By Peter William Walsh & Kotaro Oriishi
This briefing note, which was first published on 4 November 2022, has been updated to reflect recent policy developments and the publication of data for the whole of 2022.
In 2022, the migration of Albanian citizens to the UK attracted substantial attention, following a notable increase from May onwards in the numbers of Albanians crossing the English Channel in small boats, many of whom claim asylum. For example, in December 2022, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, made a statement to parliament on “illegal migration”, singling out Albania. The speech promised new guidance to caseworkers to confirm Albania as a safe country and announced a new agreement with Albania to speed up the return of its citizens, including Albanian adults identified as victims of modern slavery.
Against this backdrop, what do we actually know about Albanians seeking asylum 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 briefing note outlines some key statistics.
- In 2022, around 16,000 Albanian citizens applied for asylum in the UK, making up 16% of all asylum applicants.
- Albanian small boat arrivals fell dramatically in the last quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2023 after a peak in the summer of 2022.
- In 2021 and 2022, almost half of UK initial decisions on Albanian asylum applications were positive.
- The UK’s initial decision grant rate for Albanian asylum applicants in 2022 was higher than most EU countries but comparable to the rates in Ireland and Germany.
- The UK’s asylum grant rate for Albanian asylum applicants is driven by women.
- In 2022, 12% of Albanian citizens arriving via small boat were referred to the UK’s modern slavery system.
In 2022, around 16,000 Albanian citizens applied for asylum in the UK, making up 16% of all asylum applicants
The number of Albanians claiming asylum in the UK rose sharply in 2022 to around 16,000 – more than triple the number for 2021 (Figure 1, left chart). In recent years, the number of people applying for asylum has increased across the board, and not just among Albanians (Figure 1, right chart). However, the increase in Albanian asylum applicants has been greater than for other nationalities. In 2022, Albanians made up 18% of all asylum applicants (including family members, known as ‘dependants’ in the Home Office datasets). This is up from 7% in 2018.
In 2022, the UK received more Albanian asylum applicants than other European countries (Figure 2). Most EU countries received fewer than 20 Albanians claiming asylum in both 2021 and 2022. The rise in Albanian asylum seekers to the UK is thus unusual when compared to the experience of EU member states.
Fluctuations in the main countries of origin for asylum seekers are not unusual. For example, Zimbabwean citizens received a third of all asylum grants in 2009 but received only 3% of grants in 2012.
There is little evidence in the public domain to explain why more Albanians claimed asylum in the UK from May 2022. 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 influences asylum numbers, including geopolitical events, information flows, and networks. Academic research has typically suggested that policy is not the major cause of changes in the number of people claiming asylum in destination countries. 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 had made the crossing easier.
Another potential reason the UK receives more Albanian asylum claims than comparable countries is that in the UK, Albanians without immigration status are more likely to be detected and thereafter claim asylum to prevent or delay removal. By contrast, Albanian citizens can currently travel to Europe’s Schengen Zone for up to 90 days without a visa or any prior authorisation. If they were to overstay, they would be less likely to come into contact with immigration enforcement than if they travelled to the UK via small boat. Dan O’Mahoney, the Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, has said that “pretty much 100%” of small boat arrivals are detected.
In response to the 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. Since the signing of the subsequent UK-Albania Joint Communique on 13 December to the first week of April, the UK has returned “over 1,000” Albanian nationals to Albania, which includes failed asylum seekers, foreign national offenders and voluntary returns.
Albanian small boat arrivals fell dramatically in late 2022 and early 2023 after a peak in the summer of 2022
Before May 2022, few Albanians were detected crossing the Channel in small boats (Figure 3, left chart).
In 2022, however, around 12,000 Albanians were recorded arriving by small boat – the most common nationality of all those making the crossing, making up 27% of all small boat arrivals in 2022.
Of the 12,301 Albanian detected in 2022, 95% arrived in the six months from May to October inclusive. Fewer Albanians arrived via small boat in the last quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2023 (Figure 3, left chart). By contrast, the number of citizens of other countries arriving via small boat increased in Q4 2022 (Figure 3, right chart). The precise reasons for this sharp fall are not yet clear.
Of the 12,301 Albanian small boat arrivals in 2022, 85% had applied for asylum by the end of 2022 (10,699 people, relating to 9,573 applications). This means that around 67% of Albanian asylum applicants in 2022 arrived via small boat that year (10,699 out of 15,925).
In 2021 and 2022, almost half of UK initial decisions on Albanian asylum applications were positive
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”.
In part due to the large backlog of asylum applications awaiting an initial Home Office decision—around 132,000 as of 31 December 2022—it is likely that we will not know for some time whether Albanian citizens who have recently crossed the Channel will be successful in their asylum claims at initial decision.
The Home Office reports that of the 9,573 Albanian main asylum applicants who arrived via small boat in 2022, 469 (5%) had withdrawn their application by 31 December 2022, and 68 (less than 1%) had received an initial Home Office decision by the end of the year. Of those who had received a decision, 52 were refused, and none were granted refugee status or any other type of permission to stay. A further 16 were not considered because the government believed the person had a connection to another country that should consider their claim instead.
Published data do exist for previous cohorts of Albanian asylum applicants, although, as discussed below, their characteristics may be different to those crossing in small boats. The most recent asylum statistics published by the Home Office show that in 2022, 48% of decisions on Albanian adults’ asylum applications were positive at the initial Home Office decision (Figure 4). Of the 52% that were refused, some will go on to appeal successfully against their initial decision and, therefore, ultimately be granted asylum or another form of permission to stay. Of the 166 appeal decisions made in 2022 on Albanians’ asylum cases, 57% (95) were successful.
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 76% in 2022. The 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.
The UK’s initial decision grant rate for Albanian asylum applicants in 2022 was higher than most EU countries but comparable to the rates in Ireland and Germany
In 2022, the UK had a relatively high grant rate for Albanian asylum applicants when compared with EU countries. That year, one EU country had a higher initial decision grant rate for adult Albanian asylum claims than the UK: Italy (64%) (Figure 5). Twenty-eight of the 31 EU+ countries (the EU-27, Switzerland, and the three European Economic Area Countries: Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway) did not grant protection to a single Albanian adult in 2022.
It is hard to establish exactly why grant rates vary so much by country. Countries’ particular policies with respect to Albanian asylum seekers are likely to be one important factor. Such policies can change frequently, with the UK recently updating its internal guidance on how its asylum decision-makers should deal with Albanian asylum applications. But policy is not the only factor. The characteristics of cohorts of asylum applicants are also important, and these could differ across countries.
In the UK, Albanian asylum 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 asylum grant rate for Albanian asylum applicants is driven by women
Of all the positive decisions on adult Albanians’ asylum applications (main applicants) in 2022, 88% were for women.
Albanian men have an initial decision success rate that is well below that for all men, while Albanian women have a higher-than-average success rate (Figure 6). In 2022, 88% of initial decisions for adult women from Albania were positive, compared to 11% for men.
The Home Office does not publish data on grants of asylum or other status by reason. However, some commentators have proposed that a part of the disparity is explained by the Home Office being more likely to grant asylum to adult female victims of trafficking than Albanian men. A recent article by 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 more likely to grant asylum to 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”.
In 2022, 78% (9,463) of all Albanian small boat arrivals (12,301) were men (i.e., males 18 or over; this number excludes those whose sex or age is unknown or not currently recorded). Because Albanian men currently have a low grant rate, the initial decision grant rate for all Albanians can be expected to fall in the future, as the claims of Albanian small boat arrivals – a large majority of whom claim asylum (see above) – are processed.
The gender gap in grant rates for Albanian asylum applicants is especially marked in the UK and does not show up in EU countries’ recent data.
In 2022, 12% of Albanian citizens arriving via small boat were referred to the UK’s modern slavery system
Government ministers have claimed that the UK’s modern slavery system is being abused by Albanians arriving via small boat to prevent their removal. For example, in Rishi Sunak’s December 2022 statement in parliament on illegal immigration, he said, in the context of Conservative policy to tackle Albanian small boat arrivals, that “one of the reasons we struggle to remove people is because they unfairly exploit our modern slavery system.”
In 2022, of the roughly 12,000 Albanians who arrived via small boat, 1,467 were referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) by the end of 2022 – 12%. The NRM is the UK system for identifying victims of modern slavery. (Note that this number may increase with time as more people from this cohort are identified as potential victims of modern slavery and referred to the NRM.). Of all small boat arrivals in 2022, 7% were referred to the NRM.
Of the 1,467 Albanians who arrived via small boat and were referred to the NRM in 2022, 1,382 (94%) had received by 2023 a decision from the Home Office on whether there are ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe the individual is a victim of modern slavery. Of these, the Home Office determined that in 90% (1,239) of cases there were reasonable grounds to believe these individuals were modern slavery victims. This is in line with reasonable grounds decisions made for all nationalities: in 2022, 88% of all reasonable grounds decisions issued were positive.
For a person to be confirmed as a victim of modern slavery, a further ‘conclusive grounds’ decision must be made on their case, which means that “based on the evidence available, modern slavery is more likely than not to have happened”. Of those Albanians who arrived via small boat in 2022 and had received a positive reasonable grounds decision by the end of that year, only 5% (64) had received a decision on whether or not there are conclusive grounds to believe they were victims of modern slavery. This is to be expected because it takes a long time for potential victims of modern slavery to receive a conclusive grounds decision; for all conclusive grounds decisions made in 2022, the median time between the conclusive grounds decision and the initial referral was 543 days. Of the 64 Albanians who arrived via small boat in 2022 and had received a conclusive grounds decision by 2023, 35 were positive (55%) – indicating that the Home Office believed these 35 individuals had been modern slavery victims. This figure will change over time as more Albanians who arrived by boat in 2022 receive conclusive grounds decisions. The above data are presented in Figure 7.
The Illegal Migration Bill, published on 7 March 2023, proposes to prevent people who enter the UK without authorisation from accessing both the asylum and modern slavery systems. For more information on the Illegal Migration Bill, see our briefing note, UK policies to deter people from claiming asylum.
This research was made possible thanks to the support of Oak Foundation. The authors are grateful to CJ McKinney for detailed comments on a draft of this briefing note; and Niki Kalyvides and Liz Williams of the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre, for guidance on the modern slavery analysis.