There are no safe routes for anybody to come through. Afghanistan has been closed. Hong Kong has been closed.
During the second reading of the Illegal Migration Bill on 13 March, Labour MP Khalid Mahmood claimed there are “no safe routes” for refugees into the UK, adding that schemes from Afghanistan and Hong Kong had been closed.
He said: “There are no safe routes for anybody to come through. Afghanistan has been closed. Hong Kong has been closed.”
This is not accurate. While the number of people so far granted leave to remain through some resettlement routes for Afghan refugees has been very low, they remain open, as does the resettlement route for some Hong Kong residents. Outside of these nation-specific routes, there are also other refugee resettlement schemes in operation.
However, only a relatively small number of people have access to these routes as they are reliant on meeting specific eligibility criteria.
Between 2015 and 2022, the government offered “safe and legal” routes into the UK to 481,804 people—the vast majority of which were from Ukraine and Hong Kong. Over the same time period, 44,659 family reunion visas were issued to the family of refugees settled in the UK, while 49,667 people were resettled or relocated. This includes 21,387 people from Afghanistan.
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There are several ‘safe and legal’ routes for people seeking protection in the UK
Dr Peter William Walsh, senior researcher at Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, told Full Fact: “The UK operates a number of safe and legal routes for people in need of protection.
“These include (1) its refugee resettlement programmes, including the UK Resettlement Scheme, Mandate Scheme, and Community Sponsorship Scheme;
“(2) the refugee family reunion route, through which adults who have already been granted protection in the UK through claiming asylum or being resettled can be joined by their partner or children under 18;
“And (3) any of three bespoke humanitarian routes that are nationality-specific: these are the Ukraine schemes, Afghan schemes, and Hong Kong BNO route.”
Afghanistan schemes remain formally open
In the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the UK government opened two schemes available to some people seeking protection.
The first of these is the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), which was designed to help local civilians who worked for or with the UK government in Afghanistan. Under this policy, individuals can apply to the Ministry of Defence to be considered and then, if eligible, the Home Office will process their immigration case.
People accepted through this route are not technically refugees (i.e. they haven’t gone through a refugee status determination process), but they are granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK. There is no limit on the number of places available under ARAP or a cut-off date for applying.
The second of these is the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which is available to some Afghan nationals and dependent relatives who are in Afghanistan and the surrounding countries (or have already been evacuated to the UK) and are considered to be at risk due to the situation in Afghanistan.
There are three “pathways” to the ACRS scheme:
- Pathway 1—this is for vulnerable individuals, including some British citizens, who have already been evacuated to the UK. This route is largely being used to resolve the immigration status of people who are already in the UK.
- Pathway 2—this is for people in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, mostly in Iran and Pakistan, who have been identified as being eligible for resettlement by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and then referred to the Home Office to be considered for resettlement in the UK. Individuals can’t apply directly either to the UNHCR or the Home Office.
- Pathway 3—is for specific groups of people considered to be at risk, for example, British Council workers. It launched in the summer of 2022, with 1,500 places available, and there was an eight-week window for registering interest in the scheme in the first year. In January, Leo Docherty, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for foreign, Commonwealth and development affairs, told MPs that another cohort of places under pathway 3 would be opened in June 2023.
The government has pledged to resettle 20,000 people through these three pathways “in the coming years”.
Dr Walsh said: “The Afghan routes remain formally open, but as of 31 Dec 2022, only 22 people have been recorded as having come through what is expected to be the main pathway going forwards, Pathway 2, which is where refugees are referred to the UK by the UN Refugee Agency.”
More than 11,000 people expressed an interest during the eight-week window for applying for Pathway 3, with the Home Office notifying people of the outcome of their applications during Autumn 2022—although the government has said that “many do not meet the eligibility criteria for the pathway’s first year”.
The most recent immigration data does not show anyone being resettled through this pathway by the end of 2022, with the government saying Pathway 3 figures will be included in the statistics “once people have been resettled via this pathway”.
Operational data published by the government shows that so far, 21,365 people have been accepted through the ARAP and ACRS Pathway 1.
Hong Kong scheme is open with an uncapped number of places available
In January 2021 a new visa called the Hong Kong British National (Overseas) (BNO) was launched following concerns about the erosion of human rights in Hong Kong.
It’s not specifically a protection based scheme—applicants aren’t assessed on how at-risk they are of persecution in Hong Kong—but it is an easier way for people with BNO status to migrate to the UK than under the usual immigration rules.
BNO status was created for people from Hong Kong, designed to allow them to retain a form of British nationality after the British handover to China in 1997. Anyone who was a British Dependent Territories citizen through a connection with Hong Kong could apply for the lifelong BNO status in the 10 years prior to the 1997 handover. The status itself is not passed onto spouses or children, but the new BNO visa is open to dependents of people with BNO status.
Dr Walsh said: "So far as we are aware, the Hong Kong route remains very much open. According to the Home Office, 11,000 people arrived under the route in the last quarter of 2022 (from 1 October 2022 to 31 Dec 2022), bringing the total number of arrivals under the route to 105,000 (from 31 Jan 2021 to 31 Dec 2022).
"The BNO route is uncapped and no end date has been specified. It is open to those with BNO status and their families, as well as those without BNO status but who are the adult children of BNOs and are born on or after 1 July 1997. These adult children of BNOs can apply separately from their parent, and also bring their partner and children.”
The new Illegal Migration Bill does make it more difficult for people to claim asylum in the UK
It’s important to highlight that Mr Mahmood’s comments were made in the context of a debate on the government’s new Illegal Migration Bill.
This legislation is designed to “prevent and deter unlawful migration, and in particular migration by unsafe and illegal routes, by requiring the removal from the United Kingdom of certain persons who enter or arrive in the United Kingdom in breach of immigration control”.
If passed, the Bill would create two new legal duties for the Home Secretary. The first is to make arrangements for the removal of people who entered the country illegally after 7 March 2023, if they have no permission to be in the UK and did not come directly from a place where they fear persecution.
If someone arriving in the UK meets those conditions, the Home Secretary’s second duty is to refuse to process any asylum claim they make, as well as any claim that a removal to their home country is in breach of their human rights.
In 2022, more than 45,000 migrants reached the UK by crossing the Channel on a small boat. This new legislation would effectively mean that the Home Secretary had a legal duty to remove people who arrive via small boat if they had no permission to be in the UK, either to their country of origin or a “safe third country” such as Rwanda.
Full Fact has contacted Mr Mahmood and the Home Office for comment.