Why do people seek asylum in the
44. The number of asylum applications to all EU countries
in 2001 was 384,000, of which some 71,000, or about a fifth of
the total, were to the UK.
The trends in applications to Britain and four other major European
countries over the past 12 years (including dependants) are shown
45. It will be noted that Germany, like the UK, has recent experiencein
its case in the early 1990sof a dramatic surge in the number
of asylum applications. This surge appears to have been caused
by a combination of factors including the end of the Cold War,
the conflict in the Balkans, historic links with Turkish 'guest-workers'
and the fact that Germany shares a land border with nine other
countries. Germany responded to the surge by taking restrictive
measures. In 1993 the German constitution was amended to limit
the right to asylum. Under the new system, individuals who arrive
by land and travel through a 'safe third country' can be refused
entry, and returned immediately to that country if it is willing
to receive them. There is a system of 'non-suspensive appeals',
so individuals can be removed despite a legal challenge. The effect
is that all asylum seekers arriving by land are excluded from
refugee status, as they must have arrived via an EU country or
another country deemed by Germany to be safe. The German government
also maintains a list of 'safe countries of origin'; asylum seekers
from these countries are subject to an accelerated procedure and
are liable to rapid removal. As will be seen from the above table,
in the year following the introduction of these measures, asylum
applications to Germany fell by 66%.
46. A comparison of applications to a wider range of European
countries over the past two years is shown below:
47. In 2002 the UK received more applications than any other Western
European country, amounting to 24% of the total. Germany received
the next most, with 17%. When the relative size of domestic populations
is taken into account, the UK ranked eighth amongst European countries
in terms of asylum seekers per head of population (up from tenth
in 2001), at 1.7 per 1,000 of population as against an EU average
of 1.0. Austria, Norway and Sweden received most asylum seekers
per head of population, with respectively 4.9, 3.9 and 3.7 per
1,000. France received 1.0 and Germany 0.9 per 1,000. 
48. Of the small proportion of asylum seekers world-wide who come
to Europe, a relatively high proportion at present apply
for asylum in the UK. Why is this? There were differences of opinion
between our witnesses not only as to the respective weight to
be given to 'push' and 'pull' factors leading people to seek asylum
in the UK, but also as to whether the 'pull' factors are disproportionately
strong compared to other European countriesand if so whether
this is something that government policy is able to influence.
49. On the one hand, witnesses such as Amnesty International argued
that "objective evidence from a wide range of sources shows
that the principal aim of asylum seekers in the UK is to reach
a country where they can seek refuge. Safety is their priority
rather than the intention to travel specifically to the UK."
They claimed that asylum seekers, often in the hands of human
smugglers or traffickers, are often not able to make their own
decisions about their destination, and that the majority are not
well informed about levels of welfare provision in the UK. The
dismantling of access to welfare, Amnesty argued, was not therefore
a disincentive to asylum seekers entering the UK. 
50. Other witnesses, however, notably MigrationwatchUK,
claimed that the rise in applications to the UK is not a result
of adverse changes in the extent of persecution from which people
are fleeing. Migrationwatch argue that while the number of asylum
applications worldwide and in the EU has remained relatively stable
in recent years, the percentage of asylum applications to Europe
being submitted in the UK has been rising rapidly, as shown in
the graph below.
Source: Ev 264; see also Ev 234.
51. In July 2002 the Home Office published the results
of research into why asylum seekers sought asylum in Britain rather
than elsewhere. 
They pointed out that the research was based on a small sample
and should not therefore be considered definitive. The study found
there was "a complex mix of factors", including:
- views of the UK as a tolerant,
affluent society with a good education system
- ability to speak English or desire to learn it
- perceived cultural similarities
- previous migration patterns to the UK
- historical links, including colonialism
- presence of family and friends in the UK.
52. The Home Office study found that the presence
of friends or family in the UK played a part in determining why
one-third of the study respondents came to the UK rather than
another country. The prospect of being re-united with family members
in the UK or the knowledge that when they arrived they would know
someone in the UK (even if not a close relative) "acted as
a strong magnet for many asylum seekers once they had already
made the decision to leave their home country". In addition,
the study found that potential asylum seekers received information
from relatives and friends in the UK, before or during their journeys.
Characteristic responses from respondents were:
"When I heard my family had come to Britain
I decided to come here." (Male respondent, Somalia)
when we have to leave the country,
we just think about here because my brother was here, it was better
for us to come here." (Female respondent, Iran).
53. The importance of historical and family links
is suggested by evidence that flows of migration vary according
to the source countries. For example, when there was a major flow
out of Turkey and the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, numbers
seeking asylum in Germany peaked, reflecting past employment links
in the 1970s and 1980s; whereas many of the current source countries
have strong historic links to the UK.
54. Other witnesses pointed to special factors that
appear to make the UK more attractive to asylum seekers than other
European countries. Such factors, it was argued, include the low
removal rates of those refused asylum (on which we commented in
our report on asylum removals), the asylum appeals system with
its several stages and long delays, the past frequency with which
exceptional leave to remain was granted to applicants from certain
countries (notably Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia); the ease of
access to illegal work in the UK and the absence of identity checks;
and the perception of the liberal way in which the UN Convention
on Refugees and the European Convention on Human Rights have been
incorporated into British law and interpreted by the judiciary.
55. We address these points separately later in this
report. We explored in evidence the extent to which individual
asylum seekers choose their eventual destination, and choosewhen
they do soon the basis of knowledge about that destination.
To the extent that they can exercise choice, they will
be influenced by the perception they have of the system in the
UK and other European countrieswhether they see a country's
regime for asylum seekers as liberal or harsh, whether they think
they will have opportunities to work, legally or illegally, whether
they think that rules will be interpreted fairly and in accordance
with 'due process', and whether they think they are likely to
be removed if their asylum application fails. These perceptions
will influence their decision whether or not they are accurate.
56. There is agreement that a large proportion of
asylum seekers arrive in the UK as the result of illegal people-smuggling
operations conducted by criminal gangs. In many cases visa restrictions
have made it difficult to gain access to the UK other than illegally.
The Minister of State at the Home Office, Beverley Hughes MP,
when asked what proportion of the asylum seekers who come to the
UK do so as a result of illegal operations, replied:
"I would say the vast majority, either through
actually being transported in lorries and so on through people
operating as people smugglers, or through facilitation at the
other end or with false documents that allow people to get on
57. One of our witnesses, Harriet Sergeant, author
of the Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet Welcome to the Asylum,
described the scale and sophistication of these criminal gangs:
"This new migration industry provides all
kind of services to would-be immigrants from obtaining entry visas
and other supporting documents for travel, to transport arrangements
and legal instructions on how to apply for asylum and employment.
A journey from Asia, India and Pakistan, costs about £15,000
to £20,000. A Franco-Dutch gang active since 1994 charges
Chinese immigrants $50,000 for their journey to the US which includes
new identities and false passports. A large market has grown up
for forged documents."
58. Ms Sergeant argued that "the growth of asylum
seekers is directly related to the rise of the people traffickers".
Measures aimed at restricting the number of asylum seekers, such
as visa requirements and penalties for carriers, have "made
it difficult for illegal immigrants and asylum seekers to come
to the UK without the aid of a trafficker and forger". The
gangs are quick to exploit changes in the rules; she quoted an
immigration officer as saying that "after any new piece of
legislation, we see the gangs reacting within two weeks with a
new scam". Asylum seekers transported by the gangs pay not
only with money but often with years of servitude and exploitation
in clandestine workshops or prostitution.
59. The gangs' cynical disregard for the welfare
of their human cargo was demonstrated in the most horrendous way
by the deaths of 58 Chinese immigrants, found suffocated in the
back of a sealed container in a lorry at Dover in June 2000. The
lorry had arrived at Dover's eastern docks after a five-hour ferry
crossing from Zeebrugge on one of the hottest days of the year.
The lorry driver was subsequently convicted of manslaughter and
sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment; a Chinese translator was
also convicted of conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants into
the UK and sentenced to six years' imprisonment. The court heard
that each of those on board the lorry had paid tens of thousands
of dollars to Chinese smuggling gangs known as 'snakeheads' to
pay for their journey to the UK. They had travelled from China
through Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, France, Holland and Belgium
on their way to Britain.
60. Ms Sergeant told us that:
"75% of asylum seekers are young men and
these young men have all paid criminal gangs between £10,000,
£15,000, £20,000 to get here, so obviously they are
not coming here for, whatever it is, £35 a week, because
that is not going to pay off their debt. The reason they are coming
here is because we have a thriving black economy in this country.
It is also very easy to work illegally in this country
because we do not have identity cards."
61. Mr Peter Gilroy, Strategic Director of Social
Services for Kent County Council (and thus responsible for the
social services needs of asylum seekers entering through Dover
Harbour, the busiest port of entry in the UK), told us that "it
is certainly my belief that traffickers publicise certain countries".
He stated that "our colleagues in the Calais region tell
us that many of the migrants they see are keen to reach the UK
[because of] a belief that their asylum claim will be dealt with
more fairly and that benefits and the possibility of work will
"As many have said to meonly last
week youngsters were saying to me, from Iraq'I came here
because it's a free country and I know that I'm going to be treated
fairly." They say that quite openly."
Mr Gilroy estimated that about 50% of asylum seekers
were "in the category of coming here because they are trying
to seek work and to make a better life for themselves". However,
he also told us that most of asylum seekers "come from countries
of known conflict such as Afghanistan, Iraq and latterly, Zimbabwe",
and he emphasised that "the proportion that are economic
migrants or the proportion that are genuine asylum seekers is
complex. It is not a black and white issue".
62. The correlation between asylum seekers and war
or conflict in their claimed countries of origin is borne out
by the statistics. The following table shows the ten main countries
of origin of asylum seekers to the UK for each of the past five
As will be seen, the majority of these countries have experienced
either war, civil disorder or serious human rights abuses:
The ten main
countries of claimed origin of asylum seekers to the UK, 1998-2002
|FRY* 16%||FRY 16%||Iraq 9%
||Afghanistan 13%||Iraq 17%
|Somalia 10%||Somalia 11%
||Sri Lanka 9%||Iraq 9%||Zimbabwe 9%
|Sri Lanka 8%||Sri Lanka 7%
||FRY 8%||Somalia 9%||Afghanistan 9%
|Afghanistan 5%||Afghanistan 6%
||Iran 7%||Sri Lanka 8%
|Former USSR** 5%||Turkey 4%
||Afghanistan 7%||Turkey 5%
|Above totals 44% of all applications||Above totals 44% of all applications
||Above totals 40% of all applications||Above totals 44% of all applications
||Above totals 46% of all applications|
|Turkey 4.4%||Other former Yugo 3.7%
||Somalia 6.25%||Iran 4.8%
||Sri Lanka 3.7%|
|Pakistan 4.3%||China 3.7%
||China 5.0%||FRY 4.6%||Turkey 3.4%
|China 4.3%||Pakistan 3.7%
||Turkey 5.0%||Pakistan 4%||Iran 3.1%
|Poland 3.4%||Former USSR 3.5%
||Pakistan 3.9%||China 3.4%
|Nigeria 3.0%||Romania 2.8%
||FormerUSSR 2.8%||Zimbabwe 3.0%
* = Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
** = other than Russia and Ukraine
*** = Democratic Republic of Congo.
63. The top ten applicant nationalities in the third quarter of
2003, with numbers of applicants, were as follows: Somalia (1,440),
China (965), Iran (860), Zimbabwe (710), Iraq (690), India (655),
Turkey (530), Pakistan (495), Afghanistan (470), and the Democratic
Republic of Congo (380).
64. In paragraph 38 above we listed the ten countries
from which the largest numbers of claimed nationals came to the
EU in the 1990s, and cited the IPPR's research which concluded
that "repression and/or discrimination against minorities,
ethnic conflict and human rights abuse" was the only common
factor found in all those countries. The IPPR study looked at
'push' factors to the EU as a whole, and it does not necessarily
follow that its findings explain the motivation of those seeking
asylum specifically in the UK. However, it may be noted that seven
of the ten countries in the IPPR study also feature among the
top five countries of claimed origin of asylum seekers to the
UK during the period 1998-2002 (as set out in the table on the
65. These UK statistics give significant support
to the view that "repression and/or discrimination against
minorities, ethnic conflict and human rights abuse" are the
defining characteristics of the countries of origin cited by asylum
seekers. That is clearly true of the majority of asylum seekers
in the UK (whether or not their individual cases for asylum are
66. We took oral evidence from three former asylum
seekers, now granted leave to remain in the UK and working for
Their names were Mr Mohammed Fahim Akbari, Mr Zemmarai Shohabi
and Mr Hashmatullah Zarabi. All three were Afghans who told us
they had fled persecution under the Taliban regime. All three
told us that they had been tortured. Mr Akbari had been persecuted
for allegedly "spreading and preaching Christianity",
and Mr Zarabi for being a representative of a students' union
in Kabul; Mr Shohabi's whole family had had to flee because of
their links with a banned political party, and his brother was
killed by the Taliban.
They had entered the UK illegally, with their passage arranged
by 'agents', and had claimed asylum immediately upon entry. All
three said that that they had not known in advance what their
final destination would be, other than that it would be in Europe.
Mr Akbari told us that:
"our teachers and parents all said we should
go to Europe because you enjoy human rights, there are prospects
for humanity, rule of law and everything. When someone is persecuted
they are highly interested in a safe European country.
It does not matter which country it is. People are interested
67. In response to further questioning it became
clear that in each case transport had been paid for by the refugee's
parents or other family members on the basis of a prior agreement
with the 'agent'. In the case of Mr Akbari the sum involved was
$12,000, in the case of Mr Zarabi it was about $10,000, and Mr
Shohabi told us, "To be honest, I have never asked about
it". Mr Akbari
told us that his father was a brigadier and that "I come
from a well-to-do family, a rich family".
He said that the agents sought destinations that were as far away
as possible in order to maximise their profits:
"there is a rule that when the agent takes
you, the further he takes you the more money he makes. So usually
he is looking for a place further away. For example, if he takes
you to Germany, he would not earn as much money as he could for
taking you to the UK."
68. Our witnesses conceded that, though they might
not have known about their eventual destination, their parents
or the family members who arranged their transportation are likely
to have done so when they agreed terms of payment with the agent.
Mr Akbari said:
"My parents might have been told, they might
have argued with him or something, but we, as we were persecuted
and hiding, did not know about it.
At the beginning the
agent or the parents might know about it. Some people do know."
Mr Akbari also said that agents would recommend particular
destination countries to the parents on the basis that they were
safer than other countries and more likely to offer asylum.
The Home Office research published in 2002
"for the majority of respondents
the interaction between agent and asylum seeker was relatively
equal in nature with the eventual destination being a joint decision
based on the asylum seeker's preferences, the availability of
migration networks, the proximity of the preferred country and
the asylum seeker's ability to pay."
69. Mr Shohabi gave a graphic account of why he sought
asylum in the UK rather than in Italy and France, through which
he had earlier travelled:
"When I was taken to Italy
to the police, they did not listen to me and they punched me and
kicked me. I said "What a country! If the police are like
this then the people will kill me". I did not come to be
abused, I did not come to be sworn at, I did not come to be punched,
I came to save my life. It is better to be killed in your own
country, in front of your mother and not be punched or kicked
or imprisoned as I was imprisoned in Paris."
He claimed he was beaten up by the French police,
put in prison, and persuaded to travel on to the UK to claim asylum:
"I thought that was enough for me, thank
you Paris and thank you Italy. I shall go to the UK. I came to
you and you said 'Most welcome', that was enough for me."
Likewise, Mr Akbari contrasted the treatment and
freedom of movement of asylum seekers in the UK with "those
countries like Germany where there are restrictions on asylum
70. Another of our witnesses, Mr Peter Gilroy, suggested
that there may be a gap between theory and practice in other European
countries' treatment of asylum seekers
"I went down to Brindisi, to see how the
Italians were coping at the port when people were coming across
from Albania. I assumed I would see a quite sophisticated process
of assessment but I did not. When I asked, "What happens
now to these people?" they said, "Well, they are going
back to Albania." I said, "When?" "Now,"
they said. I asked, "When? Do you mean now? This minute?"
"Oh, yes." I thought: "What about appeals?"
Yes. They were back, and they even had the Italian police at the
Albanian side. I came back to the UK thinking, "That's interesting.
You couldn't do that in Dover."
This is, of course, anecdotal evidence, and it is
not possible to quantify the extent to which an unwelcoming approach
by immigration officers and a disregard for due process are to
be found in other EU countries. Such a phenomenon may constitute
a 'pull' factor to the UK. It may also somewhat distort the comparative
asylum statistics for EU countries, if significant numbers of
potential asylum seekers are informally discouraged from making
a claim in certain countries. The working of the Dublin Convention
may help to counteract this problem. (Under the Convention asylum
seekers who have transited several European countries may be returned
to the first country in which they could have claimed asylum.
The original Dublin Convention came into force in 1997 and a revised
version in September 2003see paragraph 260 below.)
71. The three refugees who gave evidence to us also
drew attention to the problem of fraudulent nationality claims
by some asylum seekers. They told us that there was, for instance,
a particular problem of Pakistanis pretending to be Afghans. They
argued that immigration officers were not well qualified to detect
such fraud, lacking the necessary local knowledge and skill in
languages (see paragraph 125 below).
Pilot tests of language analysis by the Home Office, investigating
asylum claims from selected applicants who claimed to be nationals
of Afghanistan, Somalia and Sri Lanka, established that 9% of
the total number of applicants selectedand 21% of claimed
Somali nationalswere making false claims of nationality.
The possibility of nationality fraud must be borne in mind in
considering statistics for the claimed countries of origin of
72. A proportion of asylum seekers to the UK are
not actually fleeing persecution but are seeking economic advantage.
According to Home Office estimates, in 2002 only 42% of asylum
applications resulted in grants of refugee status, humanitarian
leave to remain or allowed appeals.
This suggests thateven allowing for some further undetected
errors in the systemabout half of claimants can justifiably
be regarded as 'economic migrants' rather than refugees. This
is in line with the judgement made by Mr Peter Gilroy of Kent
County Council, who estimated that about 50% of asylum seekers
were "in the category of coming here because they are trying
to seek work and to make a better life for themselves". 
73. The categories of 'economic migrant' and 'genuine
refugee' often overlap. We note the research evidence that conflict,
not poverty, is the defining characteristic of asylum seekers'
source countries, though not all those who come from such
countries are genuine asylum seekers. Equally, people genuinely
seeking asylum may also be seeking to better their own and their
families' lives. Likewise people who do not personally have a
well-founded case for asylum may be coming from countries suffering
conflict as well as from countries which are not.
74. As we have also seen, there is evidence that
most asylum seekers exercise a significant degree of choice in
regard to their eventual destination. Amongst the reasons why
asylum seekers choose to come to the UK rather than other
European countries are historic links between their country of
origin and the UK, and the presence of family members, friends
or larger diaspora communities already in the UK.
75. We think it is likely that there are some
factors which over the past ten years or so may have made
the UK a relatively more attractive destination than some others
in Europe. These may include the perception of low removal levels,
lengthy appeal proceedings, the absence of systematic identity
checks, the strength of the economy and the opportunity to work
legally or illegally. On the other hand, Home Office research
published in 2002 found that for the most part potential asylum
seekers had "only very vague and general expectations"
about levels of welfare support in the UK, and that "expectations
relating to welfare benefits and housing did not play a major
role in shaping the decision to seek asylum in the UK within the
76. The UK may well be seen also as having a greater
commitment to fairness and due process and respect for treaty
obligations. Of course, while the need to ensure that asylum systems
are not subject to abuse or exploitation is important, so is respect
for law and international obligations. Asylum seekers' perceptions
of the advantages of the UK may simply reflect this country's
longstanding reputation for justice and fairness.
77. On balance, it is reasonable to say that a
motivating factor for many refugees in choosing to come to the
UK will be their expectation that they will receive fairer
treatment than in some other European countries, and the employment
opportunities (legal or illegal) in the UK. We do not believe
that Britain can be described as a soft touch for asylum seekers.
However, there are weaknesses in the system that need to be addressed.
78. We comment later in this report on the need
for the UK Government to work with its EU partners to ensure that
there is greater consistency across Europe in the treatment of
79. The statistics for asylum applications to the
UK and to Germany over the past 12 years set out in paragraph
44 above suggest that government measures to discourage unfounded
applications can have a significant impact on the overall level
of applications. In the next section of this report we consider
ways in which successive Governments have sought to balance the
need to give fair treatment to refugees against the need to ensure
that large numbers of people with no genuine claim to be refugees
are not being allowed to enter and settle in the UK. In this way
Governments have sought to reassure the public about the handling
of the asylum system.