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Afghan refugees in the UK

21 Oct 2021

By Peter William WalshMadeleine Sumption

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 from 1 January to 20 October 2021, 677,000 people were newly displaced inside Afghanistan.

These added to millions already displaced before 2021. As of 13 July of this year, of Afghanistan’s population of around 40 million, 3.5 million were internally displaced (most before 2021). A further 2.6 million Afghan refugees are registered with UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency) around the world outside Afghanistan, of which an estimated 2.2 million are in Iran and Pakistan. Most of these were displaced before 2021, and their numbers will likely continue to grow.

In response to this crisis, the UK government announced programmes to resettle Afghan refugees in the UK. Other Afghan refugees are likely to reach the UK of their own accord in the coming years and claim asylum. This commentary answers five frequently asked questions about Afghan refugees in the UK:

  1. How many Afghans have been relocated or resettled to the UK so far, and how many will come in the next few years?
  2. How many Afghans are likely to claim asylum in the UK in the coming years?
  3. How many Afghans already claim asylum in the UK?
  4. Where will Afghan refugees live in the UK?
  5. How many refugees should the UK resettle and what can local authorities cope with?
  1. Understanding the Policy

    There are various ways Afghans can receive protection in the UK. For more detail on these, see the House of Commons Library report on UK immigration routes for Afghan nationals.

    Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS)

    As a resettlement scheme, the ACRS will give 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. The ACRS is largely modelled on the UK’s previous Syrian resettlement scheme, known as the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), which ran from 2014 to 2021. Click to read more.

    The VPRS aimed to resettle 20,000 people in five years. In early 2020, it had resettled more than 20,000 people.

    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 them remaining closer to home, if, say, they are more likely to be reunited with family there.

    How will Afghan refugees be selected?

    The ACRS will prioritise 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).

    Refugees will be referred for resettlement in one of three ways. Some people who have already arrived in the UK after being evacuated from Afghanistan by the British will be resettled under the ACRS – it is not known how many. UNHCR will identify refugees who have fled Afghanistan and resettle them with the agreement of the UK government, replicating the approach taken with the Syrian resettlement scheme. And the UK government will work with international partners and NGOs in the region to establish a referral process for refugees inside or outside Afghanistan. It is not yet clear how this third process will work.

    What will happen to resettled refugees once they reach the UK?

    On arriving in the UK, Afghans will be transferred to a local authority that has volunteered to accept refugees through the resettlement schemes. The local authority will be responsible for the refugees’ care.

    Local authorities have recent experience of implementing the Syrian resettlement scheme, upon which the Afghan scheme is largely modelled. In addition to that experience, local councils may still have infrastructure in place that was established to support the Syrian scheme, though the recent pause in resettlement may mean this is not the case in some places.

    In August 2021, the UK government announced ‘Operation Warm Welcome’, which aims to ensure that people relocated to the UK – either under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP, see below) or the ACRS – can access housing, healthcare, education, and support into employment. This includes English language training.

    If the ACRS operates like the Syrian scheme on which it is based, then local authorities would be required by the Home Office to: greet refugees on arrival, provide suitable accommodation for at least 12 months (and ideally two years); provide the support for an integration caseworker for 12 months; provide access to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses from accredited providers (up to 12 months) and translation services, if necessary; and provide assistance in accessing appropriate mental health services.

    Resettled refugees will typically be housed in private rental accommodation organised by the local authority, rather than in council-owned properties.

    What security checks will there be?

    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.

    The other programmes: the Ex Gratia scheme, Intimidation Policy, and ARAP

    There have been three other UK schemes for the provision to Afghans of humanitarian protection in the UK: an ‘Ex Gratia redundancy and resettlement scheme’, the Intimidation Policy, and most recently the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP).

    The Ex Gratia scheme was primarily a redundancy package for locally employed Afghan civilians who had worked for the UK government, and who would be made redundant following the government’s withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan in 2013 onwards. Staff (such as interpreters) who had worked in particularly dangerous roles were offered the opportunity to resettle in the UK with their families. An estimated 1,400 former staff and their families were relocated from 2013 to 2021. It will run until November 2022.

    In December 2020, the Defence Secretary and Home Secretary announced the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP). This launched on 1 April 2021. Its purpose was to transfer to the UK locally employed staff in Afghanistan (and their close family members) who had worked with the British armed forces and were hence at risk of Taliban reprisal. The scheme will run indefinitely and has no limit on numbers. It can be applied for online. ARAP replaced a previous scheme known as the Intimidation Policy, which was established in 2010 to protect Afghan staff working with the British who faced threats to their safety, relocating them to the UK only in the most serious cases. The government has not published statistics on how many people were resettled under the Intimidation Policy.

    People relocated to the UK under either ARAP or the ACRS will immediately be granted permanent residence on arrival in the UK, with the right to work, study, use public services such as the NHS, and claim benefits. After five years in the UK, they will be entitled to apply for British citizenship, under the usual existing rules and subject to the normal application fees.

1.      How many Afghans have been relocated or resettled to the UK so far, and how many will come in the next few years?

There are four main routes through which Afghan refugees are likely to end up living in the UK following recent developments in Afghanistan. Some will be eligible for resettlement as interpreters or other staff who worked for the UK in Afghanistan, many of whom were evacuated from the country before and during the final days of the British military presence there. Others will be identified outside Afghanistan for resettlement by the UN, or as part of an NGO-led referral process. And some will make their own way to the UK and claim asylum through the normal asylum process, which requires making an in-country application (see Understanding the Policy for the difference between the normal asylum process and refugee resettlement). Finally, some 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. This is known as ‘refugee family reunion’.

1.       Interpreters and other evacuees

At the time of writing, there is a lack of clarity about how many Afghans have already been moved to the UK for their protection. According to the Foreign Secretary, the UK evacuated 17,000 people from Afghanistan from 1 April to 1 September. An estimated 7,000 of those appear to be eligible for the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, launched on 1 April to resettle interpreters and other staff who worked for the UK in Afghanistan. There is no breakdown of the remaining 10,000, although it also included British citizens in Afghanistan and their family members. Some of the non-British citizens will be Afghans who are not eligible for ARAP, but may instead be resettled under the ACRS, though it is not yet known how many. There is also some uncertainty over the number of Afghan nationals still in Afghanistan who are eligible for resettlement in the UK under ARAP.

Before ARAP, around 1,400 former staff and their families were relocated to the UK from 2013 to 2021 under a previous scheme, called the “Ex Gratia” scheme (see Understanding the Policy).

2.       Resettlement of Afghan citizens

In addition to ARAP, the government has launched the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which will support vulnerable people identified by the UN and other partners (including NGOs), as well as those who have “supported the UK and international community effort in Afghanistan”. This scheme aims to resettle 20,000 people in three years: 5,000 in its first year of operation, and the remainder over the following two years (according to a statement made in Parliament on 13 September by the Minister for Afghan Resettlement, Victoria Atkins). Assuming the UK does indeed resettle 5,000 in the first year, that would mean 7,500 resettled in each of the second and third years of the policy.

Afghan citizens will need to be referred for resettlement under this scheme and there will be no formal application process. Refugee resettlement has traditionally been something of a lottery. Overall, less than 1% of refugees identified by UNHCR are resettled each year. The resettlement of Afghans is unlikely to buck this trend; there will be many more refugees in need of resettlement than will ultimately be resettled globally.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested that the 20,000 people aimed to be resettled under the ACRS will be in addition to those resettled under the UK’s already-planned global refugee resettlement programme, known as the UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS).

However, it is not clear how many refugees the government will commit to resettle under the UKRS. In 2019, the government announced that it would resettle 5,000 refugees per year in a new resettlement programme (which would come to be known as the UKRS) that was due to replace the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), which primarily supported Syrians and their family members. Resettlement was then paused in 2020 during the pandemic, and the 2021 ‘New Plan for Immigration’ is more vague on the numbers. The document says that numbers would be “subject to ongoing review guided by circumstances and capacity at any given time”. At the time of writing, it is thus not completely clear whether the ambition is to resettle at least 10,000 refugees per year (i.e., 5,000 or more from Afghanistan and 5,000 through the global programme), or a lower number.

3.      Applications through the asylum system: ‘spontaneous’ arrivals

The remaining route to protection in the UK for refugees who are not selected for resettlement would be to find another way of traveling to the UK, and then claim asylum through the normal asylum process. These are sometimes known as ‘spontaneous’ arrivals. Some people taking this route come to the UK in small boats, while others come through other clandestine means or by air.

The most recent official figures, when combined with more provisional data released from the Home Office in response to an FOI request from the BBC, show that between 1 January 2018 and 31 May 2021, 739 Afghans crossed the English Channel in small boats, with 653 arriving from 1 July 2020 to 31 May 2021.

A major reform of the asylum system, the Nationality and Borders Bill, is currently before Parliament. The Bill proposes to treat asylum seekers differently if they entered the country without authorisation from countries in which the UK government believes they could have claimed asylum. If the bill becomes law, the policies facing Afghan asylum seekers who come to the UK spontaneously will change. Those the government recognises as meeting the criteria for a grant of asylum, but who entered without authorisation from countries the government considers safe, may be given an inferior status – unlike those who arrived through the resettlement programmes above. Instead, such refugees may be given a lesser status with more limited rights (the language of the Bill is “may”, although in public communications ministers have said that they will be used). There is already a gap between the support provided to resettled refugees and to successful asylum claimants, and this would widen under the proposals in the Nationality and Borders Bill.

4.       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. This is called refugee family reunion. Relatively small numbers of Afghans have moved to the UK under this route compared to the normal asylum route – an average of around 200 per year in the decade from 2011 to 2020, a large majority (95%) of whom were women or children.

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2.      How many Afghans are likely to claim asylum in the UK in the coming years?

If many people flee Afghanistan, the number of Afghans making their own way to the UK and claiming asylum may be expected to increase. However, forecasting asylum-related migration is extremely difficult, and past attempts to do this have concluded that the exercise is effectively not possible. It is difficult enough to predict the number of people who will leave Afghanistan, let alone the numbers who will reach Europe or the UK. In the ten-year period from 2011 to 2020 inclusive, an average of around 2,000 Afghan nationals claimed asylum in the UK per year. It is reasonable to expect this number to increase but it is not clear by how much.

In large part, that is because most Afghan refugees have stayed in the region, with around 2.2 million in Pakistan and Iran in 2020 (Figure 1). Those Afghan asylum seekers who do reach Europe do not typically come to the UK. In 2020, just over 48,000 Afghan nationals claimed asylum in the EU-27 countries, compared to around 1,600 in the UK (this includes main applicants and their dependent family members). This means that out of all Afghans who claimed asylum in the UK and EU in 2020, 97% claimed in the EU (Eurostat).

Figure 1

The Syrian case may be instructive. At the peak of the Syrian crisis in 2015, applications from Syrians arriving spontaneously in the UK increased, but only to around 2,800. This was at a time when the EU was receiving hundreds of thousands of Syrian asylum seekers.

What difference will the Nationality and Borders Bill make to the number of asylum claims in the UK?

It is not clear how the Nationality and Borders Bill, were it to become law, would affect the number of asylum claims from Afghans. It is not possible at this stage to know what share of Afghan asylum seekers are likely to be given the inferior status and thus receive fewer rights. This is because it depends on how the provisions in the future Act are implemented.

Qualitative research with asylum seekers finds that they often do not have a clear picture of what asylum policies will face them after they arrive, and that perceptions of different destinations are formed based on other considerations such as a country’s overall reputation as a safe or welcoming environment. The information that asylum seekers have was also often inaccurate. This means that policy on the treatment of asylum seekers after they arrive is not likely to be a powerful tool for influencing their decision-making and thus for shaping the numbers of asylum seekers the UK receives.

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3.      How many Afghans already claim asylum in the UK through the normal process?

The UK has experience in offering protection to Afghan asylum seekers in recent decades. The UK received much higher numbers of asylum applications from Afghan nationals in the late 1990s and early 2000s than in recent years (Figure 2).

In the decade from 2011 to 2020 inclusive, an average of 2,000 Afghan nationals claimed asylum in the UK per year, including dependents. In the same period, an average of 660 were granted some form of protection at initial decision, though the total number granted protection will be higher because of successful appeals (Figure 2).

The success rate of Afghan asylum applications has risen during that time, such that around 70% of Afghan claimants who applied from 2016 to 2018 were ultimately granted some form of protection (asylum, humanitarian protection, discretionary leave, or any of the various other forms of permission to stay), either at initial decision or after appeal (see Table 1 in our briefing, Asylum and refugee resettlement in the UK).

Figure 2

The share of Afghan asylum applicants whose claims are successful is likely to change as a result of new developments in Afghanistan, and UK policy changes on Afghan asylum seekers (in October 2021, the Home Office updated its guidance for caseworkers on Afghan asylum claims). After the Syrian crisis started in 2011, the final asylum grant rate for Syrian nationals more than doubled. Only 40% of Syrian asylum applicants who applied in 2010 were ultimately successful (taking into account appeals), compared to 88% of those who applied in 2012, with grant rates remaining similarly high for the subsequent decade (Immigration Statistics Table Asy_D04).

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.

As noted above, Afghan refugees coming via resettlement rather than through the asylum system will face different policies and receive different levels of support. There is also currently a long backlog in the asylum system (i.e., the processing of claims for spontaneous arrivals), which reached 70,000 people in mid-2021. As of 30 June 2021, there were 3,213 Afghan nationals with an asylum application pending. Of these, 3,064 were awaiting an initial Home Office decision on their claim, of whom 77% (2,354) had been waiting for more than six months.

Refugee family reunion

Whilst relatively small numbers of Afghans move to the UK under this humanitarian route than the normal asylum route, 2,130 Afghans were issued family reunion visas in the ten-year period from 2011 to 2020 inclusive, making up 4% of all family reunion visas issued. In that period, Afghanistan was the eighth most common country of nationality for recipients of family reunion visas (Syria was first, with around 8,500 visas issued). A large majority of these visas – 95% (2,017) – were issued to women or children.

Any increase in the numbers of Afghans claiming asylum or arriving under ACRS could lead to a subsequent increase in the number of Afghans arriving on family reunion visas, as Afghans with refugee status or humanitarian protection seek to reunite with their immediate family. However, there is some uncertainty about how refugee family reunion will change following the Nationality and Borders Bill. The bill gives the Home Office the option to restrict refugee family reunion for asylum seekers who arrive spontaneously.

Afghan asylum seekers: how does the UK compare with the EU?

Other European countries have received more Afghan asylum seekers than the UK in recent years. In the ten-year period from 2011 to 2020 inclusive, an average of around 2,000 Afghan nationals claimed asylum in the UK per year – putting the UK in tenth place when compared with EU+ countries. In the same period, the UK offered protection to an average of around 660 Afghans per year – ranking it ninth when compared against the EU+ (Figure 3).

Figure 3

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4.      Where will Afghan refugees live in the UK?

There are no figures yet on how resettled Afghan refugees will be distributed across the country. However, we do know where refugees resettled under the similar Syrian VPRS scheme were hosted (Figure 4). This indicates which local authorities have agreed to participate in resettlement, and may thus continue to do so in future.

The settlement patterns of resettled refugees have been quite different from migration overall. For example, only around 1,000 or 5% were resettled in London under the VPRS. By contrast, 35% of the UK’s total foreign-born population lived in London in 2019 (data from ONS).

Figure 4

Looking at London, larger numbers of Syrian refugees were resettled in the central boroughs rather than those at the periphery, with more than half of London’s 1,026 VPRS refugees in seven boroughs: Lewisham, Lambeth, Camden, Greenwich, Newham, Islington, and Barnet (Figure 5).

Figure 5

In the longer term, refugees will not necessarily remain in the locations in which they were originally resettled, although there are no relevant data on the subsequent movement of previous cohorts of resettled refugees.

Where are the existing Afghan migrant communities in the UK?

In 2019, there were an estimated 79,000 Afghan-born migrants living in the UK, almost half (47%) of whom lived in London (Figure 6). This includes people who migrated for any reason, whether to seek protection, to work, join family or study. The largest communities of Afghan-born people were in Brent (an estimated 7,000), Hillingdon (6,000), Hounslow (6,000), and Ealing (5,000) (ONS, 2020). Outside of London, the largest communities were in Birmingham (9,000) and Greater Manchester (7,000).

Figure 6

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5.      How many refugees should the UK resettle and what can local authorities manage?

It is impossible to calculate an ‘optimal’ contribution for the UK to make to Afghan resettlement, in part because it is very difficult to assess the UK’s capacity for resettlement. At the local authority level, capacity in part depends on what financial support is available, most of which comes from central government. As a result, how many refugees the UK is able to resettle is primarily a political question, and one driven in part by what resources the government is willing to provide to local authorities for housing and other support for refugees. For more information on the UK’s resettlement infrastructure see Broadhead, 2021.

The Home Office has said that it will provide a similar financial package to local authorities as for the Syrian scheme: £20,520 per person for the first three years (the Syrian scheme was the same but over five years). Funding will also be provided to support education, and English language and health provision.

As of 13 September, more than 100 councils had volunteered to host Afghan refugees. More may follow. Historically, resettled refugees in the UK have been hosted by a large number of local authorities. As of 30 June 2021, 343 out of 383 local authorities (including historical local authorities) had hosted at least one resettled refugee (this statistic refers to the initial receiving local authority of all refugees resettled since 1 Jan 2014; refugees may have left their initial receiving local authority and now be living elsewhere; note that as of May 2021 there were 374 local authorities as their boundaries change over time).

This contrasts with asylum seekers, whose accommodation is arranged by private contractors and tends to be in areas where housing is cheaper. This has produced a highly uneven distribution across the UK of asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their claim, with large numbers being hosted in just a few local authorities (Figure 7), mostly outside London and the South and East of England where housing costs are higher (see our briefing on Asylum and refugee resettlement in the UK).

London ranks fifth amongst the UK’s twelve regions in the number of asylum seekers it hosts per 10,000 of its resident population of around 9 million. It ranks lower for resettled refugees, hosting just 1 refugee for every 10,000 residents – fewer than any other UK region.

Figure 7

In theory, the more local authorities that host refugees, the lower the burden on any single local authority. Yet it is not necessarily better to have a smaller number of resettled refugees in each of a larger number of local authorities, as this means that the administration of the scheme cannot benefit from the economies of scale that come from (fewer) councils hosting larger numbers.

Unlike asylum dispersal, which is focused in areas with lower housing costs, refugee resettlement in the UK is more likely to be to areas with higher housing costs. For the Syrian resettlement scheme, most local authorities housed refugees in private rental accommodation, to assure residents that “newly-arrived refugees resettled under the VPRS would not place additional demands on social housing” (UNHCR 2018).

When refugees are resettled in places with high housing costs, this can create challenges in the longer-term as local authorities must provide financial assistance to refugees so that they can afford their rent. In London, for example, the Mayor has requested additional funding from central government to meet the shortfall in rent that arises due to the benefits cap.


Forecasting the number of Afghans who will receive protection in the UK is difficult, in large part because the number of people who will travel to the UK and apply for asylum here is impossible to predict with any degree of precision. As the Migration Observatory’s briefing, Asylum and Refugee Resettlement in the UK explains in more detail, in recent years the UK has become a relatively large contributor to refugee resettlement by international standards (and particularly in comparison with EU countries), but has received a small share of asylum claims. While asylum claims are necessarily unpredictable, this trend may be set to continue in the case of Afghanistan.


With thanks to Will Somerville, Andy Hewett, and CJ McKinney, for valuable comments on a draft of this commentary.

This analysis was produced with the support of Trust for London. The Trust is one of the largest independent charitable foundations in London and supports work which tackles poverty and inequality in the capital. More details at www.trustforlondon.org.uk.

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