“For too long our migration debate has been dominated by humanitarian nimbyism whereby devolved administrations have rhetorically welcomed refugees, but then fail to take their fair share. They declare themselves “Nations of Sanctuary” and then pull up the drawbridge.”
In a speech at the think tank Policy Exchange on 25 April, immigration minister Robert Jenrick MP claimed devolved administrations have “rhetorically welcomed” refugees, but “fail” to take their “fair share”.
It’s not clear exactly what data this claim was based on, and neither Mr Jenrick nor the Home Office has provided a full explanation. But it appears he may have actually been referring to asylum seekers when he made the claim.
In coverage of quotes released ahead of Mr Jenrick’s speech, the Daily Telegraph suggested he was specifically referring to figures which showed Scotland and Wales house fewer asylum seekers in hotels than elsewhere in the UK.
The Home Office didn’t tell us the specific data Mr Jenrick was referring to, but instead gave us a statement which also suggested he may have been talking about asylum seekers housed in hotels, or asylum seekers more generally.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The number of people arriving in the UK who seek asylum and require accommodation has reached record levels… We have been clear that the use of hotels to house asylum seekers is unacceptable and we are committed to making every effort to reduce hotel use and limit the burden on the taxpayer.
“The fairer full dispersal model aims to increase the amount of accommodation available for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute helping to reduce the time they need to stay in costly hotels.”
When looking at asylum seekers specifically, it is true that at the end of last year, relative to their populations Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were supporting fewer asylum seekers—both through providing housing in hotels and overall— than England.
However, when looking more broadly at “refugees”—which was the term Mr Jenrick used in his speech—the data is less comprehensive.
The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” The International Rescue Committee explains: “An official entity such as a government or the United Nations Refugee Agency determines whether a person seeking international protection meets the definition of a refugee based on well-founded fear. Those who obtain refugee status are given protections under international laws and conventions.”
An asylum seeker, meanwhile, is someone who has applied to be recognised as a refugee, but has not yet been legally recognised as such. (Under current UK law, you must be in the UK in order to apply for asylum.) So the terms cannot always be used interchangeably—while many asylum seekers may be refugees and will eventually be recognised as such, others may not be.
Ministers should use official information transparently and with all relevant context and caveats when a claim is first made, and quickly rectify oversights when they occur.
Ministers and Government departments must also provide evidence for what they say, and ensure that any statistics and data they rely on to back up their claims are provided publicly in accordance with the Code of Practice for Statistics or relevant guidance.
Honesty in public debate matters
You can help us take action – and get our regular free email
Asylum seekers in hotels
As of December 2022, a total of 110,171 asylum seekers were being housed across the UK, of which 49,493 were being housed in hotels.
In Scotland, 576 asylum seekers were being housed in hotels—around 1 per 10,000 people (based on 2021 population estimates). In Wales, the figure was 364, also around 1 per 10,000 people.
This is substantially lower than the average across England of around 8 asylum seekers per 10,000 people.
Northern Ireland housed more asylum seekers in hotels than both Scotland and Wales, though fewer than England, at around 6 per 10,000 people.
When looking at all asylum seekers receiving support from local authorities, as of December 2022 Scotland supported 5,210, while Wales supported 3,142 (both equating to around 10 per 10,000). Northern Ireland supported 3,103, at a higher rate of 16 per 10,000 people.
By comparison, local authorities in England supported 98,375 asylum seekers, or 17 per 10,000 people.
While many asylum seekers may be refugees, even if not currently legally recognised as such, there are many other groups of refugees and others being offered protection within the UK.
The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently claimed that the UK has “a proud history of welcoming almost half a million refugees over the past several years”, and the government says it has offered 481,804 places to people seeking safety between 2015 and 2022. This figure refers to the number of visas or grants of protection issued, with figures suggesting not all of this number are known to have arrived in the UK.
We don’t have data on what part of the UK many refugees settle in, which means we can’t reliably compare how the total number of refugees in the UK are distributed between England and the devolved nations.
The UK operates a number of resettlement schemes offering protection to people who have not travelled to the UK to claim asylum, for which partial data is available.
According to the House of Commons Library, between 2014 and 2022, 54,000 people were resettled or relocated to the UK through various such schemes.
Government data for all but one of these schemes (the Gateway Protection Programme) shows that the number of refugees resettled between 2014 and 2022 equates to around 7 per 10,000 people in the UK (based on 2021 population estimates).
By comparison, Scotland resettled 3,836, or 7 per 10,000 people, while Wales resettled 1,484, or 5 per 10,000 people and Northern Ireland resettled 1,858, or 10 per 10,000 people.
These figures are all higher proportionally than those for England, which resettled around 3 refugees per 10,000 people over this period.
However, some caution should be applied to these figures, as they don’t include the majority of over 21,000 people accepted under specific resettlement schemes for Afghan nationals. This group, which comprises the vast majority of resettled refugees arriving in the UK over the past two years, is included in the overall total, but most are not listed under a specific region, and it’s not clear how this would affect the figures for each of the UK nations given above.
These figures also do not include over 154,500 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived under separate UK government visa schemes.
When it comes to the roughly 110,000 Ukrainians who arrived in 2022 under the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, Scotland resettled the most relative to its population at 41 per 10,000 people, followed by Wales, which resettled 20 per 10,000 people. England resettled 14 Ukrainians per 10,000 people under the sponsorship scheme, and Northern Ireland 4 per 10,000 people.
Data on where tens of thousands of other refugees settle does not appear to be published, though we’ve asked the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Home Office about this, and will update this piece if they respond.
Those for whom data doesn’t appear to be available includes around 50,000 Ukrainians who also arrived in the UK last year through a separate family scheme, and accepted asylum applicants, of whom 17,747 were granted protection in 2022.
Between January 2021 and the end of 2022 around 105,200 people from Hong Kong also arrived in the UK under a new immigration scheme for British National (Overseas) passport holders, and we don’t have data for this group (though they are not classed as asylum seekers).
Image courtesy of Chris McAndrew