While Prime Minister Boris Johnson was correct that UK has resettled more refugees than the rest of Europe, when it comes to asylum claims the stats and politics tell another story

The UK lags behind other European nations and countries around the world when it comes to welcoming refugees, despite claims from Boris Johnson’s that the UK “has done more to resettle vulnerable people than any other European country since 2015”. 

It is correct that if the Government takes the narrow category of resettlement programmes as a measure of compassion towards refugees, then the UK has resettled more people than our European neighbours. Between 2015 and 2020, the UK admitted about 24,700 resettled refugees.

But resettlement is only one route into the UK for people seeking asylum and it depends on vulnerable people being identified by agencies such as the UNHCR and referred to the UK Government. 

As such, the majority of people fleeing war and persecution are not resettled and instead come to a new country to claim asylum. When all these routes are taken into consideration, the UK drops behind Germany, France, Sweden, Italy and Spain. 

The Government’s treatment of people seeking asylum has been under the spotlight after it was accused of failing to adequately respond to the needs of refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More than two million people have fled the country in the first two weeks of the war.

The UK has responded by launching the Ukraine Family Scheme and a new sponsorship scheme for people with family ties to the UK. The Government has boasted that the scheme is a “world-first”, although it is precisely the only one of its kind because other nations have taken a more open approach.  

People seeking refuge via the schemes have had to create an online account, upload proof of family connection in the UK, upload Ukraine residency, prove UK family connection via marriage or birth certificates, and translate documents into English. Up until 10 March, they also had to book and attend an appointment at a visa application centre in a city like Paris or Brussels to provide biometrics, and then wait for a decision. 

The policy changed on 10 March when Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a U-turn and stated that “Ukrainians with passports will no longer need to go to a visa application centre to submit their biometrics before they come to the UK … They will be able to get permission to come here fully online”.

Those who have left Ukraine and have ID cards rather than passports will still have to attend an appointment and provide biometrics.

People have reported being told they must wait for a week for their visa, that they have the wrong paperwork, and have been sent from Paris to Calais and back again. These are people who have crossed multiple borders, having left everything behind, in the hope of finding safety and being reunited with family members. 

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Refugees by Numbers

Between 2015-2020, the UK offered asylum to 92,000 people – compared to more than a million in Germany and 108,000 in Spain – the country with the second lowest intake. 

When measuring asylum claims per capita, the UK is ranked 19th in Europe, providing refuge to 121 people per 100,000, compared to Sweden at 1,619 refugees per 100,000 people, Germany with 1,274, Austria with 1,134 and Switzerland with 955.

The vast majority of refugees are hosted outside of Europe: Turkey hosts the highest number of refugees at 3.7 million people. Colombia hosts 1.7 million refugees; Uganda hosts 1.5 million; Pakistan gives home to 1.4 million. The only European country with comparable numbers is Germany, hosting 1.2 million.

Meanwhile, 73% of refugees live in the country bordering their country of origin, such as Colombia and Venezuela, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Syria and Jordan.

There were 37,562 asylum applications relating to 44,190 people in the UK in the year ending September 2021. In the same time period, there were 14,758 initial decisions made on asylum applications and two-thirds of these resulted in asylum or another form of humanitarian protection being granted. The UK granted 1,171 people protection through resettlement schemes in the year ending September 2021. 

Many people claiming asylum in the UK face long waits: in the year ending September 2021, 62,651 individuals were awaiting a decision on their asylum application and in receipt of support. In 2014, more than three-quarters (78%) of asylum claims were processed in less than six months. Compare this to data from the second quarter of 2020, when only 22% of claims took less than six months to process. 

Throughout 2021, media focus was on the number of small boats crossing the British Channel from Calais, with at least 28,000 people making the dangerous journey in 2021. While higher than previous years, in part because other routes such as lorry crossings have been made less viable, the number of migrant people arriving by boat into the UK is less than in Spain (38,457 in 2020) and Italy (33,563 in 2020). 


Seeking Asylum in the UK

When people claim asylum in the UK, they can be housed in temporary accommodation such as hotels, where food and accommodation is funded by the Government, alongside an £8 per week allowance. They can also be housed in the community and receive an allowance on a prepaid card of £39.63 per week per household. People seeking asylum cannot choose where they live, and the majority have been housed in historically deprived areas of the UK. 

People whose asylum claim is refused can end up destitute with no access to financial support or housing – either because they cannot return to their home country, or are in limbo between refusal and appeal.

Concerningly, many successful asylum seekers are left destitute at the point they get leave to remain as they need to wait for resident permits and paperwork such as a National Insurance number so that they can apply for work or benefits. 

The UK is an outlier in that it refuses to allow people seeking asylum the right to work, something which the Lift the Ban Coalition of migrant rights charities says will have cost the taxpayer £876,142,000 over 10 years by the end of 2022.

Tim Naor Hilton, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, said: “The cost of this ludicrous policy on refugees, communities, businesses and the British taxpayer is staggering”.

The Nationality and Borders Bill is set to make life more difficult for people fleeing war and persecution, including from Ukraine. The bill, which is being debated in the House of Lords before returning to the Commons, emphasises resettlement as the main way in which the UK will help refugees, with those arriving via “irregular” routes such as boat crossings at risk of criminalisation. 

People who arrive in the UK via “safe and legal routes” will be entitled to indefinite leave to remain should their asylum claim be successful, and family reunification rights. The problem, however, is the lack of safe and legal routes beyond resettlement which would mean that even if Ukraine’s President Zelensky came to the UK outside of the existing visa scheme because he has no family ties in the UK, he would risk not being welcome. 

Those who arrive via “irregular” routes will only be granted temporary leave to remain and have reduced family reunification rights – the latter policy will make it harder for women and children in particular to get refugee status in the UK. 

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