On 9 December 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury’s (Crossbench) motion that:

This House takes note of the principles behind contemporary UK asylum and refugee policy, and of the response to the challenges of forced migration.

1. What is a refugee and an asylum-seeker?

Refugees are specifically defined and protected in international law. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person 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 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has argued that refugees are therefore “clearly defined under international and regional refugee law, and states have agreed to a well-defined and specific set of legal obligations towards them”. The UK is party to the convention and its 1967 protocol.

An asylum-seeker is a person who is seeking international protection and has applied for refugee status under the convention, but whose claim has not yet been determined. Asylum encompasses a variety of elements, including non-refoulement (no-one should be returned to a country where they would face persecution), permission to remain in the territory of the asylum country, and humane standards of treatment. The UN states that every person has a right to seek asylum in another country. However, people who do not qualify for protection as a refugee would not receive refugee status and may be deported.

Forced migration is not a legal concept under international law, according to the UN. It states there is no universally accepted definition and it is often used as a general term to cover many kinds of displacement or involuntary movement, both across international borders and inside a single country. The term has been used to refer to people who have been displaced by environmental disasters, conflict, famine, and large-scale development projects. The UN states that all people on the move have human rights which should be respected, protected and fulfilled. However, refugees and asylum-seekers have “specific needs and rights which are protected by a particular legal framework”.

This article will focus on the UK’s policy towards those with refugee status and those seeking asylum.

2. What routes are available to refugees and asylum-seekers in the UK?

In March 2021, the UK government published ‘Global Britain in a competitive age: The integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy’, which set out its high-level vision for the UK’s role in the world. The government said it would “remain sensitive to the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers”, stating that its “resettlement schemes have provided safe and legal routes for tens of thousands of people to start new lives in the UK”.

As well as its asylum system, the UK operates several schemes for refugees looking for protection in the UK and for others seeking access to the UK for humanitarian reasons. This section focuses on those schemes available to refugees and asylum-seekers but refers to some nationality-specific immigration routes.

2.1 Claiming asylum in the UK

To claim asylum in the UK, a person must be physically in the UK. It is not possible to apply from outside the country, and there is no asylum visa. A person cannot obtain a visa with the explicit purpose of seeking asylum. Therefore, for individuals who do not have visa-free travel to the UK, they must enter either irregularly, such as by a small boat; by using false documents; or on a visa for some other purpose, such as tourism or study.

Claiming asylum is not illegal but entering or remaining in the UK without the required permission has been an offence for many years. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 expanded the scope of the offences and increased the maximum penalty for entering illegally to four years’ imprisonment. A person who claims asylum has the legal right to remain in the UK while their application is considered.

Applicants can include their partner and their children under 18 years old as dependents if they are with them in the UK. If the application is successful, dependents named on it can usually stay for the same amount of time as the main applicant. They do not get refugee status unless they make their own claim for asylum.

International refugee law does not require asylum-seekers to make their claim in the first safe country they arrive in after leaving their country of origin. However, UK asylum law contains measures to encourage people to do so. For example, people who travel through a safe third country can be treated as inadmissible to the UK asylum system and removed to a third country, or if allowed to stay, be given a less favourable immigration status. Home Office guidance explains:

In broad terms, asylum claims may be declared inadmissible and not substantively considered in the UK, if the claimant was previously present in or had another connection to a safe third country, where they claimed protection, or could reasonably be expected to have done so, provided there is a reasonable prospect of removing them in a reasonable time to a safe third country.

The Home Office states other reasons a claim might not be considered are if the applicant:

  • is from an EU country
  • has a connection to a safe third country where they could claim asylum

The Migration Observatory, a research institute at the University of Oxford, has identified four possible outcomes of an asylum application:

  • The applicant is recognised as a group 1 refugee and granted asylum with five years’ leave (permission to stay in the UK), after which they may apply for permanent residence.
  • The claimant is recognised as a group 2 refugee and given lesser rights: 2.5 years’ leave with the opportunity to apply for permanent residence after 10 years.
  • The applicant is refused refugee status but granted permission to stay in the UK for other humanitarian reasons. These statuses include: humanitarian protection; discretionary leave; leave under family or private life rules; and unaccompanied asylum-seeking child leave (UASC).
  • The asylum claim is refused. The claimant can appeal the initial decision.

Section 3.1 provides further information on the definition of group 1 and 2 refugees.

2.2 Refugee resettlement schemes

Resettlement is the voluntary transfer of recognised refugees from the country they were granted asylum in to another state that has agreed to grant them permanent residence. It is one of the UNHCR’s “durable solutions” for refugees. The UNHCR estimated that 1.5 million refugees would need resettlement in 2022. Between January and July 2022, it had resettled around 28,300 people across 21 countries.

The UK works with the UNHCR to provide resettlement in the UK. The UNHCR selects refugees for resettlement and transfers them to the UK with the agreement of the Home Office. People who come through a resettlement scheme have already been recognised as a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention. They do not go through the asylum process in the UK.

In August 2021, the Home Office published new policy guidance on UK refugee resettlement, setting out the three different schemes operated by the UK:

  • UK resettlement scheme (UKRS): for vulnerable refugees in refugee camps neighbouring countries with conflicts and or instability. Participating local authorities in the UK lead on providing integration support upon arrival in the UK.
  • Community sponsorship scheme: uses the same criteria as the UKRS. Resettled refugees are matched with a local community group that has volunteered to provide integration support in the UK.
  • Mandate resettlement scheme: for refugees who have a close family member in the UK who can accommodate them and has permanent permission to stay or temporary permission with a route to permanent status.

2.3 Refugee family reunion

The UK allows an adult refugee to be joined in the UK by their spouse or partner, and any children under 18 years old, if they formed a part of the family unit before the refugee fled their country. However, other relatives, such as parents and siblings, or children over 18 years old, are not eligible under the rules of the refugee family reunion scheme.

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 changed family reunion rights available to some refugees who apply for asylum on or after 28 June 2022. The new rules state:

  • Adults granted refugee status would only be automatically entitled to sponsor someone if they were granted “refugee permission to stay” as a group 1 refugee.
  • Adults granted “temporary permission to stay” as a group 2 refugee (those refugees not meeting the definition for group 1) and people granted “temporary humanitarian protection permission”, will only be able to use the family reunion rules if refusing would breach the UK’s international obligations, such as those under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

2.4 Other immigration routes: Nationality-specific schemes

The UK currently operates several nationality-specific bespoke immigration routes available to some Afghans, Ukrainians, and people from Hong Kong. Not all these routes grant a person refugee status and the associated rights and entitlements specified in the 1951 Refugee Convention.

  • Afghan relocations and assistance policy (ARAP) and ex gratia scheme: open to former locally employed civilians in Afghanistan. Eligibility is based on the main applicant’s previous employment with the UK government and on the related risks they may face. People who come under these schemes have not gone through a refugee determination process overseas and have not been granted refugee status.
  • Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS): available to some Afghan nationals and dependents who are in Afghanistan, neighbouring countries, or who have been evacuated to the UK, and are at risk because of the situation in Afghanistan. The ACRS is not a pure resettlement scheme under the UNHCR definition because people without refugee status may be eligible under parts of the scheme.
  • Ukraine family scheme: open to Ukrainians and their family who have a UK-based family member with a qualifying status. Eligibility is based on family ties in the UK.
  • Ukraine sponsorship scheme: available to Ukrainians who have a sponsor in the UK willing to provide them accommodation for at least six months.
  • Hong Kong British national (overseas) visa: open to Hong Kong British national (overseas) citizens (BNOs) and their close family members. Under this route an estimated 5.4 million Hong Kong residents would be eligible to move to the UK and eventually become a British citizen. This is not an asylum route, and the visa does not confer an asylum-related status. It is applied for like any other visa.

3. What measures has the UK government recently introduced?

3.1 Government policy

In March 2021, the Boris Johnson government published a policy statement for its ‘new plan for immigration’. In the statement, the government set out its proposals to reform the asylum system, which it said was “broken”.

The government said it wanted to encourage people seeking asylum to enter the UK through safe and legal routes and would strengthen support for those that entered the country in this manner. It said it would introduce measures to discourage people entering the UK by irregular means, including those crossing the English Channel by small boats. The government said its intention was to prevent the abuse of the asylum system. The statement set out the three major objectives of the reforms:

Firstly, to increase the fairness and efficacy of our system so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum.

Secondly, to deter illegal entry into the UK, thereby breaking the business model of people smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger.

Thirdly, to remove more easily from the UK those with no right to be here.

Safe and legal routes are sanctioned immigration provisions that provide access to the UK for humanitarian reasons. Safe and legal routes can take various forms, including refugee resettlement schemes, family reunion provisions and private sponsorship.

Further information on the various safe and legal routes into the UK and debate on the UK government’s policy can be found in the House of Commons Library briefing ‘Safe and legal routes to the UK for people seeking protection’ (6 October 2022).

Several of the measures put forward in the new plan were introduced under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, including:

  • A maximum sentence of life imprisonment for people smugglers.
  • An increase in the maximum penalty for illegally entering the UK or overstaying a visa from six months’ to four years’ imprisonment.
  • A power for the differential treatment of refugees. Those who are granted refugee status having travelled directly to the UK from the country they were fleeing, claimed asylum without delay and, if applicable, can show “good cause” for unlawful entry or presence may be considered as group 1 refugees. Refugees who had travelled through a safe third country where they could have reasonably been expected to claim asylum or did not claim asylum without delay may be considered group 2 refugees. Differentiation may relate to length of leave, requirements for settlement, family reunion, and recourse to public funds.
  • Changes relevant to third country inadmissibility processes to make it easier to remove someone to a safe third country. The changes made it possible to remove someone whilst their asylum claim was pending, provided removal would be in line with the UK’s international obligations.

As part of its plans to deter asylum-seekers entering the UK by irregular means and remove those that do to a safe third country, Boris Johnson’s government agreed the migration and economic development partnership (MEDP) with the Rwandan government. The MEDP is an asylum arrangement allowing the UK to send some people to Rwanda who would otherwise claim asylum in the UK. It is intended that Rwanda would consider them for permission to stay in Rwanda or return to their country of origin. Asylum-seekers sent to Rwanda would not be eligible to return to the UK. The government stated removals of individuals from the UK to Rwanda under MEDP arrangements would:

[…] initially focus on deterring those who have already reached safe third countries from making dangerous journeys to the UK in order to claim protection, especially (but not exclusively) where travel is by small boat in the English Channel.

The partnership was agreed in April 2022. However, the scheme has not yet commenced. The government is currently awaiting court judgements on various legal challenges over the scheme. Further information on the UK-Rwanda partnership can be found in the House of Lords Library briefings:

The government under the premiership of Rishi Sunak has continued the policy of trying to deter asylum-seekers from making dangerous crossings in the channel. On 14 November 2022, the government signed a new UK-France agreement intended to reduce illegal small boat crossings in the channel. The government said the deal was part of its “wide-ranging approach to fix the broken asylum system [and] break the business model of people smugglers facilitating these journeys”.

Further information on the joint agreement can be found in the House of Commons Library briefing ‘Irregular migration: A timeline of UK-French co-operation’ (18 November 2022).

3.2 Commentary

Parliamentarians, international organisations such as the UN and refugee commentators have welcomed the government’s commitments to strengthening safe and legal routes for asylum-seekers. However, they have expressed concern about linking these routes with restrictive measures targeted at asylum-seekers entering by irregular means. Some commentators have argued that increasing the availability of safe and legal routes does not replace the need for an easy-to-access asylum system.

While questioning Home Secretary Suella Braverman during a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee evidence session in November 2022, Tim Loughton (Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham) raised the problems asylum-seekers faced when there was no sanctioned safe and legal route to the UK from their country. Mr Loughton suggested they would have no other option but to travel by irregular means. In response, the home secretary highlighted that the UK had an asylum system and said that if a person put in an “application for asylum upon arrival, that would be the process that [they entered]”. Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Home Office, also suggested that asylum-seekers could engage with the UNHCR as a “way of getting leave to enter the UK in order to put in an asylum claim”. However, he acknowledged there were “some countries where that would not be possible”. Responding to Mr Rycroft’s evidence, the UNHRC has asserted that most refugees do not have access to a safe and regular pathway to the UK, or elsewhere. It stated that the UNHRC was only able to refer a “limited number” of refugees for resettlement in the UK, and that it was “not open to the vast majority of refugees”.

In their July 2022 report ‘Channel crossings, migration and asylum’, the committee agreed providing safe and legal routes should be a key part of the government’s strategy. It called for “detailed, evidence-driven, fully costed and fully tested policy initiatives” and close cooperation with international partners. It said that particular focus should be on improving cooperation with France.

In its report, the committee also called for more clarity on how the UK-Rwanda scheme would deter asylum-seekers making dangerous journeys to the UK. It stated that the government needed to set out how it would ensure the mental and physical wellbeing of those relocated was “secured for the long-term”. It highlighted that it was the UNHCR’s belief that this was the UK government’s responsibility, even after relocation. The committee recommended the government work with the UNHCR to rebuild an “efficient and fair asylum system in the UK”.

In response to the government’s new plan for immigration the UNHCR has called on the UK to:

[…] guarantee the right to seek and enjoy asylum for all persons under its jurisdiction, including those who enter, or seek to enter, irregularly, and not merely those who have already been recognised as refugees outside of the UK and who arrive through resettlement or other legal pathways.

The UNHCR has expressed a vision for the future UK asylum system as “one that is humane, fair, affordable, in line with international standards and efficient”. In February 2021, it set out proposals for reform of the UK system. It identified key actions for the UK government, such as investing in registration and screening procedures, and triaging cases to rapidly identify asylum claims. The UNHCR stated it would not support the transfer of asylum-seekers to non-EU member states. It argued the “forced transfer of people to countries with inadequate protection safeguards and resources” risked a breach of international refugee obligations.

The UNHCR reiterated its concerns about the removal of asylum-seekers to a third country, in response to the new measures introduced under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022. It said the measures may deny refugees their right to seek asylum in the UK, and that such provisions were “potentially at variance with the refugee convention”. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said he regretted:

[…] that the British government’s proposals for a new approach to asylum that undermines established international refugee protection law and practices has been approved.

On the MEDP, the UNHCR said it did not believe the agreement complied with the UK’s obligations under international law. It argued the arrangement was “inconsistent with global solidarity and responsibility-sharing”. The UNHCR stated:

The partnership proposes an asylum model that undermines the established international refugee protection system. It risks the arbitrary denial of access to asylum and lacks realistic durable solutions for the refugees affected.

Refugee rights commentators and other stakeholders have also raised concerns about the changes to support for refugees entering by irregular means and about the UK-Rwanda scheme. For instance, Professor Elspeth Guild from Queen Mary University of London, writing on the Refugee Law Initiative blog, argued that providing resettlement places did not “absolve” the UK of its obligations towards refugees arriving irregularly. She stated:

[…] refugee resettlement can never be an alternative to fair and effective refugee status determination procedures for spontaneously arriving refugees.

Commenting on the MEDP, the EU migration law blog suggested the scheme could violate the right to ‘non-refoulement’ in the refugee convention, and the Migration Policy Institute argued it advanced the idea that countries could “cast off their responsibilities”.

The Migration Observatory has questioned whether the scheme would discourage unauthorised arrivals and accomplish the government’s aim to deter people trafficking:

There is a high degree of uncertainty about whether it will be successful in this aim, because there is little evidence on whether it will or will not deter unauthorised entry, including by people travelling across the Channel via small boat.

It said there were uncertainties on:

  • How current and prospective asylum seekers would respond, including those who were not removed to Rwanda. It said it was difficult to anticipate the extent to which the policy would discourage people who were already in the UK from applying for asylum in order to avoid removal to Rwanda.
  • How many of those transferred to Rwanda would remain there and how many would make further onward journeys.
  • The conditions and risks that people transferred to Rwanda would face.

However, Migration Watch UK (a think-tank presided over by Crossbencher Lord Green of Deddington) believed the scheme could “cripple” the work of criminal traffickers. It has argued that by breaking the connection between unauthorised arrivals claiming asylum and being able to remain in the UK, the plan could “help deter people from setting off from safe countries in the first place”. Migration Watch UK argued that the measures, if “implemented with care and resolution”, had the “strong potential” to:

Deter irregular boat trips. By doing so, they can help prevent drownings and cripple the business model of the criminal people smugglers.

Stem worsening abuse of our laws and rules while boosting public safety.

Help to greatly ease pressure on our beleaguered asylum system, on the accommodation stock and on public services such as the NHS, which are already under grave strain as we face cost-of-living, health and housing crises.

Nevertheless, Migration Watch UK added that the public needed to be “swiftly informed” about the numbers of people the scheme would involve, and on what timescale.

4. How many people have been given refugee status?

4.1 Worldwide

The UNHCR reported that by the end of June 2022:

  • The total number of refugees worldwide had risen by 24% from 25.7 million at the end of 2021 to 32 million by mid-2022, largely due to people fleeing Ukraine. This total included nearly 24.5 million refugees, 2.2 million people in refugee-like situations, and some 5.3 million other people in need of international protection.
  • Around 4.2 million people were granted international protection in the first six months of 2022, including 3.7 million who received temporary protection and 507,500 who were granted refugee status on a group (151,600) or individual (355,900) basis. This was an almost eleven-fold increase compared to the same period of 2021, when 384,900 people were granted international protection.
  • There were around 4.9 million asylum-seekers waiting for a decision, an increase from 4.6 million at the end of 2021.
  • New individual applications for asylum lodged with states or with the UNHCR through the refugee status determination (RSD) process almost doubled to 1.1 million in the first six months of 2022. This was up from 555,400 during the same period in 2021.

The UNHCR found that more than half of all refugees (53%) were hosted by 10 countries:

  • Turkey
  • Colombia
  • Germany
  • Pakistan
  • Uganda
  • Russian Federation
  • Poland
  • Sudan
  • Peru
  • Bangladesh

The UNHCR found that with the influx of refugees from Ukraine, Europe was hosting 12.5 million refugees, nearly 40% of all refugees globally. It said the number of refugees in Europe had increased by around 78% from the beginning of the year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The number of new asylum applications in Europe had increased by 119% to 502,800 in the first half of 2022, compared to 229,900 in the same period in 2021. The UNHCR stated this increase was largely because of the war in Ukraine as well as the prolonged crises in Afghanistan, Syria and Venezuela. Most new individual asylum applications were received in Germany (84,600).

The UNHCR stated in its report that finding and supporting “durable solutions” was one of its strategic priorities. It said these solutions included:

  • voluntary repatriation
  • local integration
  • resettlement to a third country

4.2 United Kingdom

The UK gave grants of asylum, humanitarian protection, alternative forms of leave, and resettlement to 15,684 people (including dependants) in the year ending June 2022, according to Home Office statistics.

Of these:

  • 12,968 were granted refugee status following an asylum application (‘asylum’)
  • 859 were granted humanitarian protection
  • 235 were granted alternative forms of leave (such as discretionary leave, UASC leave)
  • 1,622 were granted refugee status through resettlement schemes

Additionally, 5,290 partners and children of refugees living in the UK were granted entry to the UK through family reunion visas.

The number of people offered protection in the year ending June 2022 (either following an application for asylum or through an established resettlement scheme) was 24% fewer than in 2019. The Home Office fall in numbers is because resettlement remained below pre-Covid-19 pandemic levels. However, the resettlement figures in the latest government statistics do not include data relating to the individuals relocated under the ACRS or ARAP. These figures will be included in subsequent releases.

During the same period, there were 63,089 asylum applications, relating to 75,181 people. This was 77% more than in 2019. The Home Office said the increase in applications in the year ending June 2022 was “likely linked to a sharp increase in small boat arrivals to the UK of which almost all currently claim asylum”. The Home Office reported that asylum applications fell substantially following the initial Covid-19 outbreak. However, they had since increased and as of the third quarter of 2021 were “substantially higher than levels seen prior to the outbreak”.

The House of Commons Library briefing ‘Asylum statistics’ analyses the trends in data on asylum-seekers and refugees in the UK and provides information on the collation of the figures.

5. Read more

Cover image by Julie Ricard on Unsplash.