UK asylum system: What happens to people who cross the Channel and make a claim?

Two years ago, just over 8,000 people arrived in the UK on small boats  (Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)
Two years ago, just over 8,000 people arrived in the UK on small boats (Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)

The crisis of asylum seekers making the dangerous journey across the Channel in small boats to reach the UK is heightening as concern grows about the conditions in which migrants are living after arrival.

This week, it was revealed that there is serious overcrowding at the Manston asylum processing site in Kent. The facility can hold up to 1,600 people but is housing about 4,000, according to Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale.

A migrant centre in Dover was firebombed over the weekend, leaving two people with minor injuries. The suspect was identified and found at a nearby petrol station, where he was confirmed dead.

What is the process for claiming asylum in the UK?

People who arrive to the UK after crossing the Channel can claim asylum at the port of Dover by telling immigration officials that is what they want to do. Those who do not make a claim at the point of entry can make an appointment to do so at the Asylum Intake Unit in Croydon.

After an asylum claim has been made, a screening interview takes place where an immigration officer registers the claim and takes the person’s details. The officer will ask about where the individual has come from and how he or she arrived in the UK.

Asylum seekers then face a second, more comprehensive interview with Home Office officials, which can take place anywhere between weeks or months after they arrive in the UK.

While their claim is processed, a person seeking asylum will be provided with initial accommodation to live in, which is usually a hostel. Later, they may be moved to a flat or shared housing, when they will receive £40.85 a week to live on.

Some people may be placed in an immigration detention centre if the Home Office is considering whether the application is inadmissible.

How many people have crossed the Channel in small boats this year?

The highly visible trend that has become central to political debate is the rise in small boat arrivals to the UK.

Almost 40,000 people have crossed the Channel in small boats so far in 2022, according to government data – the highest number since figures were first gathered in 2018. In 2021, the total was 28,526 people, while in 2020 it was 8,404. Nearly all of those arriving by small boats claim asylum, according to the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence.

However, the numbers arriving by small boat are low compared with those granted through official schemes. A total of 75,764 visas were issued in the last year under the Hong Kong scheme for British nationals. In the last nine months, almost double that number – 140,000 – entered the UK through the Ukrainian scheme.

Over the last year, a quarter of refugee arrivals into the UK came by small boats or lorries.

How many asylum seekers does the UK take in?

The UK received eight asylum applicants for every 10,000 people across the country in 2020/21, the figures show.

This compared with just under 23 for Germany and just under 18 in France. Cyprus received 153 applicants for every 10,000 people in the country, the highest among 32 European countries.

There were more than 63,000 asylum applications in the UK in the year ending June 2022 – 77 per cent higher than in 2019, which is largely down to the increase in small boat arrivals.

Figures from the Home Office showing the numbers of people claiming asylum from 1979 to 2021 demonstrate that the UK is on an upward curve now.

However, the number of asylum claims in 2021 was well below the peaks of more than 80,000 of the early 2000s when there were conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia.

The Syrian refugee crisis beginning in 2014 caused a slight rise in overall numbers. But the current peak is closer to the levels in 1991 when there were conflicts in Sri Lanka and Somalia.

What is the difference between a refugee and asylum seeker?

Refugees are those who seek safety in another country. Among the things they may be fleeing are war, persecution or natural disasters. Refugee status would be given to someone who has had asylum claims accepted and has permission to stay in the country.

Asylum seekers are people who have left their country and are seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, but who haven’t yet been legally recognised as refugees and are waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim.

There is no such thing as an “illegal” asylum seeker – under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.

What are the ‘safe and legal routes’ to claim asylum in the UK?

The UK currently has nine “safe and legal” routes open to asylum seekers.

However, five of these routes are country-specific, only applying to people from Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Ukraine.

The Refugee Council has said that “for the vast majority of refugees, there is no safe way for them to seek asylum in the UK”. It says that people who do not qualify for government schemes may be forced to enter the UK illegally, since they cannot apply from overseas.

The other four schemes are:

  • UK Resettlement Scheme – opened in 2021 and prioritises those from regions in conflict. It planned to resettle 5,000 in its first year but resettled 1,125 refugees.

  • Community Sponsorship Scheme – opened in 2016 for local community groups to provide accommodation and support for refugees. In 2021, 144 people came through this route.

  • Refugee Family Reunion – opened in 2011 to partners and children under 18 of those already granted protection in the UK. In 2021, 6,134 visas were granted through this route.

  • Mandate Resettlement Scheme – opened in 1995 to resettle refugees who have a close family member in the UK who can accommodate them. The scheme has resettled around 430 refugees since 2004 but just two people were resettled in 2021.

These routes are resettlement schemes that grant refugee status to vulnerable groups.