The facts about people seeking asylum in the UK

30 November 2021

On 24 November, 27 people tragically drowned in the English Channel, attempting to travel to the UK from France. 

Following this there has been renewed debate on the topic of migrants, asylum seekers and the facts around asylum applications. We take a look at the facts.

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Channel crossings: Refugees, asylum seekers or migrants?

An asylum seeker is someone who has applied for asylum, meaning they are seeking protection after fleeing persecution or a fear of persecution in their home country. 

People who seek asylum may be granted refugee status, granted some other form of protection and leave to remain, or refused asylum. 

By contrast, the word “migrant” is less clearly defined. 

Amnesty International says: “Like most agencies and organizations, we at Amnesty International understand migrants to be people staying outside their country of origin, who are not asylum-seekers or refugees.”

The UN argues: “Conflating refugees and migrants can have serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees. Blurring the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require.”

However, the term is, in practice, used more broadly to refer to people coming to the UK with the intention of settling in the country, for any reason. 

For example, the recent increase in people crossing the Channel in small boats has been referred to as a “migrant crisis”. 

While the vast majority of people crossing in this way go on to claim asylum, a small minority do not. 

Those who cross the Channel in a small boat without authorisation, are entering the UK illegally, though there are protections against prosecuting people seeking asylum for this, as explained below.

While many asylum seekers enter the country clandestinely, the terms “illegal immigrant” and “asylum seeker” shouldn’t be used interchangeably (and that’s putting aside the fact that only a person’s actions and not a person themself can be technically “illegal”). 

Some asylum seekers enter the UK legally. And some people who are in the UK illegally are not in the process of seeking asylum, such as people who have overstayed their visa.

Channel crossings

While asylum applications have remained broadly stable over a number of years, the number of channel crossings has increased significantly this year.

Data published by the BBC, reportedly from the Home Office, shows the number of people who have crossed the Channel so far this year exceeds 25,000, compared to less than 10,000 in 2020. This data is not routinely published by the Home Office directly.   

The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford states that a “large majority” of people who cross the Channel in small boats claim asylum once they reach the UK. It says: “Of the roughly 5,000 people who had crossed the English Channel in small boats from January to September 2020, 98% claimed asylum.”

The legality of seeking asylum

The UK is a signatory to the Refugee Convention. This provides that people seeking asylum are not penalised or prosecuted for entering a country illegally to seek asylum, provided they travel directly to the country in which they seek asylum, present themselves to authorities, and show good cause for their illegal entry.

This acknowledges that some people may need to break laws in order to travel to a safe country and seek asylum.

Case law in the UK has established that these protections extend to people who claim asylum in good faith, even if their application is rejected, and those who travelled through other safe countries en route to the UK. 

However, the government is currently trying to pass legislation through Parliament to change this, so that if an asylum seeker has passed through other safe countries on the way to the UK, these protections do not apply.  

Additionally, there is no requirement for asylum seekers to claim asylum in the first “safe” country they reach. 

The EU does have a system whereby asylum seekers can be sent back to the first EU country they were fingerprinted in to have their asylum case processed there. But that still doesn’t mean an asylum seeker is barred from applying for asylum in any other country.

This arrangement no longer applies to the UK, following Brexit.   

The number of people claiming asylum

In 2020, 37,000 people applied for asylum in the UK. This included dependents (for example children) of “main applicants”.

This looks likely to increase this year. In the first three quarters of 2021, 35,000 people claimed asylum

European comparisons

In 2019, the latest year for which comparable data is available, the UK received far fewer asylum applications than other big European countries including France, Germany and Spain, and a comparable number to Italy. 

Data from the European Union, analysed by the House of Commons Library, shows that once you account for the size of each country, per person, the UK receives about half as many asylum applications than the EU average. 

Outcome of asylum applications

In 2020, the UK issued 19,049 “first instance” decisions on asylum cases, granting a positive outcome to 9,072 of these (48%), above the average EU rate of 41%. 

A positive outcome could involve the granting of refugee status, or an alternative form of protection if they don’t qualify for refugee status.

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