Albanians are attracting increasing attention this year, following an increase in the numbers of Albanian citizens crossing the English Channel in small boats, many of whom claim asylum.
So what do we actually know about Albanian asylum seekers in the UK? And how does this picture compare with the EU more broadly? Following requests from media and civil society organisations for data, this short commentary outlines some key statistics.
France and the UK received a similar number of applications from Albanian asylum seekers in the year ending June 2022
From 2017 to 2021, the number of Albanian asylum applicants increased from around 1,900 to just over 5,100. The numbers are expected be higher again this year, given that just over 4,700 Albanian citizens applied for asylum in the first half of 2022 (Figure 1).
In recent years, the number of people applying for asylum has increased across the board, and not just among Albanians. However, the increase in Albanian asylum applicants has been greater than for other nationalities. In the first half of 2022, Albanians made up 16% of all asylum applicants, looking at main applicants only and excluding Albanian family members (known as ‘dependants’ in the Home Office datasets). This is up from 7% in 2018.
Statistics on asylum claims over the summer will be published in late November. However, in a fact sheet published in the interim, the Home Office reported an increase since May 2022 in the number of Albanians crossing the English Channel in small boats, which is currently believed to be the main entry route for people making asylum applications. In the five months from May to September 2022, around 11,000 Albanians arrived by small boat (compared with around 800 who arrived in 2021) – making up 42% of all small boat arrivals in those five months.
The number of Albanian asylum applicants in the UK was similar to the number in France over the past year, but higher than other EU countries. In the year ending 30 June 2022 (the most recent period for which there are official data), the UK received around 7,700 Albanian asylum applicants, including both main applicants and family members. Most EU countries received fewer than 20 Albanian asylum seekers during this one-year period. The rise in Albanian asylum seekers to the UK is thus relatively unusual when compared against the experience of EU member states.
There is little evidence in the public domain to explain why Albanians are seeking asylum in the UK in greater numbers at this particular point in time. Migration flows are hard to forecast and asylum migration especially so, as noted in this recent article in the journal Nature. A wide range of factors influence asylum numbers, including geopolitical events, information flows and networks. Academic research has typically suggested that policy is not the major cause of changes in asylum applications. In recent evidence to the Home Affairs committee, Dan O’Mahoney, the government’s Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, said that he believed one of the reasons behind the increase in Albanian citizens crossing the Channel was the activities of smugglers who have made the crossing easier.
Fluctuations in the main countries of origin for asylum seekers are not unusual (p. 17). For example, Zimbabwean citizens received a third of all asylum grants in 2009 but this fell to less than 3% by 2012.
In response to increased arrivals of Albanian citizens, the Home Office announced plans to ‘fast-track’ the removal of Albanians arriving without authorisation into the UK, with the support of the Albanian government. The fast-track scheme does not cover people who have claimed asylum, however. It is thus difficult to predict how many people could be within its scope, since there are no official figures on the share of Albanian citizens who apply for asylum after arriving in the UK. Dan O’Mahoney recently suggested that unlike people of other nationalities, “many” Albanians did not choose to claim asylum after crossing in small boats, but did not specify a percentage.
A majority of decisions on Albanian asylum applications were positive in 2021 and early 2022
The UK government has described Albania as a “safe and prosperous country” and says that many Albanians who claim asylum in the UK are economic migrants whose asylum claims are “spurious”.
Because of the large backlog of people waiting for a decision on their asylum application—currently over 100,000 people—we will not know whether Albanian citizens who have recently crossed the channel succeed in their asylum claims for some time.
Published data do exist for previous cohorts of Albanian asylum applicants, although as discussed below, their characteristics may be different. The most recent asylum statistics, published by the Home Office, show that in the first half of 2022, 55% of adult Albanian asylum applications were successful at the initial Home Office decision (Figure 3). Of the 45% that were refused, some will go on to appeal successfully against their initial decision and therefore ultimately be granted asylum or another form of leave.
The increase in the asylum grant rate for Albanian citizens has taken place as grant rates have risen across the UK asylum system as a whole—from 33% in 2018 to 72% in 2021. Some of the increase between 2020 and 2021 is explained by a statistical anomaly, in which the Home Office stopped double counting refusals of people whom it hoped (but often did not manage) to return to other EU countries under the pre-Brexit asylum rules. Immigration lawyer Colin Yeo has also argued that improved information about risks people face in their countries of origin and the risks facing particular groups such as women, LGBTQ+ people and torture survivors may have driven some of the increase in asylum grant rates. A similar observation may apply to Albanians.
However, Albanian applicants differ from other nationalities in one important respect, which is that there is a large gender divide in initial asylum decision success rates.
The UK’s relatively asylum grant rate for Albanian asylum seekers is driven primarily by women
Of all the positive decisions on adult Albanians’ asylum applications in the year ending 30 June 2022, 86% were for women.
Many Albanian asylum applicants are thought to be victims of trafficking. A recent article by the immigration lawyer Irene Tsherit argues that applications from Albanian applicants are often granted on the basis that they have been trafficked, and that UK asylum decision-makers have typically been much for likely to accept female than male trafficking victims. Tsherit suggests that practice in the Home Office has changed since 2018 and that “there seems to be more acceptance at both the Home Office and the immigration tribunal of the fact that protection is simply not available for recognised female victims of trafficking in Albania”.
This is consistent with recent data, which show that in the year ending 30 June 2022, 90% of initial decisions for female, adult main applicants from Albania were positive, compared to 14% for men (Figure 4). This means that while Albanian men have an initial decision success rate that is well below the average for men, Albanian women have a higher than average success rate.
Over the past two years, however, the share of Albanian asylum applicants who were men has increased, from 70% of adult applicants in Q2 2019 to 91% in Q2 2022. The Home Office’s recent Factsheet states that from 2018 to June 2022, 95% of Albanian small boat arrivals in particular were male.
If grant rates for men continue to be low, then this is likely to reduce the overall asylum grant rate for Albanians in future. The larger number of Albanian men crossing the Channel will not necessarily affect the asylum grant rate for women, of course.
Albanian citizens’ asylum applications typically take a long time to process
It currently takes a long time to receive an asylum decision, and waiting times are even longer for Albanians (Figure 5). According to Home Office data released in response to a freedom of information request by the Migration Observatory, of the 512 Albanian main applicants who received an initial Home Office decision on their asylum claim in 2021, two-thirds (66%) had waited at least two years for that decision, and 35% had waited for three years or longer.
These long waiting times suggest that it will be some time before we know the outcomes of the current cohort of Albanian asylum seekers reaching the UK in small boats.