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‘Safe and legal’ routes are sanctioned immigration provisions that provide access to the UK for humanitarian reasons. They are often referred to in discussions about how people seeking asylum can come to the UK.

Safe and legal routes take various forms. Successive recent UK governments have expanded UK refugee resettlement schemes. They have also created extra immigration routes in response to deteriorating security and human rights in Hong Kong, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.

The Johnson government committed to providing safe and legal routes of entry as part of a broader programme of asylum reforms outlined in its New Plan for Immigration policy statement (March 2021). It wanted fewer people to come to the UK as asylum seekers and more to come through safe and legal routes.

A December 2022 statement by the Prime Minister went further. Rishi Sunak announced that the Government now intends to make further legislative changes so that “the only way to come to the UK for asylum will be though safe and legal routes”. He said that the Government would create additional legal routes “as we get a grip on illegal migration” and would introduce an annual quota for refugee resettlement.

Refugee rights campaigners have previously called for an annual target for refugee resettlement. But they have also cautioned that safe and legal routes are not available to everyone who needs protection. Consequently, they want them to be provided alongside an accessible in-country asylum system.

Existing safe and legal routes to the UK

The boundaries between UK refugee resettlement schemes and other lawful routes have blurred. For example, calculations of the number of people “offered refuge” in the UK sometimes include people coming through routes that do not assess individuals’ needs for protection.

The UK currently operates several safe and legal immigration routes:

  • The UK Resettlement Scheme, Community Sponsorship, and the Mandate Scheme are refugee resettlement programmes.
  • Refugee family reunion visas are available to people who were immediate relatives of people granted refuge in the UK, before they left their country of origin (known as pre-flight relatives).
  • Nationality-specific bespoke immigration routes are available to some Afghans, Ukrainians, and people from Hong Kong.

Each route has eligibility criteria and conditions attached to the permission to stay. Not all the routes give beneficiaries refugee status and the associated rights and entitlements specified in the 1951 Refugee Convention.

How many people use those routes?

There are significantly more applications for asylum than the number of people who come to the UK through organised refugee resettlement schemes or as close family members of recognised refugees.

According to Home Office quarterly immigration statistics, between September 2021 and September 2022:

  • 1,391 people came through a refugee resettlement scheme.
  • 4,786 people came through refugee family reunion rules.
  • 72,027 asylum applications were submitted.
  • 15,987 asylum seekers were given permission to stay (rising to 17,658 after appeal).

But in addition to the above, significant numbers of people have come through the bespoke visa routes for people from Hong Kong with British National (Overseas) status (144,576 visas granted between 31 January 2021 – 30 September 2022), and the two Ukraine Schemes (186,893 visas issued since March 2022). And as at 24 November 2022, 12,300 people had been granted indefinite leave to remain under the two schemes for Afghan nationals.

Should the Government provide a legal route for Chanel migrants?

Successive recent governments have said it’s inappropriate and counterproductive to provide safe and legal routes for migrants who make unauthorised journeys to Europe and want to come to the UK. Advocates of safe and legal routes argue that doing so could help to reduce small boat crossings and other forms of illegal migration.

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