Telegraph ‘migrant’ graph only captures fraction of arrivals in the UK

16 August 2022
What was claimed

Over three quarters of migrants crossed by small boats in 2021.

Our verdict

False. This is the proportion of people who arrived via irregular routes, who arrived on a small boat, not the proportion of all migrants. It excludes hundreds of thousands of people who moved to the UK to live, study and work in 2021.

The Telegraph published a graph showing that “over three quarters of migrants crossed by small boats in 2021” at least three times on its website in the last week. 

The graph has since been edited or removed to correct the error that this statistic only includes people who arrived in the UK via “irregular” methods, and ignores the hundreds of thousands of people who arrived in the UK last year to live, work and study with visas to do so. 

The graph titles were changed on 15 July to state “Over three quarters of illegal immigrants crossed by small boats in 2021”, showing data on the number of “Recorded attempts to enter the UK irregularly”.

While there is no legal definition of the term “migrant” in UK law, and the UK government even uses different definitions of the term interchangeably in its own data sources, none of these limit the definition to solely those who arrive in the UK illegally or irregularly. 

The graph used by the Telegraph did not define what it means by “migrant”, and simply listed its source as uk.gov. The Home Office publishes a large variety of statistics on migration, so it was not possible to work out the source from this alone. 

The Telegraph did not respond to Full Fact’s request to confirm the source of the data, but the updated graph titles show that irregular migration statistics were used. 

People who enter the UK via “irregular” methods, in general, have arrived without the required legal right to do so. 

The Home Office figures show that in 2021, a total of 36,792 people arrived in the UK via “irregular migration” routes. These include 28,526 small boat arrivals, and 2,563 “inadequately documented” air arrivals.

The Home Office says: “These statistics should not be used to infer the size of the irregular population in the UK, nor the total number of people entering the UK irregularly.” 

It lists a number of caveats, including noting that the statistics do not count people who evade border control or become ‘irregular’ migrants after entering the UK regularly, while may double count people who are detected on more than one occasion.

As we have written recently, the government doesn’t publish figures on the percentage of people who cross the Channel on small boats and then claim asylum, but in 2020 a senior Home Office official told a committee that 98% of small boat arrivals went on to claim asylum. This may have changed over the past two years, but there are no official statistics to confirm this. 

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Using only these figures gives a misleading impression of migration to the UK

The Telegraph’s original description of this group of people as “migrants” misleadingly suggested that a very high proportion of all migrants to the UK arrive via small boats. 

In fact, the vast majority of people who could be described as “migrants” come to the UK with government permission to do so. The 36,792 people captured in the irregular migration statistics represent only a very small fraction of the total number of people who arrived in the UK to live, work and study in 2021. 

Last year, the UK granted 239,987 work-related visas, 432,279 sponsored study visas and 280,776 visas and permits for family reasons. It also offered humanitarian protection to 14,734 people—1,587 of which arrived in the UK through official resettlement schemes

Many of the other people granted humanitarian protection such as asylum may have arrived via irregular routes, but it is not possible to say this definitively due to the lack of official statistics. 

Image courtesy of Yolanda Suen

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