Written Evidence from the Migration Observatory (NBB0062)



This note provides information to supplement Madeleine Sumption’s evidence to the Committee on 8th September, 2021.


How much choice do refugees have about how to enter the UK?


In order to seek asylum in the UK, asylum seekers have relatively limited options. Currently, the only formal ‘safe and legal route’ is resettlement. Refugees cannot apply formally to be resettled, and must be selected by UNHCR in a process in which they have little agency (Ozkul and Jarrous, 2020). Even before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted refugee resettlement, the number of resettlement transfers in 2019 was just under 64,000—around 0.3% of the estimated 20m refugees worldwide, according to UNHCR (2021).


While in theory, refugees might be able to avoid dangerous routes by coming to the UK on a visit visa, obtaining a visa is difficult for citizens of countries that produce substantial refugee flows. Figure 1 shows the grant rate for visit visas from citizens of the top 15 countries of origin for asylum applicants during the 2016-2020 period. On average, the visit visa refusal rate for the top five countries of nationality for asylum seekers during this period was 41%, compared to a 13% average for all nationalities.


Figure 1: Visit visa refusal rate, 2016-2020, top 15 asylum applicant countries of nationality

Source: Migration Observatory analysis of Home Office immigration statistics, Asy_D02 and Vis_D02.

Note: Data includes decisions made on visas for main applicants and dependants. Withdrawn and lapsed visa applications are excluded.


This leaves clandestine entry or entering without required documentation as the main remaining options for many asylum applicants, and so it is not surprising that the Home Office

estimates that in the year ending September 2019 a majority (62%) of asylum claims were made by people entering illegally (HM Government, 2021).


Do we know how many Afghan citizens will seek to enter the UK irregularly to seek asylum in the coming months and years?


Forecasting asylum-related migration is extremely difficult, and past attempts to do this have concluded that the exercise is effectively not possible (Bijak et al, 2015). It is difficult enough to predict the number of people who will leave Afghanistan, let alone the numbers who will reach Europe or the UK.


Currently, most Afghan asylum seekers who reach Europe do not come to the UK. In 2020, just over 48,000 Afghan nationals claimed asylum in the EU-27 countries, compared to around 1,600 in the UK (this includes main applicants and their dependent family members). In other words, out of all Afghans who claim asylum in the UK and EU in 2020, 97% claimed in the EU.


By way of comparison, at the peak of the Syrian crisis in 2015, applications from Syrians arriving spontaneously in the UK did increase, but only to around 2,800. This was at a time when the EU was receiving hundreds of thousands of Syrian asylum seekers.


What number of Afghan refugees can the UK accommodate and is the plan for 5,000 sufficiently ambitious?


It is very difficult to assess capacity for resettlement or calculate an ‘optimal’ contribution for the UK to make to Afghan resettlement. At the local authority level, capacity in part depends on what financial support is available. As a result, how many refugees the UK is able to resettle is primarily a political question, i.e. of what resources the government is willing to provide for housing and other support for refugees.


Do asylum seekers displace other people waiting to be resettled to the UK, and does the gender balance of boat arrivals mean that the asylum process favours men?


Whether there is substitution between resettled refugees and asylum seekers—i.e. whether one additional asylum seeker means one fewer refugee resettled—is a policy choice. This is because the government determines how many refugees to resettle.


Home Office data suggest that 87% of boat arrivals in 2020 were male (HM Government, 2021). Looking at asylum applicants more broadly and not just boat arrivals, from 2011 to 2020 inclusive, 66% of adult asylum applicants granted protection were men. This compares to 47% of resettled refugees over the same period. However, the gender balance of people benefiting from the asylum process becomes more balanced over time due to family reunion. This is because 80% of adults receiving refugee family reunion visas have been women. As a result, the overall gender balance after accounting for family reunion is more even: 55% men, among adult applicants, from 2011 to 2020 (Table 1). Note that these figures exclude asylum applicants who are initially refused but are successful on appeal, as the immigration statistics do not include a gender breakdown for this group.


This means that restricting refugee family reunion for Group 2 refugees is expected to have a larger impact on women, and increase the share of men among those receiving status as a result of asylum applications.

Table 1: Adult asylum grants, resettlement and refugee family reunion by gender, 2011- 2020, annual average




Percent men

Resettled refugees




Successful asylum applicants (initial decision only)




Refugee family reunion visas granted




Asylum initial grants + refugee family reunion




Source: Migration Observatory analysis of Home Office immigration statistics, Table Asy_D02 and Fam_D01. Note: excludes children under age 18; positive decisions include grants of asylum and grants of other leave. Grants of asylum include main applicants and dependants.



What will be the impacts of providing lesser status to certain refugees?


It is not possible at this stage to know what share of asylum seekers are likely to be classified as Group 2 refugees and thus receive fewer rights. This is because it depends on how the provisions in the bill are implemented, and how high the threshold will be in practice for classifying a person as a Group 2 refugee.


Qualitative research with asylum seekers found that asylum seekers often do not have a clear picture of what policies will face them after they arrive, and that perceptions of different destinations are formed based on higher-level factors such as a country’s overall reputation as a safe or welcoming environment (Crawley and Hagen-Zanker, 2019; Crawley, 2010; McAuliffe and Jayasuriya, 2016). The information that asylum seekers have was also often inaccurate. This means that policy on the treatment of asylum seekers after they arrive is not likely to be a powerful tool for influencing individuals’ decision-making.


Since January 2021, the Home Office has already been assessing asylum applicants for inadmissibility with a view to returning them to safe third countries. In the first half of 2021, the government served around 4,560 ‘notices of intent’ to asylum applicants indicated that they would be assessed for inadmissibility due to connections to a safe third country (Table 2). This provides an indication of the number of cases in which the government believes there may be evidence of connections to a third country that would make a person inadmissible. The number of notices of intent is equivalent to 31% of asylum applications (excluding dependants) during the same period, although it is possible that further notices of intent will have been served to people who applied during this time period over the summer.


Currently, the Home Office only deems a person inadmissible if another country has agreed in principle to take them back. During the first half of the year, only 7 asylum applicants were deemed inadmissible and none had been returned by 30 June 2021. While these numbers may increase in subsequent quarters as the government will have had more time to conclude cases, the figures to date indicate that a substantial change to agreements with other countries would be required in order to see meaningful numbers of returns to safe third countries.


Table 2: Inadmissibility assessments and decisions, January to June 2021


January to June 2021

Asylum applications (excluding dependents)


Notices of intent served


Applicants deemed inadmissible


Inadmissible applicants returned


Source: Home Office immigration statistics, year ending June 2021.


If returns to other countries remain low, the main impact of the proposals would be to affect the status and entitlements of refugees in the UK, rather than their numbers.


Does the Home Office make accurate decisions on asylum cases?


One measure of decision quality is the rate at which decisions are overturned on appeal. In any given year, appeals tend to add around 10 to 20 percentage points to the asylum grant rate (see Figure 5 of the Migration Observatory briefing, Asylum and Refugee Resettlement in the UK). For example, for people applying for asylum in 2018 and who had had received a final decision by May 2020, 47% had a positive result at initial decision, and 61% after appeal.


Rates at which decisions are overturned on appeal also vary by nationality. For example, among those who applied from 2014 to 2018 inclusive, citizens of Syria and Sudan saw grant rates change relatively little on appeal, while appeals had a bigger impact for citizens of Iraq and Iran (Figure 2). For Iraqi applicants, the grant rate more than doubled on appeal. This suggests that the quality of decision-making varies by country of origin.


Figure 2

Source: Migration Observatory analysis of Home Office immigration statistics, Outcome analysis of asylum applications, Table Asy_D04. Note: Main applicants only.





This analysis was produced as part of a project funded by Trust for London.




Bijak, J., Disney, G., Wisniowski, A. (2015). How to forecast international migration. Southampton: Centre for Population Change. http://www.cpc.ac.uk/docs/BP28_How%20to%20forecast%20international%20migration.pdf.


Crawley, H., & Hagen‐Zanker, J. (2019). Deciding where to go: Policies, people and perceptions shaping destination preferences. International Migration, 57(1), 20-35.


Crawley, H. (2010). Chance or Choice? Understanding Why Asylum Seekers Come to the UK, London: Refugee Council.

McAuliffe, M. and Jayasuriya, D. (2016) ‘Do asylum seekers and refugees choose destination countries? Evidence from large‐scale surveys in Australia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka’, International Migration, 54(4): 44- 59.


Ozkul, D. and Jarrous, R. (2020). How do refugees navigate the UNHCR’s bureaucracy? The role of rumours in accessing humanitarian aid and resettlement. Third World Quarterly, 10.1080/01436597.2021.1928487


HM Government. (2021). New Plan for Immigration: Policy Statement. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_da ta/file/972517/CCS207_CCS0820091708-001_Sovereign_Borders_Web_Accessible.pdf.


UNHCR. (2021). Projected global resettlement needs 2022. https://www.unhcr.org/protection/resettlement/60d320a64/projected-global-resettlement- needs-2022.html.