In the same week that at least 27 people died in the Channel trying to cross in a small boat, the UK government released its quarterly Immigration Statistics Bulletin.
Political pressure has mounted on the UK government, and in particular on Home Secretary Priti Patel, to act. In turn, he has placed the blame on an allegedly overly “broken” asylum system to encourage people to attempt the crossing in the first place.
Since the tragedy, the government’s narrative has shifted from “stop the migrants to protect our border” to the more human-affected “to stop the migrants (in France) from drowning them”.
The data shows that in the year ending June 2021 (the latest comparable figures available) the UK received 31,235 asylum applications – far behind France and Spain and far behind Germany, which received 113,625.
Contrary to what might be expected from media reports, the British “Summer of Migration” (an echo of the expression used in Germany in 2015) was in line with previous trends in terms of asylum applications.
Channel tragedy has been used by the UK government to mobilize further support for changing the rules for claiming asylum in the UK.
It is important to assess the reality of this situation so that the government does not take advantage of legitimate humanitarian concerns about the risks to migrants when crossing the channel to further undermine their right to claim asylum.
more people are not being given asylum
One of the reasons Priti Patel calls the “broken asylum system” is its perceived generosity – as explained through the high success rate of asylum applications.
At first glance, the current success rate in the UK (64%) is higher than in countries such as Germany (39%) and France (23%). However, this could be a result of differences in how countries managed the COVID disruption. In the case of the UK, a minority of relatively simple cases were decided quickly during the pandemic. And because they were straight cases, they were likely to be granted asylum. The result is the success rate as compared to the previous year which is much higher as compared to the previous years. The flip side of this is that many cases were left unresolved and a huge backlog accumulated.
The ground reality is that there is a huge case pending. Thousands of people are living in long uncertainty. They survive on limited state subsidies without the right to work – which is particularly striking given the lack of low-skilled workers in many sectors of the labor market and struggles with recruitment.
People will keep trying to reach Britain
Another important fact emerging from government asylum data is that the top five countries of origin of asylum applicants in the UK are different from the main EU destination countries (Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Greece). Despite what we often hear in the media and political commentary in the UK, not every asylum seeker is going to the UK. But some people will keep trying to do so.
Most of the people who claim asylum in the European Union come from Syria and Afghanistan. In the UK, the main countries of origin are Iran, Eritrea, Albania, Sudan, and Iraq. This difference is mostly due to the role played by family, historical and geopolitical relations in making decisions about where and when to settle.
This means that people are attempting to cross because they have a strong motivation to come to the UK, while other asylum seekers in Europe do not. More boots on land and boats at sea may be able to temporarily stop the flow through a particular route, but they do little to counter underpinning drivers. A more likely outcome is that new, more expensive and dangerous routes will emerge to meet demand.
It’s ‘worse than 2015’
In presenting the latest figures, the government chooses to highlight that the rate of asylum applications “exceeded the peak of the European migration crisis in 2015-16”. These choice words are misleading because the migration crisis unfolded largely on mainland Europe rather than Britain. When people hear “worse than 2015”, it contributes to the overall narrative of the “invasion” of the UK by unauthorized migrants. The reality is that there is only a small increase in the already comparatively small figure.
New measures planned as part of the Nationality and Boundary Bill making its way through parliament will make it even more difficult to claim asylum in Britain. These changes are being brought under the guise of curbing traffickers and closing unsafe routes to the UK.
The government has already said it wants to punish people for attempting to reach the UK by boat, calling these trips “useless”. It clearly indicates that applicants entering the UK are not considered eligible for asylum – even before they make a claim.
Future support will be incorporated into specific refugee resettlement schemes, which are presented as “safe passages” in the UK. But these proposals provide assistance to a very limited number of people meeting the specific needs of the government.
The government is touting these small-scale schemes as a viable alternative to a fair and working asylum system in the UK. This is far from the truth and we should be wary of the resettlement of a small number of refugees, which is being used to justify a harsh approach to the right of many to claim asylum.