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Migration to the UK: Asylum and Refugees

04 Jan 2019

This briefing sets out key facts and figures, as well as information gaps, relating to asylum seekers and refugees in the UK. It looks at overall numbers, characteristics of asylum seekers, and outcomes of asylum applications.

  1. Key Points
    • Asylum applications peaked in the early 2000s. They increased from 2010 to 2015 and fell slightly from 2015 to 2017, when they stood at 26,350 main applicants
    • Asylum claims in the UK represented less than 5% of the total number of applications made in EEA countries in 2017
    • A majority of initial asylum applications are refused (68% in 2017), but a substantial minority of decisions are overturned on appeal (35% in 2017)
    • Taking into account decisions overturned on appeal, 50% of asylum applicants between 2010 and 2015 were eventually granted some form of protection
    • Iran, Pakistan and Iraq were the main origin countries of asylum seekers in 2017
    • In 2017, 4,800 Syrians were resettled through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme
  1. 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 United Nations 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.

    Data on asylum seekers are considered separately from data on resettled refugees. Unlike asylum seekers, who make their own way to the UK to claim asylum, resettled refugees are identified outside of the country and brought here with the help of the UK government and the United Nations. The largest resettlement programme in the UK is now the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme, first announced in January 2015 and expanded in September 2015.

    Asylum adds to the UK resident population in different ways. First, it adds to the regular (‘settled’), population. In 2017, 28% of asylum applicants were granted settlement 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). People granted refugee status or humanitarian protection can apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) in the UK after 5 years, and those granted discretionary leave to remain can do so after 6 or 10 years.

    Second, asylum affects 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.

    A third group is more difficult to count – individuals whose applications for asylum have been rejected, but who have not departed the country. Some in this group apply for ‘hard case support’ (also known as 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.

    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 different groups 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 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.

    The Home Office publishes data on 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 who 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 at the time of writing.

Asylum applications peaked in the early 2000s. They increased from 2010 to 2015 and fell slightly from 2015 to 2017, when they stood at 26,350 main applicants

Asylum applications increased from 1987 to 2002 and then declined sharply during the mid-2000s. They increased again from 2010 to 2015 (though well below the levels of the early 2000s), but have decreased in 2016 and 2017.

As Figure 1 shows, the number of main applicants for asylum grew from 2,905 in 1984 to 84,100 in 2002. Applications declined sharply from 2002 to 2005, and in 2010 reached their lowest point since 1989. Since then, the numbers rose each year until 2015 (32,700 applications), before falling by 19.5% to 26,350 in 2017. This represents a return to levels seen before the European migration crisis in 2015 (Home Office, 2018). These numbers include only ‘main applicants’, excluding ‘dependents’ who are family members accompanying the principal person making the application. The numbers including dependents are slightly higher, at 33,500 in 2017.

Figure 1

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Asylum claims in the UK represented less than 5% of the total number of applications made in European countries in 2017

UK asylum applications since 2009 have remained relatively stable despite significant increases in applications in other EEA countries. In 2015, asylum claims in EEA countries peaked at 1,394,000 applications, according to Eurostat. The numbers decreased by 2017 but remained well above 2009-2013 levels.

The UK’s share of EEA countries’ asylum claims declined from approximately 11% in 2008 to about 3% in both 2015 and 2016, increasing slightly to 4.6% of the total in 2017 (Figure 2).

Figure 2

In 2017, the UK was the 6th largest recipient of asylum applications in the EEA. Application numbers were more than 6 times higher in Germany, 3.8 times higher in Italy, and 3 times higher in France (Table 1).

Table 1

Asylum applications by country, 2009-2017

All EEA297,173285,215341,795373,550464,510662,1651,393,9211,292,741731,349
Source: Eurostat, Asylum and first time asylum applicants by citizenship, age and sex [migr_asyappctza]

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Most initial asylum applications are refused (68% in 2017), but a substantial minority of decisions are overturned on appeal (35% in 2017)

The majority of initial decisions were refusals in each year since 1991 (Figure 3). The refusal rate at the initial decision stage fell from 2005 to 2015, but increased in 2016 and 2017. In 2017, 68% of initial decisions were refusals.

Figure 3

A majority of initial refusals are appealed. Looking at annual cohorts of applicants making applications in 2004-2016, between 62% and 86% of applicants whose initial application was refused lodged an appeal (Home Office, 2018 table as.06).

The share of appeals that are successful (‘allowed’) has risen over the past 15 years (Figure 4). The share of successful appeals peaked in 2016 at 42%. In 2017, 37% of asylum appeals decided were allowed.

Figure 4

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Taking into account decisions overturned on appeal, 50% of asylum applicants between 2010 and 2015 were eventually granted some form of protection

Taking into account the number of successful appeals, it is possible to calculate a revised share of asylum applications that are eventually granted or refused. Excluding applications whose final outcome is not yet known, the share of asylum applicants who were eventually granted some form of protection increased from 26% in 2004 to 56% in 2014 (Figure 5).
Among people who applied for asylum between 2010 and 2015, 50% on average were eventually granted protection. Available data suggest that this share fell in 2016 and 2017, although substantial numbers of application outcomes for these two years remain unknown because final decisions have not yet been made (18% and 44%, respectively). Data for 2016 and 2017 will be revised in coming years, allowing a more accurate assessment.

Figure 5

It is not known how many refused asylum seekers remain in the UK and how have departed. Home Office data track the number of enforced removals of refused asylum seekers, as well as those who have been recorded leaving the country voluntarily. By May 2018, 41% of refused asylum seekers were recorded as having left the UK (table as_06), although others will have departed without being detected in Home Office data.

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Iran, Pakistan and Iraq were the largest origin countries of asylum seekers in 2017

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 conflicts (Crawley 2010). The leading origin countries of asylum applicants in the UK in 2017 were Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Bangladesh, Sudan, Albania, India, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Vietnam (Table 2).

The grant rate at the initial decision stage (i.e. not taking into account successful appeals) varies by country of nationality. In 2017, it ranged from 80% for Eritreans to less than 5% for Bangladeshis and Indians.

Table 2

Top ten nationalities, UK asylum applicants, 2017

Rank 2017CountryNumber of applicants
(only main applicants)
Share of the total (%)Grant rate (%) at initial decision stage
Source: Home Office Immigration Statistics, (published in August 2018) Table as.01

Asylum applicants from Syria increased sharply in recent years, from 160 in 2010 to 2,794 in 2015, though in 2017 there were only 617 Syrian applicants. Note, however, that these figures do not include people resettled in the UK through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme (VPRS).

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In 2017, 4,800 Syrians were resettled through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme

The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme was launched in January 2014 and expanded in September 2015, when the Government announced the plan to resettle 20,000 Syrians in need of protection. In July 2017, the scheme was again expanded to include other refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria but who do not have Syrian nationality.

The Government works with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to identify the people in need of more support to bring them to the UK. This is in contrast to asylum applicants, who must reach the UK first in order to claim asylum. From January 2014 to June 2018, 12,846 Syrians (half of whom were children) were resettled through this new scheme (Home Office, 2018, table as.19.q).

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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. The quality of departures data has increased in the past few years, for reasons including the introduction of ‘exit checks’ in 2015. However, significant data gaps remain for earlier cohorts.


  • Crawley, Heaven. “Chance or Choice? Understanding Why Asylum Seekers Come to the UK.” Refugee Council Report, Refugee Council, London, 2010
  • Home Office. “Policy and legislative changes affecting migration to the UK: timeline ” Published 19 February 2014, last update 24 August 2017
  • Home Office “How many people do we grant asylum or protection to?” Last update: August 2018
  • Home Office Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) Guidance for local authorities and partners. Published in July 2017
  • ONS. “Methodology to Estimate Total International Migration 1991 to 2008.” Office for National Statistics, Newport, 2008

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

  1. Media Coverage

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November 18, 2019


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