This briefing examines asylum and refugee resettlement in the UK. It presents data on the number and characteristics of asylum seekers and resettled refugees, the success rate of asylum applications, and the impact of COVID-19.
- People who originally came to the UK to seek asylum made up an estimated 5% of the UK’s foreign-born population and 0.6% of the UK’s total resident population in 2019.
- COVID-19 substantially reduced asylum seeking in the UK in 2020, and prevented almost all refugee resettlement.
- From January to September 2020, 98% of the people who arrived in the UK by crossing the English Channel in small boats claimed asylum, but the majority of asylum seekers did not arrive by small boat.
- Taking into account appeals, 54% of asylum applications from 2016 to 2018 are estimated to have received a grant of asylum-related protection by May 2020 – up from 36% at initial decision.
- The share of asylum applications that received an initial decision within six months fell from 87% in Q2 2014 to 22% in Q2 2020.
- On 31 December 2020, around 70,000 people were awaiting an outcome on their asylum claim.
- The distribution of asylum seekers and resettled refugees is highly uneven across the UK.
- In 2020, the top five most common countries of nationality of people seeking asylum in the UK were Iran, Iraq, Albania, Eritrea, and Sudan.
- Of all refugees resettled in the UK from January 2010 to December 2020, around 70% were Syrian.
- When compared against EU member states, in 2020 the UK ranked 7th in the absolute number of people to whom it gave protection, including resettled refugees.
- In 2020, around 5,400 people were issued with a refugee family reunion visa, and around 900 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were granted asylum or other leave.
- People who originally came to the UK to seek asylum made up an estimated 5% of the UK’s foreign-born population and 0.6% of the UK’s total resident population in 2019.
Understanding the Policy
Asylum is the protection that is granted by a nation-state to a person who has left their country to escape serious threat to their life or liberty. Such people are called refugees. ... Click to read more.
The United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. An asylum seeker (or asylum applicant) is a person who has applied for recognition as a refugee under the Refugee Convention, to which over 140 nations are signatories (UNHCR, 2020).
There is no law that says asylum seekers must make their asylum claim in the first safe country they arrive in after leaving their country of origin. However, under an EU law called the Dublin III Regulation, asylum seekers could in theory be transferred to the first EU member state in which they arrived after leaving their origin country. Because of Brexit, the UK is no longer a part of the Dublin arrangements, and without new agreements with either the EU as a whole or with individual member states will probably have to consider the claim of every person who seeks asylum here.
To claim asylum in the UK, a person must be in the UK. It is not possible to apply from outside the country, and there is no asylum visa. Therefore, to claim asylum in the UK a person must enter either irregularly, such as by small boat, lorry, or by using false documents, or for another purpose, such as tourism or study. Others could arrive without a required visa. Applicants will not be granted asylum if the government believes they represent a danger to the UK (Home Office, 2020a, p. 85).
There are three possible outcomes of an asylum application. First, an applicant can be recognised as a refugee and granted asylum with five years’ leave (i.e., permission to stay in the UK), after which they may apply, free, for settlement. Second, the applicant can be granted another form of leave: humanitarian protection (HP); discretionary leave (DL); leave under family or private life rules; unaccompanied asylum-seeking child (UASC) leave; leave outside the rules; Calais leave; or exceptional leave to remain. Third, the asylum claim can be refused. If a claim is refused, the applicant can appeal against the initial decision. All applications request protection for a ‘main applicant’, and some include requests for protection for the main applicant’s dependent family members as well, specifically: their spouse, civil partner, or unmarried partner, and any children under 18, but not dependant parents (Immigration Rules, Paragraph 349).
The Home Office states that asylum in the UK should be sought at the first available opportunity, on arrival at a port of entry. Those who do not claim asylum on arrival can instead apply in person for asylum at the Asylum Intake Unit in London. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the government has temporarily introduced additional locations where asylum claims can be made: Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff, Liverpool, Leeds, and Solihull.
Right to work and benefits
Asylum seekers are not generally permitted to work in the UK while their claim is being considered. If they are destitute, they can apply for free accommodation, as well as asylum support, which is set at £39.63 a week, equivalent to £5.66 per day. The Home Office may only grant an asylum applicant permission to work if both (1) their asylum claim has been outstanding for more than 12 months through no fault of the applicant, and (2) the job is on the Shortage Occupation List (which includes a selection of skilled jobs). Campaign groups have argued that asylum seekers and their adult dependants should be able to work in any job after having waited six months for a decision on their claim or further submission (for example, Refugee Action, 2020). Asylum seekers are, however, permitted to study while awaiting a decision on their asylum claim.
Refugee resettlement is separate from the asylum process. In the asylum process, people must apply for asylum whilst in the UK. But for resettlement there is no application procedure. Instead, refugees are selected by the UN for resettlement, and transferred to the UK with the agreement of the Home Office, where they receive full refugee status on arrival. In recent years, the UK has operated four resettlement schemes. These were suspended in March 2020 due to COVID-19, and recommenced in December 2020 (UK Visas and Immigration, 2021). The largest of these was the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), which began in 2014 and aimed to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. This scheme was later expanded to people of any nationality fleeing the Syrian conflict. The Vulnerable Children Resettlement Scheme (VCRS) aimed to resettle 3,000 children from the Middle East and North Africa by 2020. The Mandate Scheme and Gateway Protection Programme (GPP) are for refugees anywhere in the world (for more information on the UK’s resettlement schemes see Wilkins, 2020). The government has stated that the VPRS, VCRS and GPP will be combined into a single ‘global resettlement scheme’, which aims to resettle around 5,000 refugees in its first year.
Refugee family reunion
The UK allows an adult granted refugee status or humanitarian protection to 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. However, parents, grandparents, siblings, or children who are 18 or over are not eligible to join under the refugee family reunion route. Nor are unaccompanied minors generally permitted to be joined by their parents. Campaign groups have argued for a broader definition of who qualifies as a ‘family member’ for the purposes of refugee family reunion (see, for example, Oxfam International, 2018).
Hong Kong BNOs
On 31 January 2021, the UK opened a new route for Hong Kong British National (Overseas) citizens (BNOs) and their close family members (see The Migration Observatory’s Q&A: The new Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa). Under the new route, an estimated 5.4 million Hong Kong residents will be eligible to move to the UK and eventually become British citizens. This route to citizenship is sometimes presented as an asylum route. However, it is not an asylum route, and the visa does not confer an asylum-related status. Instead, it is applied for like any other visa, and its applicants must pay immigration fees: for the visa, the immigration health surcharge, and for an application for settlement.
Understanding the Evidence
In this briefing, references to the EU exclude the UK, but include Switzerland and the three additional EEA countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway. ... Click to read more.
Data on foreign-born UK residents’ main reason for moving to the UK come from the Labour Force Survey (LFS), the largest official household survey in the UK. Only one ‘main’ reason for migration is recorded, though in practice people may have more than one reason for moving. The data reflect self-reported reasons and will not necessarily match people’s legal immigration status. LFS data in this briefing have not been updated to 2020 because of problems in data reliability during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data on the number of asylum applicants and grants of asylum-related leave come from administrative databases of the Home Office. In this briefing, where we refer to asylum seekers or applicants (i.e., the number of people who claim asylum), we include both main applicants and dependants. ‘Asylum applications’ refers to main applicants only.
To calculate the success rate of asylum claims, we cannot simply divide the number of positive initial decision in any given year by the total number of applications received that year. This is because many asylum decisions in any given year will relate to claims made in earlier years, and because refused claims can be appealed. Therefore, to examine the success rate of asylum claims, this briefing analyses Home Office data on the ‘final outcomes’ of applications. These data provide the outcomes (as of May 2020) of a ‘cohort’ of applications (i.e., all those submitted in the same year), taking into account the results of appeals to the First-tier Tribunal (though not higher courts). In recognising that initial refusals can be overturned on appeal, these data provide a better indication of success rates than data on initial decisions. These estimates of asylum claim success rates exclude withdrawn applications and those that are still pending, because these applications have not received a decision. Because final success rates vary from year to year, in part because cohorts have different numbers of pending applications, this briefing analyses together the applications of three cohorts from 2016 to 2018 inclusive, which reduces the effect of biases due to some cohorts containing applications that, for whatever reason, take longer to process. Data for 2019 are not included because large numbers of applications submitted in that year are still awaiting a decision, the outcomes of which may change the success rate.
The only available data on the location of asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their claim is for those who are receiving government support (specifically, ‘Section 95’ support) that includes the provision of accommodation, money for subsistence, or both. These data are broken down by region and local authority. The data on asylum seekers’ location presented in this briefing include all those on Section 95 support and not just those in dispersed accommodation. This support is given only to asylum seekers who are destitute and so these data may not reflect the location of all asylum seekers. Local authority data for those in receipt of Section 95 support are based on the registered address of the asylum seeker, which may not be the location at which the individual regularly resides. For resettled refugees, location data are provided for those resettled under the VPRS and VCRS and refer to the refugees’ initial receiving local authority, which they may later leave. Asylum seekers in receipt of support under ‘Section 4(2)’ are also provided with accommodation, but data are not available on their location.
People who originally came to the UK to seek asylum made up an estimated 5% of the UK’s foreign-born population and 0.6% of the UK’s total resident population in 2019
An estimated 388,000 foreign-born people living in the UK in 2019 originally came to the UK to seek asylum, according to Migration Observatory analysis of the Labour Force Survey. This made up 5% of the UK’s foreign-born population in 2019 of 9.48 million, and 0.6% of the UK’s total 2019 resident population of around 67 million. Of these, 56% had lived in the UK for sixteen years or more. (Figure 1).
These data include those granted asylum or an alternative form of leave, or who remained in the UK without legal immigration status. They partly reflect the increase in asylum applications and grants of asylum-related leave during the late 1990s and early 2000s (Figure 2).
Changes over time in the number of people seeking asylum in the UK are driven in large part by geopolitical events, since asylum seekers come mainly from countries embroiled in political and military conflicts (see Crawley, 2010). For example, the spike in people who came to the UK to seek asylum from 1998 to 2002 were mainly nationals of Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia – at that time sites of war.
Looking at all people who sought asylum from 2010 to 2020, 68% were male, and 65% of all grants of asylum or other leave at initial decision were to men or boys (Applications, initial decisions, and resettlement, Asy_D02).
An analysis of the composition of grants over time by nationality can be found in a House of Commons Library briefing on Asylum statistics (Sturge, 2020, p. 12).
COVID-19 substantially reduced asylum seeking in the UK in 2020, and prevented almost all refugee resettlement
The coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdown has had a substantial impact on all major aspects of asylum seeking in the UK (Figure 3). The number of people seeking asylum in 2020 was 21% lower than in 2019. Asylum-related grants were down 40%. Refugee resettlement, which was paused in Q2 and Q3 2020, fell by 85%, reaching its lowest annual level since 2014.
From January to September 2020, 98% of the people who arrived in the UK by crossing the English Channel in small boats claimed asylum, but the majority of asylum seekers did not arrive by small boat
The Home Office does not routinely publish breakdowns of asylum claims by claimants’ method of arrival in the UK. However, a government official stated that in 2020 up to September, of the roughly 5,000 people who had made it to the UK by small boat, 98% claimed asylum (for more information on small boat arrivals see The Migration Observatory commentary, Migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats: What do we know?).
The Home Office stated in its New Plan for Immigration that in the whole of 2020 around 8,500 people crossed the English Channel in small boats (Home Office, 2021, p. 5). If we assume that 98% of these claimed asylum, they would make up just under a quarter of all people seeking asylum in 2020. It also stated that in the year ending September 2019, 62% of asylum claims were made by those who entered the UK without authorisation, including those who entered by small boat, lorry, or without visas (Home Office, 2021, p. 8). It is not clear how the remaining 38% arrived in the UK, but this may include people who arrived on a visa not designed for claiming asylum, or people who were already in the UK when conditions in their country of origin deteriorated.
Taking into account appeals, 54% of asylum applications from 2016 to 2018 are estimated to have received a grant of asylum-related protection by May 2020 – up from 36% at initial decision
Of all applications (main applicants) received in the period 2016 to 2018 inclusive with a known outcome as of May 2020, excluding withdrawn applications, 36% resulted in a grant of asylum or other leave at initial decision.
Over this period, 70% of initial decisions were appealed. Most appeals are against refusals, but some appeals are against positive decisions to seek a stronger form of leave (Home Office, 2020b). Of these appeals with a known outcome, 43% were successful. This increased the grant rate from 36% at initial decision to 54% after appeal (Figure 4).
For applications received in 2012 to 2018 with known outcomes as of May 2020, successful appeals increased success rates by between 12 and 20 percentage points each year (Figure 5).
Changes in grant rates following appeal are in part the result of changes in the success rate of appeals. The share of concluded appeals that were successful increased from a low of 19% in 2004 to a high of 45% in 2015.
The share of asylum applications that received an initial decision within six months fell from 87% in Q2 2014 to 22% in Q2 2020
The time it takes for asylum seekers to receive an initial decision on their application has increased substantially in recent years. In Q2 2014, 87% of applications received an initial decision within six months – compared with 22% in Q2 2020 (Figure 6).
There are several possible explanations for this trend. Factors that are likely to influence the time taken to process asylum applications include the number of applications received; changes in administrative policy and management, including the end of the Detained Fast-Track process in 2015; resource constraints or capacity; and the shifting characteristics of applicants themselves, with some claims taking longer to resolve than others. In early 2019, the Home Office abandoned its 6-month ‘service standard’ for asylum claims, citing the desire to prioritise cases involving vulnerable applicants and those where an initial decision needed to be reconsidered (Allison and Taylor, 2019).
The asylum backlog has increased substantially in recent years, due to an increase in applications, and applications taking longer to process. On 31 December 2020, there were around 65,000 people awaiting an initial decision on their asylum claim (including main applicants and dependants) – a near seven-fold increase on the number awaiting an initial decision on 30 June 2010 (Figure 7). A further 5,177 were awaiting further review, such as an appeal to the First-tier Tribunal. Of the 65,000 awaiting an initial decision from the Home Office, around 70% had been waiting for more than six months.
On 30 June 2020, there were around 46,000 asylum seekers in receipt of Section 95 support in the UK, of whom around 42,000 (92%) were living in dispersed accommodation, which aims to house asylum seekers across the UK. The region of the UK with the most asylum seekers per 1,000 of its resident population was the North East, which hosted around 17 times more than the South East (Figure 8, regional bar chart).
Out of the UK’s 379 unitary and lower-tier local authorities (Office for National Statistics, 2020), 231 were recorded as having at least one asylum seeker registered there as of 30 June 2020, meaning that 148 (39%) were recorded as having no asylum seeker registered (although the data also include 127 asylum seekers in an “Unknown” local authority, who could be registered in any local authority). Just 20 local authorities, 5% of the total, hosted around 50% of all asylum seekers on Section 95 support. The local authority with the most asylum seekers was Glasgow City (Figure 8, local authority table).
The UK also hosts resettled refugees. From 1 January 2010 to 30 June 2020, 29,506 people were resettled in the UK under its four resettlement schemes, including 20,007 under the VPRS. However, since the government announced the target of resettling an additional 20,000 refugees under the scheme by 2020, 19,768 refugees were resettled (an additional 239 refugees were resettled under the scheme before the target was announced, and do not count towards it). An additional 7,403 refugees were resettled under the Gateway Protection Programme from 1 January 2010 to 30 June 2020. The VCRS resettled 1,826 children from late 2016 to June 2020 – 61% of the target of 3,000 by 2020 (Home Office, 2020d). As of June 2020, the region with the largest number of resettled refugees per 1,000 of its population was Northern Ireland, eight times more than London (Figure 8, regional bar chart).
In 2020, the top five most common countries of nationality of people seeking asylum in the UK were Iran, Iraq, Albania, Eritrea, and Sudan
Table 1 shows the fifteen most common countries of nationality of people who claimed asylum in the UK in 2020.
The share of applications that result ultimately in a grant rate of asylum or other leave varies significantly by nationality. For example, looking at applications received across the three-year period 2016 to 2018, the share of Syrian nationals who had received a grant of asylum or other leave by May 2020 was 88% (taking into account appeals), while for Indian nationals it was 6% (Table 1).
Of all refugees resettled in the UK from January 2010 to December 2020, around 70% were Syrian citizens
Of the roughly 29,500 refugees resettled in the UK from 1 January 2010 to 31 December 2020 under the country’s four resettlement schemes, 75% were citizens of Middle Eastern countries, and 18% were citizens of sub-Saharan African countries. Most were nationals of Syria: 68%.
The top ten most common countries of nationality of refugees resettled in the UK make up 98% of the total (Table 2).
When compared against EU member states, in 2020 the UK ranked 7th in the absolute number of people to whom it gave protection, including resettled refugees
Dealing first with the regular in-country asylum process, in 2020, Germany granted asylum or another form of protection to around 62,000 people (at initial decision, excluding appeals) – more than any other EU country, and equivalent to 29% of all people offered asylum-related protection in the EU that year (UK excluded). The UK ranked seventh, offering asylum-related protection to around 9,000 people at initial decision (Figure 9).
When adjusting for population size, the UK ranks 19th among the EU, having granted protection in 2020 to 0.1 asylum seekers per 1,000 of its resident population of 67 million.
These figures do not include people given protection under refugee resettlement programmes. Under such programmes, the UK resettled around 29,500 refugees from 2010 to 2020, more than any other EU country. In 2019 (data for most countries are unavailable for 2020), the UK received around 5,600 resettled refugees (Figure 10).
When looking at all people to whom the UK provided sanctuary in 2020 – including through both the in-country asylum route and through refugee resettlement – the UK ranked seventh among EU countries (Figure 11).
In 2020, around 5,400 people were issued with a refugee family reunion visa, and around 900 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were granted asylum or other leave
From 2010 to 2020, an average of around 5,100 people were issued with family reunion visas per year, of whom 58% were under 18. Around 5,400 such visas were issued in 2020, 27% fewer than in 2019 (Figure 12).
An unaccompanied asylum-seeking child (UASC) is a person under 18 who is applying for asylum in the UK in their own right, is separated from both parents, and is not being cared for by a relative or guardian in the UK. From 2006 to 2020, there were 29,541 initial decisions on applications from UASCs, of which 76% (22,354) granted asylum or other leave. In 2020, there were 933 such grants – down 62% on the previous year (Figure 12).
Evidence Gaps and Limitations
We do not know how many people the UK has ever granted asylum or another form of leave to, because published statistics go back only as far as 1979. Moreover, these published statistics record the outcomes of initial decisions only and do not take into account appeals, which increase the number of people that are ultimately granted asylum-related leave.
The government does not provide regular data on asylum claimants broken down by their method of entry into the UK. Therefore, we do not know what share arrived by visa-free travel, on a visa, using fake documents, or by clandestine means, such as by small boat or stowing away on a lorry.
Nor do we have clear information on how long asylum applications take. Data are provided on the share of applications receiving an initial decision within 6 months, and on the number of applications currently pending, but it is not possible using existing data to calculate how long it takes the ‘average’ asylum application to receive an initial decision or final outcome.
There is also limited information on what happens to refused asylum seekers. Some depart with the assistance or oversight of the government, for which data are available. However, others depart without notifying the authorities, or remain in the UK as irregular migrants (see the Migration Observatory briefing, Irregular migration in the UK). Data on people departing the UK have improved in the past few years, in part due to the introduction of ‘exit checks’ in 2015. However, significant data gaps remain for earlier cohorts.
With thanks to Jack Cooper, Jon Simmons, Andrea Vukovic, and CJ McKinney, who provided detailed feedback on earlier drafts of this briefing, which brought substantial improvement. This briefing was produced with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.
- Allison, E. and Taylor, D (2019). Home Office abandons six-month target for asylum claim decisions. The Guardian, 7 May 2019.
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- UK Visas and Immigration (2021). Vulnerable Persons and Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Schemes Factsheet, March 2021. Published 18 March 2021.
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Migration Observatory briefing – Settlement in the UK
The Guardian online (22 Feb 2017)
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- The Guardian online (22 Feb 2017)