UK migrant crisis: Is the United Kingdom really a 'magnet' for asylum seekers?

Home secretary Suella Braverman has warned of an “invasion” of asylum seekers to British shores, sparking widespread anger.

Meanwhile, immigration minister Robert Jenrick has vowed to look at “radical options” to quickly return “economic migrants” and deter people from coming to the UK, amid claims Britain has become a “magnet” for asylum seekers.

Refugee charities and campaigners have warned the language Ms Braverman has used to describe people arriving in the UK to claim asylum is inflammatory and could put lives at risk.

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Here, The Scotsman takes a look at the figures behind the UK’s immigration row.

A man carries a child as he runs to board a smuggler's boat in northern France last month, in an attempt to cross the English Channel.

Has the number of people claiming asylum in Britain increased?

Yes. Figures from the United Nations’ refugee arm, UNHCR, show that in 2021, the UK received 48,540 asylum applications. This is 63 per cent more than the previous year and the highest number for almost two decades.

The number of those attempting to enter the country through an illegal route – such as on a small boat crossing the Channel – has also risen in recent years.

Illegal routes are those where applications are not made through official UK Government schemes for asylum seekers. People who arrive illegally are usually smuggled into the UK – on boats crossing the Channel, or in the back of lorries.

Detainees are seen inside the Manston holding centre for asylum seekers. Immigration minister Robert Jenrick this week vowed "more radical" policies to counter illegal migration.

Official schemes are opened by the UK Government for specific periods, such as the Homes for Ukraine visa scheme for those fleeing the war in Ukraine. The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, which will allow up to 20,000 refugees to settle in the UK, was launched after UK and US forces left Afghanistan, which was subsequently taken over by the Taliban.

How many people are arriving in the UK through illegal routes and why?

The number of people detected arriving in small boats has increased dramatically from around 300 in 2018 to nearly 30,000 in 2021. By the end of September 2022, provisional figures already showed more than 30,000 people had been detected arriving via this route – suggesting the final figures for last year are likely to be far higher.

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Not all people who have arrived this way are additional to the usual number of asylum seekers. Instead, as previous methods of entry, such as travelling to the UK concealed in the back of a lorry, have become more difficult in recent years, more people are turning to the dangerous route of travelling by sea. Many people have died in the Channel while trying to cross in small boats.

A report from IPPR, Understanding the Rise in Channel Crossings, found there was also a possible “snowball effect” as more people heard of others who had crossed successfully in this way – after other routes became impossible.

Marley Morris, co-author of the report, told The Scotsman: “In the UK, there is a different pattern [to the rest of Europe]. We had quite low numbers of asylum seekers for a number of years, up until quite recently where the numbers started to increase. And some of that is driven by the increase in people coming across on small boats and claiming asylum.

"There were heightened security measures for people crossing through other clandestine routes such as back of lorries, or through the Channel Tunnel and people found it harder to do that, so that creates an increased dependence on other routes.”

He added: “Some people took the route initially, because there were no other other routes which are available to them. It is a very dangerous route, but the fact that some people made it across meant that more and more people decided to try the same thing and then it became more and more professionalised. Then I think it kind of snowballed into a much bigger operation than it was originally.”

Morris said the end of the Dublin Regulation’s application post-Brexit has also reduced the number of safe and legal routes for asylum seekers with family in the UK. The system allowed children who had been separated from their families to be quickly reunited and was designed to determine which member state is responsible for an asylum claim lodged in the EU.

Where are asylum seekers coming from?

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The vast majority of those seeking asylum in the UK come from Afghanistan, where the Taliban has recently overthrown the government; Syria, which is in the midst of a protracted civil war; Iran, which has an authoritarian regime that has been accused of breaching fundamental human rights and Iraq, which faces ongoing instability and unrest, including recent violent clashes between political factions and Iraqi security forces.

In recent months, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people arriving from Albania, which has been raised by the UK Government this week.

Usman Aslam, a Glasgow-based immigration lawyer at Mukhtar & Co, pointed to the deteriorating political situations in the countries with the highest number of UK arrivals.

“This just shows the level of desperation that people are willing to travel in small boats,” he said. “People don't undertake this kind of journey on a whim. It's something they do as a last resort because of how many people die trying to get here.”

He added: “The nationalities arriving all makes sense – they are places where there are wars, or a political regime where people need to leave for somewhere safe.”

Why are so many Albanians coming to the UK?

Last week, MPs were told 12,000 Albanians had illegally arrived in the UK after crossing the English Channel so far this year, compared to just 50 in 2020.

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Jenrick claimed that on some small boats, "80 per cent of the individuals are coming from Albania”. It is thought the proportion of Albanian men living in the UK is one to 2 per cent of the total Albanian male population.

The number who arrived in the first six months of this year outstrips that of people coming from Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban rule since August 2021.

Home Office figures show generally, around 53 per cent of claims by Albanians are successful. However, most of those are from women and children. Analysis from the Oxford Migration Observatory published earlier this week found 86 per cent of Albanians who received positive decisions on asylum applications in the year ending in June were women whose leave to remain was granted on the basis they were likely to have been trafficked and in need of genuine protection.

However, organised crime and revenge killings in Albania – a small country that gives those seeking safety little chance to move away from their persecutors – are high.

Clandestine channel threat commander Dan O'Mahoney told the Home Affairs Select Committee last week that Albanian criminal gangs had gained a foothold in the north of France. It has also been claimed many of the Albanians had not been living in Albania, but elsewhere in Europe – something that tallies with data from the Albanian government, which says it has not seen a mass exodus of citizens.

Albanian authorities have hit out at the criticism. Albanian prime minister Edi Rama said the UK was "discriminating" against Albanians to distract from Britain’s "policy failures".

Crown Prince of Albania, Princ Leka, joined in, making a quip in response to a comment from a right-wing journalist that if 40,000 men who are mostly Albanians entering the UK illegally is “not an invasion, what is it?”. He replied: “An improvement to British society.”

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Why do people travel through other “safe” countries to the UK?

The reasons for this are often complex – and are usually not based on economics.

In many cases, refugees want to go somewhere where they believe they will be able to start a new life and provide for their families. While Serbia, Moldova or Poland may be technically safe from the horrors they are fleeing at home, finding work in a country where they do not speak the language is difficult. Meanwhile, 1.34 billion of people worldwide say they speak English – with just 370 million of them native speakers, meaning around 1 billion people speak English as a second language and are therefore likely to find it easier to settle in a country where that is spoken widely.

Others may already have family members living here who have come at an earlier point, or through a different immigration channel, or have cultural links to the UK, which for a long time had an empire and ruled over countries around the world, meaning many nations, such as India, have strong historic links with Britain.

Most who do not come through an official UK Government scheme, such as the Homes for Ukraine visa scheme or the Afghan Resettlement Scheme, are forced to turn to people traffickers to help them secure a place on a boat or other illegal transport to smuggle them into Britain. Many hand over their life savings in return for promises of a better life.

How many refugees are there worldwide?

The United Nations refugee arm, UNHCR, estimates by the end of 2021, 89.3 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced from their homes due to “persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order” – more than twice the number of 2011. A further rise to above 100 million is expected this year due to the invasion of Ukraine and other global events.

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Does the UK take in more than a proportionate share of refugees?

No.

According to figures from UNHCR, over a third (36 per cent) of refugees are hosted by just five countries: Türkiye has 3.7 million people, Colombia 2.5m, Germany 2.2m, Pakistan 1.1m and Uganda 1.4m.

In terms of the number of asylum seekers per 1,000 population, the UK is below the average for Europe, according to figures from the Refugee Council.

More than three quarters of the world’s refugees are hosted in low and middle-income countries – of which the UK is not one. Meanwhile, 69 per cent of those who are displaced internationally remain in countries adjacent to their home nations.

Immigration and refugee policies are a devolved issue. Through its now-suspended Super Sponsor scheme, however, Scotland has taken in three times more Ukrainian refugees than its population share, UK-wide.

Why are so many people seeking asylum living in temporary accommodation or centres in the UK?

There are long delays in the UK asylum system. Most asylum claims from people who have arrived in small boats since 2018 have not yet been concluded by the Home Office. Figures from June this year show only 16 per cent of main applicants had received an initial decision. Data from March shows that more than 7,500 applications made by people arriving in small boats had been awaiting an initial decision for at least 12 months, including 13 claims from people who had arrived in 2018.

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Centres such as the Manston centre in Kent, which has come under fire for overcrowding and poor living conditions which have seen outbreaks of diseases such as diphtheria, are supposed to be short-term solutions for a matter of days while alternative solutions are found.

Mr Aslam said a failure on the part of the Home Office to work through applications was creating a picture of an asylum problem in the UK that he said does not exist.

“The delay is processing claims," he said, citing the government data of the number of outstanding applications. “All this points towards the idea that we have an asylum problem – a refugee crisis – we really don't, especially when you measure that against Europe and the rest of the world, we're a speck in the ocean. So getting more staff at the Home Office would be a starting point here. A lot of the decisions we’re getting through [from the Home Office] have a lot of errors.”

He pointed to a case he had worked on recently, where he had been told by the Home Office that it could not be processed because the application had been submitted late. However, he has documentation proving it had been submitted in time – but is unable to contact anyone at the Home Office to discuss the issue.

"The only alternative is to go back to the Legal Aid board and get more funding to appeal through an MP or through a judicial review, which is very costly,” he said.

How many people from other countries are currently living legally in the UK?

The number of people in England and Wales who were born outside the UK has increased by 2.5 million since 2011, according to the latest census data, published earlier this week. Scotland’s census was delayed due to the Covid pandemic, so new figures are not yet available.

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The 2021 survey found there were ten million foreign-born people in the countries, among a population of 59.5 million in England and Wales. Of these, India was the most common birth place, with 920,000 people born there. However, the number of Romanians living in England and Wales rocketed in the period, by 576 per cent between 2011 and 2021 to 539,000.

Although Romania, along with Bulgaria, joined the European Union in 2007, restrictions were placed on freedom of movement into Britain from the new member states amid fears of a huge influx of migrants. These restrictions were lifted in 2014, which is likely to have caused the spike in arrivals from Romania.

The most recent figure from the National Records of Scotland found in the year to mid-2021, 7.4 per cent of Scotland’s population – 397,000 people – were non-British nationals. The figure has risen by about 65,000 since 2016.

What has Suella Braverman said?

The home secretary, who was sacked just weeks ago by former prime minister Liz Truss and then reinstated by new incumbent Rishi Sunak, has sparked widespread anger over the language she has used when discussing the immigration crisis.

Earlier this week, she said the south coast of England was under “invasion” by asylum seekers. Campaigners have warned the language could fuel anti-immigrant sentiment, just days after a firebomb attack on a migrant centre in Dover.

Braverman claimed many of those making the dangerous journey were "facilitated by criminal gangs" and that some were "actual members of criminal gangs".

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She said: “The British people deserve to know which party is serious about stopping the invasion of our southern coast – and which party is not.”

Braverman added: "So let's stop pretending that they are all refugees in distress. The whole country knows that is not true and it's only the honourable members opposite who pretend otherwise.

"I, madam deputy speaker, am utterly serious about ending the scourge of illegal migration and I am determined to do whatever it takes to break criminal gangs and fix our helplessly lax asylum system."

Her comments come weeks after she told a side event at the Conservative Party conference that it was her “dream” to see a newspaper front page with a photo of a plane taking off to Rwanda with asylum seekers on board.

During her main conference address to party members, Braverman also vowed the UK Government would “find a way” to resurrect the controversial Rwanda scheme, which would send refugees who arrive in the UK and are considered “inadmissible” – ie have not arrived on a Government-sanctioned scheme – to the African country, where they will stay if their application is granted.

The first plane of refugees due to be sent to Rwanda was stopped following a last-minute move by the European Court of Human Rights.

What are the UK Government’s policies on immigration?

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The Nationality and Borders Act means that some refugees, including those who do not come to the UK directly from a country where their life or freedom was threatened, are granted a lesser status with fewer rights. It also introduced new criminal offences for people who knowingly arrive in the UK illegally, in a bid to deter people from doing so.

The bill was condemned by Holyrood’s minister for culture, Europe and international development, Neil Gray, as “repugnant and regressive”. The Government’s scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda while their claims are processed, as detailed above, is on hold.

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