1. Governance
March 16, 2023

What happens when refugees enter the UK?

The UK and French governments are in agreement to halt small boats crossing the channel illegally. But what awaits those that make it across?

By Silvia Pellegrino and katharine swindells

With over 45,000 people crossing the Channel in 2022 to seek asylum in the UK and already 3,000 refugees arriving in the country in the first three months of 2023, the government is planning to change current migration laws.

asylum seekers
Detainees are seen wrapped in blankets inside the Manston short-term holding centre for migrants, near Ramsgate, south-east England. Photo by Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)

Parliament is currently discussing the Illegal Migration Bill, which passed its second reading in the House of Commons by 312 to 250. It must still pass through the House of Lords.

The main points covered by this new bill are:

  • The home secretary can decide to either detain or remove refugees arriving in the UK illegally via boat and send them to Rwanda or another third country that has been deemed safe, even if it is still not clear what that might be.
  • Refugees must be detained for at least 28 days without the possibility of bail.
  • Every refugee that has been denied asylum and removed from the country cannot attempt to return or request British citizenship.
  • There is a maximum number of refugees that can settle in the UK, to be specified at a later date.

In the meantime, the number of refugees is only expected to rise throughout the year, and the process will remain unchanged. 

How many people seek asylum in the UK?

In 2022, around 17,300 people were granted protection and asylum in the UK, alongside 4,700 partners and children of refugees already living in the country via family reunion visas, according to government figures.  

Compared with 2019, these numbers are 16% lower. However, 2022’s statistics are still in the average range of those between 2015 and 2018. 

The number of refugees crossing the Channel illegally by small boat is, however, very different. The UK government reported more than 45,000 people arriving in the country by small boat in 2022, mostly around the months of August, September and October. In 2021, there were 1,034 boats detected, while 2022 saw 1,109. 

Because of official estimates expecting more than 80,000 refugees to cross the Channel in 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has proposed the new Illegal Immigration Bill.  

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According to the bill any of those expected 80,000 who arrive by boat or lorry will lose the possibility to apply for asylum as their status will be declared “inadmissible”, even if they are fleeing from a country at war. The refugees would then be sent back to their home country or to a different “safe” country, even if it has not been disclosed yet where that is.

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which contains all the rights of refugees around the world, no asylum seeker should be sent back to the country they are fleeing. On the other hand, the government claims that bills like the Rwanda plan do not break the law since it is considered a safe third country. 

The policy changes that the new Illegal Migration Bill would bring are many and still not completely disclosed, and the legality of it is still uncertain. Suella Braverman, UK home secretary, declared that she cannot confirm whether the bill is compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights or not; however, section 19(1)(b) states that the government intends to bring it forward anyway. 

What happens when refugees enter the UK?

Entering the UK as a refugee is a lengthy process. When a refugee arrives in the country, they usually claim asylum almost immediately. Whoever applies for the right to seek shelter and protection in a different country is considered an asylum seeker. 

Asylum seekers usually flee their country because of war, conflict or persecution that would put at risk their safety and life itself. Under the UN Refugee Convention, everyone can apply for asylum. 

An initial interview will determine whether the case can be accepted or not and if it is, the refugee can officially apply to remain in the UK. The conditions for the acceptance slightly changed in June 2022, when it was established that if the applicant has a connection (family, friends) to a different safe country, their asylum request can be rejected. 

Despite claims that all applicants would receive a verdict within six months, over 70% of refugees had not heard back in time in 2022. This presents as an issue in itself since a refugee who is waiting for a decision cannot work. 

During this limbo, the Home Office usually provides temporary accommodation in a specialised centre. However, since 2021, over 74% of asylum applications are stuck in a backlog. These asylum seekers will be moved to more permanent accommodation, but they do not have a choice in the matter.

However, once the applicant gets refugee status, asylum accommodation is no longer an option. They need to find appropriate accommodation and pay their own rent. This often causes issues, since refugees are almost never prioritised in the housing market. If the Home Office decides to dismiss their case, they need to return to the country they fled. 

Does the UK take more refugees than Europe?

The UK saw a significant uptick in asylum applicants in 2022, but still far less than many European neighbours. In 2022 the UK received just under 75,000 applications for asylum, equivalent to about 11 per 10,000 of the UK population. In comparison, Germany received 244,000 applications, 29 per 10,000 population, and France 155,000, 23 per 10,000.

Greece received fewer applications in total than the UK, but as a smaller country, it was three times as high a proportion of the population.

Can refugees reach the UK legally?

Under the current system, it is not legal for refugees and migrants to enter the UK without a special visa or government permission.

The repercussions for those who break that rule vary, but generally they involve imprisonment for up to four years and relocation to a different safe country. To live in the UK in a legal manner, refugees must be granted asylum, which is a status granted by the state to someone fleeing their home country due to political and humanitarian situations that would threaten their lives or freedom. 

There are legal options for refugees and asylum seekers to enter the UK, but a lot of them are only applicable to residents of certain countries, like Ukraine and Afghanistan because of ongoing conflicts. Therefore, only some possibilities are on the table for people coming from other countries, but they too have limitations. 

For instance, under the UK Resettlement Scheme, only those coming from regions in conflict can enter the UK; the Community Sponsorship Scheme entails the local communities offer accommodation and support for the refugees; children and partners under 18 years of age of refugees already legally living in the UK can use the Refugee Family Reunion scheme, which granted over 6,000 visas in 2021; and the Mandate Resettlement Scheme serves to move refugees with close (parents, siblings) family already living in the UK who can offer a home. 

The Refugee Council and Amnesty International explained that, even if these routes are there, there is virtually no legal route for most people to seek asylum in the country.

[Read more: The UK has spent up to £1bn on drones to prevent migrant crossings]

Where in the UK has the most asylum seekers?

Once a person qualifies for refugee status, the UK government no longer tracks where they move in the UK, but does record where they were initially resettled.

In total since 2014, the UK has resettled just under 46,000 refugees, equivalent to seven per 10,000 of the population. The local authorities that have taken the most resettled refugees in the past eight years are Coventry, Bradford, Birmingham and Edinburgh. Gateshead, Redcar and Cleveland, Coventry and Hartlepool have all resettled more than 20 refugees per 10,000 of the population.

However, while they are still categorised as asylum seekers and receiving government support, their location is recorded, meaning that current data is available on the numbers in each local authority

As of December 2022, Glasgow City has the highest total number of asylum seekers receiving government support, with 4,700 asylum seekers – equivalent to 74 per 10,000 of the population. 97% of the asylum seekers in Glasgow City are "dispersed", meaning they are living out in the community in a home provided for or paid for by the Home Office, or they are living with family or friends and receiving subsistence allowance.

In comparison, 37% of the asylum seekers in Birmingham receiving support were living in "initial accommodation," temporary accommodation provided by the Home Office. This is generally only supposed to be for a few weeks but has increased to around six months as the Home Office struggles with the backlog of claims. Places like Hillingdon and Hounslow have very high levels of asylum seekers living in initial accommodation.

[Read more: Why are so many ‘Homes for Ukraine’ refugees living in England’s small villages?]

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