this briefing by provisional administrative information. Click to read more.
Notably, all data relating to the Afghan schemes, including those in the official quarterly statistics, are provisional and subject to change whilst work continues to ensure that all data related to relocated individuals are recorded on government systems.
Quarterly data on people given status under ARAP and ACRS refer to the quarter that the person arrived in the UK and not the quarter in which they received status.
In each of the five quarters from 1 April 2022 to 30 June 2023, more Afghans reached the UK by small boat than through bespoke resettlement schemes for Afghans
In each of the five quarters from 1 April 2022 to 30 June 2023, more Afghans arrived in the UK by small boat than via the UK’s bespoke humanitarian routes for Afghans: ARAP, for Afghans who worked with the UK’s armed forces; and ACRS, the UK’s resettlement scheme for Afghans (Figure 1). In that fifteen-month period, around 9,500 Afghans arrived via small boat, while around 3,500 arrived via Afghan routes. In the first half of 2023 (1 January to 30 June), almost nine times as many Afghans (around 1,500) arrived by small boat than by an Afghan route (175).
Since the summer of 2021, the number of Afghans crossing the Channel in small boats rose substantially (Figure 2).
In the first half of 2023, Afghans became the most common nationality arriving in the UK via small boat (Figure 3), making up 20% of all arrivals whose nationality had been recorded as of 30 June 2023 (of the 11,433 detected arrivals, 3,981 had not had their nationality recorded by the end of June).
From 2018 to 2021, Afghans made up 4–5% of asylum applicants. In 2022, this rose to 11%, making Afghans the second most common nationality of asylum applicants, behind Albanians. In the first half of 2023, Afghans became the most common nationality claiming asylum in the UK (Figure 3, Measure: Asylum applicants).
From 1 January 2022 to 30 June 2023, three times as many Afghans claimed asylum than were resettled in the UK
The number of Afghans claiming asylum in the UK, including after arriving via irregular means, such as by small boat, has increased since the fall of Kabul. Most Afghans arriving via small boat claim asylum. Of the 12,599 detected crossing the Channel from 1 January 2018 to 30 June 2023, 93% (11,689) made an asylum application.
In the year-and-a-half from 1 January 2022 to 30 June 2023, around 14,700 Afghan citizens claimed asylum in the UK (not all of these will have arrived by small boat), while only around 4,900 were resettled under ARAP, ACRS, and the UK’s other general resettlement schemes (Figure 4). This means that in 2022 and the first half of 2023, asylum was the main route under which Afghans sought protection in the UK (see Understanding the Policy above) despite the existence of bespoke resettlement schemes.
The share of successful Afghan asylum claimants has increased substantially in recent years. In 2022, 98% of the Home Office’s initial decisions on Afghan asylum applications were grants of refugee status or other permission to stay (Figure 5).
Of the 8,883 Afghan small boat arrivals in the year ending 31 March 2023 (the latest period for which there are data), 92% applied for asylum (8,153 people, relating to 7,687 applications). Of these applications, only 143 had received an initial decision (2%) by 31 March 2023, and 97% (139) of them had been granted refugee status or another type of leave.
The UK government has suspended enforced removals to Afghanistan and has said that Afghans who have been refused asylum in the UK and who believe their situation has changed should make a further asylum claim to have their case reconsidered.
The Illegal Migration Act will curtail Afghans’ ability to seek asylum in the UK. Under the Act, most Afghans arriving without authorisation in the UK from a safe country will not be able to claim asylum and would face removal to Rwanda.
As of 30 June 2023, there were around 13,000 Afghan nationals awaiting an initial Home Office decision on their asylum application (main applicants). Of these, 79% (around 10,200) had been waiting for more than six months.
Refugee family reunion
Asylum seekers granted asylum or humanitarian protection can be joined in the UK by their spouse or partner and any of their children who are under 18 if they formed a part of the family unit before the refugee fled their country. Relatively small numbers of Afghans move to the UK under the refugee family reunion route (see Understanding the Policy) than the normal asylum route: an average of around 200 people per year in the decade from 2013 to 2022, 95% of whom were women or children.
An estimated 21,500 people received settlement in the UK under the two main schemes for resettling Afghans, ARAP and ACRS, as of 30 June 2023
Provisional operational data published by the UK government show that as of 30 June 2023, around 21,500 people had received settlement under the two main schemes for people resettled from Afghanistan: ARAP, for interpreters and other staff who worked with the British in Afghanistan and the ACRS, the UK’s resettlement scheme for Afghans.
These data also show that around 2,000 people arrived before Operation Pitting, the operation under which people were evacuated from Afghanistan from 13 to 28 August 2021. All of these were granted status under ARAP, the scheme for locally employed staff in Afghanistan who had worked with the British armed forces. Around 15,000 individuals were evacuated as part of Operation Pitting and around 7,000 arrived in the UK after Operation PITTING and were granted status under both ARAP and the ACRS, which is the bespoke resettlement scheme for Afghans.
As of 30 June 2023, around 11,500 people had received settlement (either indefinite leave to enter or indefinite leave to remain) under ARAP, and around 9,800 people under ACRS, the vast majority (9,676, 99%) under ACRS Pathway 1 (Figure 6), which refers to those who arrived in the UK as part of the evacuation, or who were eligible for evacuation but who were not able to board flights and arrived in the UK later. For a description of the different resettlement Pathways, see the ‘Understanding the Policy’ section above.
Of the roughly 21,500 people given status under ARAP and ACRS to 30 June 2023, 70% arrived in the evacuation of Kabul
Resettlement of people other than those who arrived during the evacuation has been limited (Figure 7). Of the roughly 21,500 people given status under ARAP (for interpreters and other staff who worked with the British in Afghanistan) and ACRS (the UK’s resettlement scheme for Afghans) as of 30 June 2023, 70% (around 15,000) arrived in Q3 2021 (i.e., from 1 July to 30 September; the evacuation took place from mid to late August 2021).
Among those given status under ARAP, around 6,300 people arrived in the UK in Q3 2021 as part of the evacuation – 55% of the total resettled under ARAP to 30 June 2023. The drop-off in those resettled under the ACRS has been sharper: 87% of those granted status up to 30 June 2023 arrived in the UK in Q3 2021. In the first half of 2023 (1 January to 30 June), just 175 people were granted status under ARAP and ACRS combined (Figure 8).
Most of the people resettled under ARCS Pathway 1 arrived during the evacuation. It is not clear how many more people are eligible to be resettled under Pathway 1. Just 107 people have been resettled under Pathways 2 and 3, which are for vulnerable Afghans not evacuated or eligible for the evacuation. For a description of the ACRS’s different resettlement pathways, see the ‘Understanding the Policy’ section above.
On 30 June 2023, around 11,000 people resettled under ARAP or ACRS were in settled accommodation, with around 6,600 in ‘bridging’ accommodation
From Q2 2021, ‘bridging’ accommodation has been used to house people arriving in the UK under the Afghan schemes. These are typically hotels or serviced apartments and are intended to house people temporarily before they move into long-term ‘settled’ accommodation. Housing people in bridging accommodation costs around £1 million per day.
In April 2023, the government announced it would end the use of bridging accommodation. Most people were expected to move into settled accommodation by the end of August.
Operational data from the Home Office show that as of 30 June 2023, around 6,600 people, around half of whom are children, were living in temporary hotel ‘bridging’ accommodation across 55 hotels (down from 84 hotels in October 2021). A further 11,000 people had been moved into settled accommodation, and around 400 people had been matched to a home and were waiting to move in. Of the roughly 11,000 in homes, 14% (around 1,500) were in private rented housing (some of which receive local government funding), and the remainder in housing provided by local authorities (all government funded). Note that these numbers do not add up to the total people-issued status under ARAP and ACRS because the accommodation situation of around 2,800 of these individuals is not yet recorded in the Home Office datasets.
Figure 9 presents provisional operational data on where people resettled under the Afghan programmes were living on 30 June 2023. Out of the UK’s 378 local planning authorities, 319 hosted people on one of the schemes. People in settled accommodation are much more widely distributed throughout the UK than those in bridging accommodation. Top locations for those in settled accommodation include London (1,711 people, 16% of all in settled accommodation), Leeds (327), Bristol (254), Coventry (236), and Birmingham (219).
In 2021, there were an estimated 85,700 Afghan-born migrants living in England and Wales, 56% of whom lived in London (Figure 7). This includes people who migrated for any reason, whether to seek protection, work, join family, or study. Within London, the largest communities of Afghan-born people were in Ealing (an estimated 7,000), Hounslow (6,400), Hillingdon (6,300), and Harrow (4,800) (ONS, 2021). Outside of London, the largest communities were in Birmingham (4,600) and Manchester (2,400).
Other European countries have also received more Afghan asylum seekers since the fall of Kabul. In 2019, around 61,000 Afghans claimed asylum in the EU+ (the EU-27, excluding the UK, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) – equivalent to 13 Afghans per 100,000 population. In 2022, the figure was around 133,000, which is 29 people per 100,000 population (Figure 10). In the UK, the number of applicants per capita was smaller, increasing from three Afghan claimants per 100,000 population in 2019 to 16 in 2022.
In 2022, three EU countries received more Afghan asylum applicants than the UK (~11,400): Germany (~41,400), Austria (~25,000), and France (~23,800) (Figure 11). Afghan asylum seekers who reach Europe do not typically claim asylum in the UK. In 2022, of the roughly 144,000 Afghan nationals (including both main applicants and their family members) who claimed asylum in the UK and 31 EU+ countries, 92% (~133,000) claimed asylum in the EU+ (Eurostat). Yet these numbers are small compared with the number of displaced Afghans worldwide, most of whom are in countries neighbouring Afghanistan.
After the withdrawal from Afghanistan of British and US armed forces and the Taliban’s ascent to power in the summer of 2021, the number of forcibly displaced Afghans rose steeply. The UN estimates that more than 900,000 people have been newly displaced in Afghanistan since 2021. These added to millions already displaced before 2021.
As of 31 December 2022, of Afghanistan’s population of around 40 million, 3.3 million were internally displaced. A further 6 million Afghans have either claimed asylum or are registered with UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency) outside Afghanistan, of which an estimated 5.2 million were in Iran and Pakistan at the end of 2022 (Figure 12). Most of these were displaced before 2021, and their numbers will likely continue to grow.
This research was made possible thanks to the support of Oak Foundation. The authors are grateful to Will Somerville, Andy Hewett, and CJ McKinney for valuable comments on drafts of this publication. Special thanks are owed to Kotaro Oriishi for research assistance.