Migration statistics: How many asylum seekers and refugees are there in the UK?

Asylum seekers made up around 5% of immigrants to the UK in 2018. A minority of applications are successful at first decision, some are successful upon appeal, and it can take years for a case to reach its conclusion. Sometimes, as is the case now, the UK also operates resettlement programmes to take refugees directly from abroad. This Insight, the latest in our series on migration statistics, explains the data on asylum seekers and refugees.

Definitions

‘Asylum’ is protection given by a country to someone fleeing from persecution in their own country. An ‘asylum seeker’ is someone who has applied for asylum and is awaiting a decision on whether they will be granted refugee status.

Formal refugee status is granted according to the definition in the United Nations’ Refugee Convention, which was ratified by the UK in 1954.

“A refugee is someone who, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

The UK can also grant other forms of humanitarian protection to people who do not meet the refugee criteria but who the Home Office still identifies as needing protection, such as those fleeing a war zone.

How many asylum seekers are there in the UK?

There are a few different ways to quantify the number of asylum seekers in the UK. The first is the number of people who apply for asylum each year.

In 2018, 37,453 people applied for asylum. This number has been roughly constant over the past five years and is substantially lower than in 2002, when the number of applications peaked at 103,000.

Asylum seeker applications in the UK over time.

Another approach is to look at the Home Office’s administrative statistics, which show there were 88,848 asylum cases ‘in progress’ at the end of June 2018. This takes into account all pending applications and cases in which the application has been refused but the applicant has not yet left the country or has secured leave to remain via another route.

A third indicator is the number of people receiving Section 95 support, which is a weekly stipend given to asylum seekers who do not have independent means.

At the end of December 2018, there were 44,258 asylum seekers receiving government support.

How many applications are successful?

Around one third of asylum applications receive an initial decision within one year. Anyone seeking asylum can appeal an initial decision and, if this is unsuccessful, can request a judicial review. This means the whole process can continue over several years.

For this reason, comparing the number of grants of asylum in one year against the number of applications does not give us an accurate indicator of the ‘success rate’ of applications.

The Home Office has started producing analysis of the final outcome of cases, by annual cohort based on the year of initial application. The most recent cohorts have a high proportion of ‘outcome unknown’ cases but if we look back to, say, cases which began between 2010 and 2014, we can map their final outcomes as follows:

Outcome of applications made between 2010 and 2014

Are Syrians counted as asylum seekers?

Syrian refugees are a special case within the statistics. Although many have applied for asylum through the UK’s in-country asylum process (919 in 2018), the majority of Syrian refugees in the UK have been resettled directly from refugee camps.

From 2014 onwards, the UK began resettling Syrians under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), with the aim of resettling 20,000 by 2020. The current number resettled in the UK is around 15,000.

Resettlement is a different process to asylum-seeking

Resettled people are granted refugee status or another form of humanitarian protection by the UK while abroad and then brought to live in the UK.

While in refugee camps, people’s refugee status is determined by officials from UNHCR and the UK Government then selects who will be offered resettlement in the UK.

Given the scale of the VPRS (and other resettlement schemes in place), resettled people made up just over one quarter (27%) of those granted asylum in the UK over the last five years (2014-2018).

How have application levels changed over time?

In 2018, at least 20,000 people were granted asylum in the UK, including resettled people. This is around half the number granted in 2001 – at least 48,000 –the year with the most grants in recent decades.

‘Asylum’ is used here in a broad sense and includes those granted refugee status, humanitarian protection, and discretionary leave to remain on humanitarian grounds.

The present number is boosted by around 5,000 per year under resettlement programmes, the largest among them via VPRS.

A lack of official data over time means there are conflicting accounts of the total number of people granted asylum in the UK prior to the 1980s. Various estimates suggest that the periods with the most asylum grants were when:

  • Around 80,000 Jewish refugees came to the UK between 1933 and 1939, equivalent to around 11,000 per year.
  • Around 27,000 Asian Ugandans were resettled to the UK in 1972 and 1073, or 13,500 per year.
  • Between 17,000 and 22,500 Vietnamese refugees were resettled to the UK between 1979 and 1992, or around 1,400 per year.

For context, although these numbers are not directly comparable to those above, an average of around 15,000 people have been granted asylum in the UK per year, over the last five years. This includes an average of around 4,300 Syrians per year.

We do have relatively comprehensive data since 1989 but there are some limitations, for example, in most cases it excludes dependants and those granted asylum on appeal. However, the general trends in grants by nationality are shown in the chart below. 

Which countries do refugees come to the UK from?
Click to view image.

How many refugees are there in the UK in total?

We don’t know how many people in the UK are refugees. We do know how many grants of refugee status or other types of humanitarian leave to remain have been issued over the years, but there is no data from the point of granting status onwards that allows us to track what happens to them.

We also lack reliable, public data going back further than the 1980s, so cannot easily estimate how many people have ‘ever’ been granted refugee status in the UK.

Technical notes:

The number of applications and grants comes from the Home Office’s Immigration statistics quarterly: year ending December 2018, tables as_01_q and as_02_q. Supported asylum seekers are in table as_17_q and resettlement figures are in as_20_q.

The ongoing asylum ‘caseload’ is from the Home Office’s Asylum transparency, table asy_03.

Jewish refugees: The estimate cited here is from London, L. (2000) Whitehall and the Jews 1933-1948: British immigration policy and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.12, although others have put this figure at 30,000 (Coleman, D., and Salt, J. (1992) The British population: patterns, trends, and processes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.464). This was prior to the UN Refugee Convention (1951) so the processes of refugee status determination and of record-keeping were different.

Asian Ugandan refugees: Main estimate from Coleman and Salt (1992). Another source has put this figure at 42,000 between 1972 and 1974, which would be 14,000 per year (Refugee Council (2004) Resettling to the UK: The Gateway Protection Programme)

Vietnamese refugees: Coleman and Salt (1992) and Refugee Council (2004).

Further reading

Asylum statistics, House of Commons Library.

Georgina Sturge is a Statistical Researcher specialising in social and general statistics at the House of Commons Library.

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