Select Committee on Home Affairs Second Report


The level of applications to the UK

30. In recent years asylum applications have risen and fallen, but the overall trend in the past two decades has been a steep increase, as the following figures show:

Total asylum applications to the UK from 1985 to 2002 inclusive, excluding dependants[31]

19854,389 199543,965
19864,2661996 29,640
19874,2561997 32,500
19883,9981998 46,015
198911,6401999 71,160
199026,2052000 80,315
199144,8402001 71,025
199224,6052002 84,130
199322,3702003 [till end September]
199432,830 38,540

31. In 2002, a total of 84,130 applications for asylum in the UK were made, excluding dependants (a spouse or minor accompanying the main, or 'principal' applicant may be included in his or her application for asylum as his or her dependent). On average, there is one dependant for every five principal applicants. Including dependants, the figure for 2002 was 103,080.[32]

Asylum decisions 19982002, excluding dependants[33]

32. During the first three-quarters of 2003 the number of applicants fell significantly. The total number of applicants over the period January to September 2003, excluding dependants, was 38,540 (16,000 in the first quarter, 10,585 in the second and 11,955 in the third).[34] If applications in the final quarter of 2003 continue at the same rate as in the first three-quarters, the total number for the year would be 51,387. This would be the lowest annual total for four years, though it would still be higher than any annual total prior to 1999, and more than ten times as high as in the mid-1980s.

33. About two-thirds of applications are made 'in-country'—that is, by people who have already entered the UK—rather than at the port of entry (68% in 2002, and 72% in the third quarter of 2003).[35]

34. A majority of asylum seekers in the UK are young men. In 2002, 82% of principal applicants were aged between 18 and 34, 15% were aged between 35 and 49, and 3% were aged 50 or older. In the same year 74% of principal applicants were male.[36] We discuss the significance of this preponderence of young men in paragraphs 160-62 and 284 below.

Why do people seek asylum in Europe?

35. It is estimated that the total number of refugees and asylum seekers in the world in 2002 was 13 million. [37] The vast majority of these people remain close to their countries of origin. Only a small proportion have arrived in European countries including the UK. The number of asylum applications to all EU countries in 2001 was 384,000. [38]

36. According to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR),

    "At the end of 2000, Pakistan alone had a refugee population of two million. Tanzania had 18.93 refugees for every 1,000 inhabitants and 80.15 refugees per $1 million GDP. In comparison, even if all 655,000 people who had sought asylum in the UK over the past decade had been granted refugee status, this would mean that there were 10.88 refugees for every 1,000 inhabitants and 0.4 refugees per $1 million GDP. … In 2002 the UNHCR ranked the UK 32nd in the world on the basis of its size/GDP/population and number of refugees."[39]

37. Although, as we shall see, there were significant differences between our witnesses on the question of why people seek asylum specifically in the UK rather than in other European countries, there was some measure of agreement as to why they seek asylum in Europe as a whole. The Refugee Council stated that "consistently over the last 10 years the greatest numbers have come from the very countries where persecution, upheaval, war and human rights abuse are greatest".[40]

38. The IPPR recently published the results of research on 'push' and 'pull' factors operating in the ten countries from which the largest groups of nationals claimed to have come to the EU in the 1990s. [41] (Later in the report we deal with the extent to which some asylum seekers may falsely claim to come from particular countries.[42]) The countries were the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Romania, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Sri Lanka, Iran, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The report attempts to identify the extent to which each of the push factors was present in these countries, as follows:[43]

  • Repression and/or discrimination against minorities, ethnic conflict and human rights abuse. This factor operated in all ten countries, and was the only common factor in all the cases.
  • Civil war. Major internal wars occurred during the 1990s in seven of the ten countries. Ethnic conflict was present in all seven cases but was often a surrogate for other problems.
  • Numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) relative to total population. All the countries except Romania and Iran had substantial IDP populations. However, there are many countries with huge IDP populations which do not generate large numbers of people seeking asylum in the EU.
  • Poverty. Statistics "do not indicate a clear or self-evident relationship between low income and a propensity to seek asylum in the EU". Although poverty underlies much forced migration it is not the cause of it. Because mobility requires some resources and access to networks it is not the poorest of the poor who migrate.
  • Position on the UN Development Programme's Human Development Index (HDI). The index assigns countries an HDI-value on the basis of indicators including longevity, as measured by life expectancy at birth, educational attainment, and standard of living. There is no clear or self-evident link between HDI scores and asylum flows to the EU. None of the sending countries score highly on the index but four (Romania, Turkey, Iran and Sri Lanka) are at an intermediate level. Underdevelopment in itself does not appear to be a major push factor. However, it may be a crucial factor in precipitating conflict, which leads to forced migration.
  • Life expectancy. There are no clear similarities or patterns in life expectancy rates in the ten countries. Low life expectancy is found in only three of the ten countries.
  • Population density. There appears to be no clear link between either population density or population growth and migration rates. High population density exists in only one of the ten countries (Sri Lanka).
  • Adult literacy rate. Six of the ten countries have relatively high literacy rates (over 75% of the population).

39. The report concluded that "indicators of conflict are far more significant than indicators of development as explanatory factors for flows of asylum seekers to the EU".[44] The only one of the social/economic indicators of any real significance in relation to asylum-seeking was high rates of adult literacy.

40. The report identified the following 'pull factors' at work in attracting asylum seekers to the EU:

  • The perception that EU countries offer a high level of peace and public order
  • Democratic institutions and the rule of law
  • The strong economies and developed welfare and health systems of EU states
  • Geographic proximity (e.g. asylums seekers from Eastern and South Eastern Europe tend to go to Austria and Germany, those from North Africa to France, Italy or Spain)
  • Past colonial links, common language and diaspora communities (e.g. asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo tend to go to Belgium, while Nigerians prefer the UK).
  • Past labour recruitment (e.g. Turks applying to Germany because of past 'guestworker' links).[45]

41. The respective strength of 'push' and 'pull' factors as a cause of asylum-seeking migration is open to debate. The IPPR report argued that flight from persecution and conflict is the principal cause, but acknowledges that "there is evidence that some, although not all, asylum seekers have a degree of control over where they go and how they travel". It noted the importance of the 'migration industry', and stated, "in many cases, it is the people-smugglers who determine the options available to individual migrants about where they will go and how they will travel". The report concluded that the extent to which migrants are able to make choices within this range of options is often dependent on their socio-economic status. [46]

42. The difficulty of distinguishing between economic and non-economic causes of migration is compounded by the fact that the two categories may frequently overlap. Some refugees are undoubtedly motivated solely by the impossibility of continuing to live without persecution in their own countries. Some may be fleeing persecution in their homeland and be seeking a better job and income than is available there. Some may primarily be seeking to improve their economic position which is limited by the political or economic instability in their country of origin. Yet others will have identified the asylum system as a means of gaining access to the economic prosperity and welfare systems of Western Europe.

43. The difficulty and expense of getting to Europe also means that the asylum seekers who arrive in EU countries are unrepresentative of the wider global population of asylum seekers, in that that they are more likely to be young, male, healthy, educated, and with access to significant financial assistance or guarantees from family or friends. They are less likely to be old, female, ill, uneducated or poor. This fact has significant implications for asylum policy at both UK Government and EU level—we address these in paragraphs 160-62 and 284 below.

Why do people seek asylum in the UK?

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.[47] The trends in applications to Britain and four other major European countries over the past 12 years (including dependants) are shown below:[48]


45. It will be noted that Germany, like the UK, has recent experience—in its case in the early 1990s—of 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%.[49]

46. A comparison of applications to a wider range of European countries over the past two years is shown below:[50]

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. [51]

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 countries—and 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. [52]

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. [53] 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).[54]

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.[55]

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.[56]

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 choose—when they do so—on 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 countries—whether 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 an airline."[57]

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]

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]

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]

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]

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 be greater".[62] He commented:

    "As many have said to me—only 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".[63]

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 years. [64] 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% Somalia 8%
Former USSR** 5%Turkey 4% Afghanistan 7%Turkey 5% China 4%
Above totals 44% of all applicationsAbove totals 44% of all applications Above totals 40% of all applicationsAbove 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% FRY 2.7%
Nigeria 3.0%Romania 2.8% FormerUSSR 2.8%Zimbabwe 3.0% DRC*** 2.6%

* = 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).[65]

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 previous page).[66]

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 well founded).

66. We took oral evidence from three former asylum seekers, now granted leave to remain in the UK and working for Migrant Helpline.[67] 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.[68] 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.[69] 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 there … they are highly interested in a safe European country. It does not matter which country it is. People are interested in Europe."[70]

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".[71] Mr Akbari told us that his father was a brigadier and that "I come from a well-to-do family, a rich family".[72] 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."[73]

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."[74]

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.[75] The Home Office research published in 2002[76] found that—

    "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."[77]

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 … I went 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."[78]

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 seekers".[79]

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."[80]

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 2003—see 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).[81] 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 selected—and 21% of claimed Somali nationals—were making false claims of nationality.[82] The possibility of nationality fraud must be borne in mind in considering statistics for the claimed countries of origin of asylum seekers.

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.[83] This suggests that—even allowing for some further undetected errors in the system—about 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". [84]

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 response group".[85]

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 asylum seekers.

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.

31   Source: Asylum Statistics United Kingdom Back

32   Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2002, paras 1-2, 14 Back

33   Source: Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2001; Asylum Statistics: 3rd Quarter 2003 Back

34   Asylum Statistics: 3rd Quarter 2003 Back

35   Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2002, para 5 Back

36   Ibid., para 17 Back

37   United States Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2003, pp 3-4 Back

38   Ev 209, and table above. Back

39   Asylum in the UK: an IPPR Fact File (2003), p 3 Back

40   Ev 238 (para 1.2). The Refugee Council notes that in 2002 of a total of 85,865 applications 47% came from just five countries-Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Somalia and China. Back

41   Stephen Castles, Dr Heaven Crawley and Sean Loughna, States of Conflict: Causes and patterns of forced migration to the EU and policy responses (IPPR, May 2003) Back

42   See para 71 below. Back

43   States of Conflict, pp 17-28 Back

44   Ibid., p 27 Back

45   Ibid., pp 28-30 Back

46   Ibid., pp 30, 31 Back

47   Ev 209, and table above. Back

48   Source: Refugee Council (2002), Asylum by numbers 1985-2000; Home Office, Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2001; Asylum Statistics: 4th Quarter 2002; UNHCR, Asylum Applications Lodged in Industrialized Countries: Levels and Trends, 2000-02. Cited in Ev 185, where the following note is added: "In relation to European information it should be noted that states do not calculate statistics in uniform ways. Of particular relevance is the fact that the majority of European countries count every person named on an asylum application, whereas the UK counts only the principal applicant and does not include dependents. Thus, for the purposes of this comparison, the UK figures have been multiplied by 1.28, which is estimated by UNHCR to be the average number of persons per asylum case." Back

49   JUSTICE, Asylum: changing policy and practice in the UK, EU and selected countries (2002), pp 93-94 Back

50   Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2002, para 2; Asylum Statistics: 3rd Quarter 2002, tables 16 and 17 Back

51   Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2002, para 4 Back

52   Ev 147 (paras 2-3) Back

53   Vaughan Robinson and Jeremy Segratt, University of Wales, Understanding the decision-making of asylum seekers (Home Office Research Study 243, July 2002); see Ev 167. Back

54   Robinson and Segratt, p 39 Back

55   See States of Conflict, pp 29-30 Back

56   See, e.g, Ev 234-35 (paras 7-13); Qq 142, 179, 188, 212. Back

57   Q 778 Back

58   Harriet Sergeant, Welcome to the Asylum: Immigration and Asylum in the UK (Centre for Policy Studies, 2001), p 61 Back

59   Welcome to the Asylum, pp 57-66 Back

60   BBC and CNN news websites, 5 April 2001 Back

61   Q 142 Back

62   Ev 215 Back

63   Q 147; Ev 215 Back

64   Source: Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2002, from data in table 2.1 Back

65   Other nationalities amounted to 4,760. Figures rounded to the nearest five. This is provisional data, from Asylum Statistics: 3rd Quarter 2003, p 2. With regard to the 655 asylum seekers from India, the Home Office told us that although they do not keep statistical records of the parts of a country from which asylum seekers come, "the impression from those dealing with the cases is that a very significant proportion if not the majority of asylum claims from Indian nationals are from young male Sikhs from Punjab. Most of these applications are based on having either forcibly or voluntarily supported/harboured terrorists, having associated with terrorists, or of being a member of a terrorist organisation." (Ev 261) Back

66   The seven countries are: Afghanistan, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Back

67   Migrant Helpline is a charitable organisation which receives government funding to provide reception services to newly arrived asylum seekers in London and the South East. Back

68   Qq 590-92 Back

69   Qq 593-95, 615-17 Back

70   Q 602 Back

71   Qq 612-13 Back

72   Q 612 Back

73   Qq 596; see also Q 618 Back

74   Qq 604, 620 Back

75   Q 621 Back

76   See paras 51-52 above. Back

77   Vaughan Robinson and Jeremy Segrott, University of Wales, Understanding the decision-making of asylum seekers (Home Office Research Study 243, July 2002), p 25 Back

78   Q 640 Back

79   Q 605 Back

80   Q 141 Back

81   Qq 633, 655-66, 658 Back

82   HC Deb, 21 October 2003, cols 35-36WS; see paras 126-27 below. Back

83   Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2002, para 30 Back

84   Q 147 Back

85   Vaughan Robinson and Jeremy Segrott, University of Wales, Understanding the decision-making of asylum seekers (Home Office Research Study 243, July 2002), pp 49, 52 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 26 January 2004