How many refugees does the UK take in?

Published: 16th Aug 2019

In brief

Claim

In 2017 the UK resettled more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU member state.

Conclusion

Technically correct, but resettled refugees are only a subset of all refugees a country might take in. Overall, Germany, France, Austria and Sweden all granted asylum to more refugees than the UK did in 2017.

“In 2017 the UK resettled more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU member state (Eurostat figures).”

Migration Watch, 13 August 2019

In response to a journalist tweeting that “the only refugee the British government wants to support is a cartoon bear”, the think tank Migration Watch claimed that the UK resettled more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU member state in 2017. The government has previously made a similar claim: "Since 2016, Britain has resettled more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU state”.

Both statements are correct, but there’s some important context which many people might not have picked up from the wording.

The term “resettled” is very important here. “Resettled refugees” are not all refugees which a country might take in. It refers to refugees who were resettled in a new country as part of a specific scheme run by that country. Most refugees arrive in the EU as asylum seekers, not as people being resettled as part of a scheme.

Four EU countries granted asylum to more refugees than the UK in 2017, and three did in 2018.

Who is a “resettled” refugee?

Eurostat data shows that in 2017 the UK resettled more refugees (6,210) than any other EU country in 2017. The next-highest levels were in Sweden (3,410) and Germany (3,015).

In 2018, the UK again resettled the most refugees (5,805), ahead of France (5,565) and Sweden (4,935).

A resettled refugee is someone who has been granted permission to reside in a state as a refugee, as part of “a national or Community resettlement scheme”. Most resettled refugees arrive in the UK directly from refugee camps. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials determine whether an individual is a refugee while they are in a refugee camp, and the UK then decides who will be offered resettlement.

In the UK, refugees are resettled as part of four schemes:

  • The Gateway Protection Programme, which the UK operates in partnership with the UN, which offers a legal route for up to 750 refugees to settle in the UK each year, and is completely separate from the standard procedure for claiming asylum in the UK. Applications are made to the UNHCR, which refers them to the UK.
  • The Mandate Scheme, which “is designed to resettle people who have been recognised as refugees by UNHCR and have a close family member who is willing to accommodate them”, according to the Refugee Council.
  • The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, which aims to help Syrians “in the greatest need, including people requiring urgent medical treatment, survivors of violence and torture, and women and children at risk”.
  • The Vulnerable Children Resettlement Scheme, which is open to “vulnerable children and their families in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where the UNHCR deems resettlement to be in the best interests of the child”.

The government has a target to resettle 23,000 refugees in the UK from Syria and the surrounding region by 2020, as part of the latter two schemes. The UK also aims to resettle another 5,000 refugees in the first year of a new scheme which begins next year.

How many refugees settle in the UK each year?

Resettlement through a national scheme is not the only way to become a refugee in another country. Most refugees who are granted protection in the EU don’t arrive this way.

Separate to any resettlement scheme, individuals can apply for asylum directly to another country. Individuals must physically reach the country in question in order to seek asylum. The country will then review their application and “recognise” that person as a refugee if they meet the definition of a refugee set out under the UN Refugee Convention. They may also be given another form of humanitarian protection which does not give exactly the same protections as refugee status.

According to UK government data (which differs slightly to the EU data above), as well as the 5,806 refugees who were resettled in the UK in 2018, 7,636 individuals were granted asylum, and 2,449 were granted an alternative form of protection. That gives a total of 15,891 people granted asylum in the UK in 2018, of whom 13,442 were refugees.

The UK granted asylum to a similar number of people (14,767) in 2017, of whom 13,681 were refugees.

A number of EU countries grant asylum to more refugees than the UK does

EU data on asylum decisions includes those granted asylum after an appeal, so records a slightly higher number of people granted asylum in the UK in 2018 (17,205, of whom 13,845 were refugees).

The data shows that a handful of EU countries granted asylum to more people than the UK in both 2017 and 2018, with Germany taking in far more than anyone else.

In 2018, Germany (139,555), Italy (47,885), France (41,440), Austria (20,700) and Sweden (19,605) all granted asylum to more people than the UK.

If you only look at asylum granted to refugees (so not people with other forms of humanitarian protection), the UK is fourth behind Germany (61,350), France (27,135) and Austria (14,815).

The story is similar in 2017. Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Sweden all granted asylum to more people than the UK, and all but Italy granted asylum to more refugees than the UK.

Excluding asylum applications where the outcome was unknown, but including those who were successful after appealing an initial rejection, 35% of asylum applicants to the UK were granted asylum or another form of protection in 2017—the lowest level since 2006.

Was this page useful to you? Yes No

We aim for our factchecks to be as accurate and up-to-date as possible. If you think we've made an error or missed some relevant information, please email team@fullfact.org.