UK Immigration and Asylum Plans – Some Questions Answered by UNHCR

What in a nutshell are the UK's proposed asylum changes?

They include: 

  • restricting access to asylum, including a two-tiered approach -- for those coming through so-called safe and legal pathways versus irregular arrivals -- as well as the ability to declare many applicants inadmissible and a possibility for "externalization" (processing claims in other safe countries);
  • the introduction of temporary protection status for those found inadmissible who cannot be removed; 
  • changes to asylum procedures and safeguards, including a "one-stop" appeals process, centralized age assessment, or higher standards of proof for claims and a stronger focus on removals; 
  • tightening the National Referral Mechanism for victims of trafficking; and 
  • a focus on law enforcement around smuggling and trafficking. 

Are spontaneously arriving asylum-seekers 'illegal'? Why don't they come to the UK by regular means?

It is not illegal to seek asylum – the right is universal -- whatever the means of travel or way of arrival. It is generally recognized that asylum-seekers, in exercising this right, are often unable to travel and arrive in a country via regular means. Apart from refugees who are admitted on resettlement (a programme managed in the UK by the Government with UNHCR and IOM), few refugees are able to secure travel documents (usually because the authorities will not give them one), or lose it or have it confiscated. Persuading any country to give them a visa is very difficult. Indeed, when refugee outflows occur, the issuance of visas by other States normally tightens.

For all these reasons, UNHCR prefers to talk of "irregular" rather than "illegal" travel.

Should people arriving from other safe countries like France be inadmissible for asylum in the UK? Is that supported by international law

Not necessarily. The key document in international refugee protection is the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which the UK was an important drafting participant. The Convention does not require refugees to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, or make it illegal to seek asylum if a claimant has passed through another safe country. While asylum-seekers do not have an unlimited right to choose their country of asylum, some might have very legitimate reasons to seek protection in a specific country, including where they might have family links. They may not have had a reasonable opportunity to claim asylum in other countries that might appear at first glance to be "safe."

However, asylum-seekers may be returned to a country that is deemed safe based on reliable, objective and up-to-date information, and where they could have sought asylum provided that a fair process is available to them, there are proper standards of reception and their rights under the Convention will be respected in practice. This should only happen after the asylum-seeker's personal situation has been considered, and based on agreements between states. 

Does the UK receive a disproportionately high number of asylum applicants?

There are about 21 million refugees globally (over 26 million counting Palestinian refugees in the Middle East). About 85% live in lower or middle income countries, mostly close to their places of origin. As to Europe, last year, France had 95,600 asylum applications, Germany  122,170, Spain 88,530, Greece 40,560 and the UK 29,456 – a drop of 18% year on year.

Why don't asylum-seekers stay in France?

Far more asylum-seekers remain in France than come to the UK. France had more than three times the asylum applications of the UK last year. Due to COVID (and the closure of many transport links), more asylum-seekers trying to enter the UK came via small boats crossing the Channel. We understand the concerns, these sea journeys are dangerous, putting at risk those on board, but overall numbers of asylum-seekers entering the UK are down year on year and compared to a decade ago.

Why is international responsibility-sharing so important to support people forced to flee and address the many challenges of global forced displacement?

If all refugees were obliged to remain in the first safe country they encountered, the whole system would probably collapse. A few gateway countries would be totally overwhelmed, while countries further removed would share little or none of the responsibility. This would hardly be fair, or workable, and runs against the spirit of the Convention.

The Refugee Convention was written decades ago and the world has changed. Nonetheless the Convention and its 1967 Protocol remain cornerstones of refugee protection, and their provisions are as relevant now as when they were drafted, including by the UK. This year, the Convention turns 70 years old and has withstood the test of time. It is important that all countries cooperate and share the responsibility for global displacement, which currently falls overwhelmingly on lower- and middle-income countries. What is needed are concerted regional and global responses to forced displacement, not standalone national initiatives. 

Are asylum seekers arriving in the UK spontaneously 'jumping the queue?'

There is no 'queue.' The number of resettlement places (the main route for regular arrival) offered by states, though important, pales in comparison to needs. In the past four years, UNHCR has on average resettled 51,828 refugees per year globally against estimated needs for 1.4 million places. Because of COVID and other limitations, only 22,770 were resettled through UNHCR last year, with 829 arriving in the UK.

Under resettlement, UNHCR and its partners (NGOs, religious and civic groups) seek to identify those most at risk or in need and submit them to potential host countries. Refugees cannot simply apply for resettlement (the list would be unmanageable and run into decades!), and people who are displaced or being persecuted within their own country are not eligible.  So, while most refugees and victims of persecution remain where they are, others take the risk of moving further afield, often to countries where they have family members or friends who can help them integrate and where they feel safe. 

Why are the majority of asylum seekers arriving in the UK spontaneously men?

About 75% of recent spontaneous arrivals in the UK are indeed males – mainly older teenagers or working-age men. One of the main reasons is because the journey is incredibly difficult and dangerous, and can last weeks, months, or in some cases years. In many cultures, males are regarded as hardier and more likely to be able to manage, and find work. In many conflict zones, men who remain would be conscripted to fight. Hence, men will often move ahead, often with the aim that their wives, children, and in some cases siblings or elderly parents, join later on, safely, via family reunion visas.

About 90% of those who have arrived in the UK on family reunion grounds in recent years are women and children. And since resettled refugees usually arrive as a family unit, the majority of those who arrive via family reunion are likely to be the family members of male refugees who arrived spontaneously.

Are there many adults presenting as children when claiming asylum in the UK?

Children receive more favourable treatment on account of their age and related needs. Much has been said about adults trying to portray themselves as minors. It can happen, of course. But based on data since 2017, about 90% of those who claimed to be children were in fact found to be children. Unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum can be especially vulnerable and may have often already experienced violence or exploitation in their own country or on route to safety. Subjecting children to regular immigration processes, including accommodation or detention with adults, can be particularly harmful. UNHCR thus believes that in cases of doubt about their age, young people should be treated as children. UNHCR recommends that self-reported age should be considered and assessments only carried out when serious doubts exist. 

What's UNHCR's opinion on the UK's proposed asylum changes? Does it have suggestions for improving the system?

UNHCR will release a detailed legal opinion on the proposals in the coming weeks. While there are elements of the plan that could be positive – for example better support for the integration of those resettled – UNHCR opposes steps that differentiate the access to asylum and treatment of asylum-seekers based on their means and way of arrival.UNHCR also remains opposed to externalization of asylum and protection obligations, for example through off-shoring of asylum. 

Certainly, there are improvements that can be made to asylum, and UNHCR supports the commitment to make the procedures faster and more efficient. UNHCR has shared a proposal with the Government suggesting reforms to the existing system toward fair and fast procedures. For example, efficiencies could be found and backlogs cut by improving the screening process and triaging cases towards simpler processing; and there's scope for obtaining swifter yet fair final decisions. We believe these changes would result in better outcomes for all and savings in the longer term.

Do many migrants pose as refugees?

Of course, it does happen – and that is why UNHCR recommends that States have well designed and managed, fair and fast procedures to determine who is a refugee. Those who are found not to be in need of protection, and have no other legitimate reasons to stay, should return home. Returning rejected asylum-seekers and irregular migrants is complex and requires a concerted effort and international cooperation. UNHCR believes it is necessary to invest more at the front end of the asylum procedure, to make sure that all the relevant information is collected and properly considered – to limit the need for appeals afterwards.  

Some context: 45% of claimants in the UK are from five countries; four of these are countries with major refugee outflows, while the other is a source of economic migration but also has a major problem of modern slavery. In 2020, around 45% of asylum claimants in the UK were recognised at first instance, and a further 10 to 20% were recognised on appeal. So, between half to two-thirds were found by the UK to be refugees in need of international protection.