Have UN asylum rules ‘created 780 million refugees’?

3 October 2023
What was claimed

The home secretary is warning UN asylum rules have created 780 million refugees.

Our verdict

This is misleading. The home secretary actually quoted a think tank’s broad 2022 estimate for the number of people worldwide who could potentially meet the UN’s definition of a refugee were they to leave their countries, including a much smaller number who are actually refugees. This definition includes, for example, the entire population of Afghanistan bar members of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Delivering a speech in Washington DC on 26 September about immigration, home secretary Suella Braverman claimed that the UN refugee convention “now confers the notional right to move to another country upon at least 780 million people”.

In their reporting of the speech, both the Daily Telegraph and ITV News published articles claiming in their headlines that Ms Braverman said “asylum rules have created 780m refugees”. The Guardian also made a similar claim in a newsletter published on its website, saying: “The international asylum framework has created 780 million refugees, Braverman claimed.”

These reports are misleading, as they don’t reflect what Ms Braverman actually said. The figure she quoted is a broad 2022 estimate from a think tank for the number of people worldwide whom it says could potentially meet the UN’s definition of a refugee were they to leave their countries, including a much smaller number of people who are actually refugees.

Ms Braverman’s use of the figure has also been challenged by some migration experts, who have argued it is not realistic that this many people would attempt to gain refugee status.

News publishers should make every effort to achieve due accuracy in all output, including headlines and the articles themselves. False or misleading claims should be appropriately and clearly corrected in a timely manner. 

Both ITV News and the Daily Telegraph did correctly report on Ms Braverman’s use of the figure in the body of the article itself. We’ve contacted the Daily Telegraph, ITV News and the Guardian for comment.

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Where does the figure come from?

The 780 million figure is taken from research published by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) think tank.

In a report published in 2022, the CPS stated: “The 1951 Refugee Convention now confers the notional right to move to another country upon at least 780 million people.”

Elsewhere in the report it’s claimed that this number of people “could plausibly come to the UK and claim refugee status”.

It explains that this estimate is based on “World Bank population data, and statistics from various sources on persecuted racial, religious, national, social (including LGBT) and political minorities on a country by country basis; as well as populations in areas of ongoing conflicts including civil wars, insurgencies and invasions; and UN estimates of international refugees and people in modern slavery”.

The report states that the figure includes around 89 million people defined by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2021 as either refugees or forcibly displaced people, and an estimated 40 million victims of modern slavery (which includes people in forced marriages, and is based on an estimate which has since increased to around 50 million), as well as a far broader group of people the report estimates could meet the UN Refugee Convention’s criteria of facing a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

The CPS did not provide a full breakdown of this latter group when we contacted it, but explained that for each country, five categories were considered—racial, religious, national, social and political minorities—where there was evidence of recent or ongoing persecution. It noted that the estimate was produced in late 2022, and so predates events such as the recent unrest in Sudan and Niger.

The estimate includes minority groups such as Uyghur Muslims in China and Coptic Christians in Egypt, the estimated Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) populations of 68 countries where being LGBT is illegal, and some broader groups, such as “the entire population of Afghanistan” except for members of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS, and “the entire male population of Eritrea”.

Most of the 780 million have not left their own country

Crucially, the CPS report states that the 780 million figure is only an estimate for the number of people who could potentially be eligible for refugee status under the UN refugee convention were they to leave their home country, not the number of people the convention has actually conferred refugee status on, as some of last week’s media reports suggested.

The UN refugee convention specifies that to meet the criteria for refugee status a person must also be “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin”—in other words, to be formally defined as a refugee you must have left your own country. The vast majority of those included in the CPS estimate have not left their countries of origin.

In her speech Ms Braverman contrasted the 780 million figure with the number of people originally afforded refugee status when the convention was first established, saying “when the refugee convention was signed it conferred protection on some two million people in Europe”.

It is true that when first introduced in 1951, the convention was limited in scope. The UNHCR says it was “essentially limited to protecting European refugees in the aftermath of the Second World War”, and that an estimated 1.25 million refugees were originally under the UNHCR’s mandate.

In 1967, the scope of the convention was expanded “to apply universally and protect all persons fleeing conflict and persecution.”

However, the 780 million figure is not directly comparable with the number of refugees protected by the convention when it was first established in 1951, as only a small proportion of this group are actually refugees.

There are currently approximately 29 million refugees and people in a refugee-like situation under the UNHCR’s definition, and a further 5.9 million Palestinian refugees under the mandate of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) as well as 5.4 million asylum seekers and 5.2 million other people in need of international protection.

Other estimates

As we’ve explained previously when writing about the number of refugees worldwide, it’s hard to say for certain how many of those included in the CPS estimate might be eligible for protection in the UK were they to leave their own country, as asylum decisions depend on the reasons why the applicant was forcibly displaced.

We also can’t say for certain how many of this group may try to come to the UK, whether attempting to claim asylum or otherwise. The number of asylum applications being made in the UK has been increasing in recent years, as has the number of people migrating to the UK overall each year. However, these numbers do not indicate that a significant proportion of the 780 million people referred to by the CPS are attempting to migrate to the UK.

Ms Braverman’s use of the figure has been challenged by some migration experts, including Rob McNeil of the Migration Observatory, who told was quoted as saying: “The home secretary ⁦⁦Suella Braverman has been using a report by the ⁦CPS think-tank⁩ to support the claim that up to 780 million people are ‘notionally’ able to become international refugees… I am ‘notionally’ able to emigrate to the moon. Doesn’t make it realistic.”

In a blog responding to Ms Braverman’s speech, Robert Oakes and Talitha Dubow, researchers at the United Nations University, said it was “highly unrealistic that all of these people will move and seek asylum elsewhere”.

Image courtesy of Alamy

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