Boris Johnson’s claims on UK accepting people fleeing conflict miss vital context

7 March 2022
What was claimed

The UK has taken more vulnerable people fleeing theatres of conflict since 2015 than any other country in Europe.

Our verdict

The figures Boris Johnson is referring to only show the numbers accepted through resettlement schemes. We don't have any reliable comparative data for the number of vulnerable people fleeing “theatres of conflict”, but figures show that other European countries have accepted far more refugees in total.

I think we have taken more vulnerable people fleeing theatres of conflict since 2015 than any other country in Europe.

Boris Johnson claimed during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) that the UK has “taken more vulnerable people fleeing theatres of conflict since 2015 than any other country in Europe”. 

This claim refers only to people who have been resettled in the UK through government resettlement schemes, and ignores the hundreds of thousands of people who have been granted asylum after arriving in another country. Using this measure, some other European countries have granted protection to far more people than the UK.  

We can’t say exactly how many of these people granted protection came from a country or region that could be regarded as a “theatre of conflict”, to use Mr Johnson’s phrasing, as data on this level is not published by the Home Office. 

Downing Street confirmed that Mr Johnson’s claim is based on data collated by the European Union, which shows that between 2015 and 2019 the UK resettled more people  than any country in the EU—a total of 24,670. 

Eurostat doesn’t hold the UK’s resettlement statistics for 2020 due to Brexit, and does not have any more recently available data. But Home Office figures (which differ slightly to the EU data) show that in the year ending December 2020, the UK resettled 823 people, and another 1,587 people in the year ending December 2021. Resettlement programmes were paused during the second and third quarters of 2020 due to Covid-19.

A government spokesperson told Full Fact: "The government has a proud history of supporting people in need and providing protection to the most vulnerable people.

“The UK’s safe and legal resettlement routes give refugees and people at risk the stability they need to build a life in the UK, and since 2015 more than 27,000 people have been resettled through these schemes – more than any other European country."

But as we have written before, “resettled” in this context has a very specific meaning. It only refers to people who have been granted protection while abroad and then brought to the UK through a dedicated resettlement scheme. Officially resettled people make up approximately one fifth of people granted humanitarian protection in the UK since 2014. 

There are three main resettlement schemes in place in the UK: the UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS), Community Sponsorship Scheme, and the Mandate Resettlement Scheme. In addition, the UK formally launched the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme in January 2022, designed to offer protection to up to 20,000 refugees fleeing Afghanistan. 

People who arrive in the UK and then claim asylum—for example, after arriving in the UK in small boats—are not counted in these figures, and nor are they counted in comparable figures for other European countries.

Boris Johnson made this clearer later in PMQs, when he said: “I think we have settled 25,000 vulnerable people since 2015, which is more than any other European country.” As we said above, when looking at official resettlement schemes between 2015 and 2019, this figure is about right.

He repeated this claim on 7 March, stating: “No country in Europe has done more to settle vulnerable people since 2015 than the UK.” 

However, outside of official resettlement schemes, other countries in the EU have offered protection to far more people claiming asylum. 

Other countries have accepted far more refugees in total than the UK

While often used interchangeably, the terms “refugee” and “asylum seeker” have different meanings. A refugee is a person who has fled their own country because they are at risk of human rights violations or serious persecution, and has a right to international protection. An asylum seeker is a person who has fled their country and is seeking protection from persecution or human rights violations,but hasn’t yet been legally recognised as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim. Seeking asylum is a human right in itself. 

The easiest way to compare the number of asylum decisions between European countries over the course of five years is to look at the number of positive first-instance decisions on asylum applications (the number of asylum seekers offered some protection in the first instance) from 2015 to 2019, before Brexit.

Germany made by far the highest number of positive decisions in the first instance in the EU, with 982,695 made between 2015 and 2019. In comparison, the UK made 57,560 positive decisions over the same period of time. 

Home Office data shows the UK issued 19,049 “first instance” decisions on asylum cases in 2020, granting a positive outcome to 9,072 of these. 

This is far fewer than a number of countries in the EU, with Germany granting protection to 62,470 people in 2020, followed by Spain (51,055) and Greece (34,325). These figures do not include people who were granted asylum after an initial refusal. 

As we said above, we can’t say exactly how many of these people granted protection came from a country or region that could be regarded as a “theatre of conflict”, to use Mr Johnson’s phrasing. 

The UK doesn’t publish data on positive initial decisions by nationality, only asylum applications lodged. In both 2020 and 2021 people from Iran, Iraq and Eritrea represented the top three nationalities applying for asylum in the UK, and in 2021 were also the top three nationalities recorded as entering the UK via small boat crossings. 

As noted earlier in the article, asylum seekers entering the UK in this way, who were granted protection, would not be included in resettlement figures.

Full Fact has contacted Number 10 for comment. 

Photo courtesy of UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor, via Flickr. 

Update 10 March 2022

This story was updated to include a comment from a government spokesperson.

Update 15 March 2022

This article has been updated to include a footnote clarifying that the chart only includes people who have been resettled under resettlement schemes.

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He did not take any action.

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