One of the few things those across the party divide generally agree on is that Britain’s asylum system is broken. 

While the topic of immigration never strays far from the headlines, Channel crossings have been back at the forefront of news in recent weeks, with new figures showing that the number of migrants arriving on Britain’s shores via small boat so far this year has reached a record high of almost 40,000 – a substantial increase from the previous record of 28,526 migrants who crossed the Channel in the whole of 2021. 

Roughly 94 per cent of those who make the perilous journey apply for asylum once on British soil. And in the first six months of 2022, over half of those crossing were from just three countries: 18 per cent came from Albania, 18 per cent from Afghanistan and 15 per cent from Iran.

Why has there been such a significant rise in Channel crossings and how is the UK asylum system faring?

Attempting to make sense of migration patterns – and causes – is by no means an easy task. But to get a fuller picture of Britain’s asylum system, it is certainly crucial to apply some historical context, and look at the situation in other countries too. 

Estimates for the number of undocumented migrants currently living in the UK are understandably vague: the National Audit Office puts the figure at anywhere between 600,000 to 1.2 million. And there are no estimates for how many migrants have made it into the UK undetected in recent years. What we can say, however, is that small boats have in large part acted as a replacement for lorries, which were formerly the principal means of entry into the UK for those claiming asylum.

“It is unclear why small boat crossings were not previously a common method of entry to the country,” says Jeremy Hutton, a researcher at Migration Watch. However, hiding in lorries used to be much easier than it is now. “The port at Calais has been made much more secure and checks on lorries more rigorous. As such, the small boats option has become the main method for organised traffickers.”

This change of entry method goes some way to explaining the exponential rise in Albanians crossing the Channel over the last three months. Prior to this point, Albanians were not a nationality commonly detected on small boats: even as recently as 2021, just 23 were detected between January and June. In contrast, in the same period this year, 2,165 Albanians arrived via small boat. Yet Home Office data reveals they have long been a notable presence among those entering the UK illegally, via other means. According to data released to the Guardian in 2017 under the Freedom of Information Act, 981 Albanian “clandestine migrants” were discovered at UK entry ports from 2008 until spring 2016, meaning twice as many Albanians were caught as stowaways at UK ports than any other nationality. 

While a rise in Channel crossings is partly explained by fewer alternative routes, it goes beyond this: there has also been an overall increase in asylum applications in Britain. 

Between 2005 and 2020, the number of migrants seeking asylum in the UK was fairly stable. Then, in 2021, it rose sharply, and this trend of increasing asylum claims has continued into 2022. There were just over 63,000 asylum applications made in the UK in the year ending June 2022 – 77 per cent more than in 2019. This is considerably higher than at the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis in the year ending June 2016, when there were just over 36,500 applications. 

One likely reason for the recent rise is that the pandemic created something of a backlog: lockdown hindered migrant journeys resulting in a drop in asylum applicants, so now a larger number are flocking at once. 

Though it’s worth bearing in mind that current levels are still only around three quarters of those in 2002: during this peak year, over 84,000 asylum seekers made an application in the UK, driven by unrest at the time in countries including Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. 

Readers may be surprised to learn that the most common nationality amongst those claiming asylum in Britain every year since 2016 has been Iranian. In the year ending June 2022, over 10,7000 Iranians filed applications. Other common nationalities for small boat arrivals and asylum seekers include Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria and Sudan.

That these aforementioned countries are war zones or ones with repressive regimes is reflected in the fact that most of these individuals are granted asylum: for instance, 85 per cent in the case of Iran, 92 per cent for Sudan and 98 per cent for Syria. 

However, the overwhelming majority have no way of claiming asylum until they have reached British soil. We hear talk of “safe, legal routes” to reach the UK. Yet the reality is that unless you come from a select few countries, and are able to get onto a specific resettlement scheme such as the ones available to some Ukrainians and Afghans, then no such routes exist. 

In recent months, the economic migrant vs “genuine” refugee debate has been reignited by the growing number of Albanians arriving on Britain’s shores. In the latest year, Albanians were the second highest nationality applying for asylum while in the most recent quarter, asylum applications from Albanian nationals increased by 129 per cent from the previous quarter: rising from 1,344 to 3,082. 

While Albania is one of the poorest nations in Europe, it is not war-torn nor renowned for its terrible human rights record. As a result, the influx of Albanians has stirred up resentment towards those crossing the Channel, and eroded sympathy for small boat arrivals amongst much of the British public. 

While the asylum grant rate for Albanian women and children was 90 per cent in the year ending June 2022, for adult men it was low, with just 14 per cent of cases granted. However, according to Dan O’Mahoney, the Home Office’s Clandestine Threat commander, some of the latter group are not necessarily concerned about the outcome of their cases. Last month, O’Mahoney told the Home Affairs Committee that there is a pattern of Albanians claiming asylum upon arrival then vanishing within days to work in the criminal underworld before returning to Albania. To tackle this, the Home Office has said it plans to create a “bespoke route” for Albanians which would see them detained while their asylum claims are fast-tracked in order to facilitate a swift return to Albania for those who are found to be “exploiting the system”. 

Yet even amongst those entering the UK to partake in criminal activity, it’s not always straightforward to establish who is doing so of their own accord. While Albanians have been accused of taking advantage of Britain’s “lenient” modern slavery laws, others argue that a considerable number of those claiming asylum are themselves victims of trafficking. 

Of course, if we want to gain a fuller perspective on Britain’s asylum system, it’s crucial to also draw some international comparisons. The numbers of migrants flocking to Britain may be increasing but the UK is still a long way off being the top destination in Europe. The UK received eight asylum applicants for every 10,000 people across the country in 2020-21. This compares with almost 23 per 10,000 in Germany, just under 18 in France and 153 per 10,000 in Cyprus. In the year ending March 2022, the UK received the 18th largest intake when measured per head of population.

Another misconception is that migrants choose the UK over its neighbours because of the more generous welfare Britain offers to those seeking asylum. In reality, those awaiting a decision receive a weekly allowance from the government of £40.85 – virtually the same as the £41.66 allowance in France, and less than German asylum seekers who get just over £77 a week. The main pull of the UK is not its welfare system but rather cultural ties, says Daniel Sohege, Director of Stand For All and a specialist in international refugee law. This could be existing relatives in the UK or the hope that a shared language will aid integration. 

While Britain doesn’t stand out for its generosity in terms of welfare, it is more generous than many of its neighbours when it comes to accepting applications. In the year ending June 2022, the UK granted 76 per cent of asylum claims compared to the EU average of just 14 per cent. The proportion of claims granted has increased significantly in Britain over the past decade. In fact, from 2010 to 2021, the situation has effectively reversed from just a quarter of claims being granted to just a quarter being refused. 

The reality, too, is that even the increasingly small minority who lose their asylum cases are, for the most part, likely to remain in the UK in the long term. In 2021, for instance, there were just 113 enforced asylum returns in total. 

That said, this is also true in European countries which are stricter in granting asylum. Italy, for instance, rejected 21,745 asylum claims last year – just over half of the total. Yet only a small portion of those with rejected cases have since left the country: 997 in 2021 and 1,222 so far this year. Most unsuccessful asylum seekers instead disappear into the grey economy. 

Something many in Britain might be wondering is how Brexit has impacted the asylum system. We hear conflicting answers to this question – with some indicating that leaving the EU has toughened Britain’s asylum laws, while others question whether Brexit could partly explain the recent growth in asylum applicants. 

One of the main confusions to clear up is the impact of Brexit on what is generally known as the “safe third country” rule – or “third country refusal”. A third country refusal refers to when a country determines that it shouldn’t be the one responsible for processing someone’s asylum claim and instead seeks to return them to a safe third country in which that individual was previously present or has some connection. Prior to Brexit, the UK processed third country cases in accordance with the Dublin Regulation, which applies to all EU member states. 

As a result, it is sometimes claimed that Britain’s departure from the EU has fuelled a growth in asylum cases because the UK now lacks a legal mechanism for returning asylum seekers to a “safe third country.” In reality, leaving the Dublin Regulation has had minimal impact, says Hutton. The number of migrants sent to another country under this agreement was always fairly low, and, in fact, “in recent years the UK was actually sent more asylum seekers under the Dublin regulation than it returned.”

On the flipside, there are others who hear talk of former Home Secretary Priti Patel’s “harsh” Nationality and Borders Bill and wonder if things have become stricter since the EU exit. After all, Patel did bring in new “inadmissibility” rules, aiming to replace the Dublin Regulation, which stated that anyone who has travelled through a “safe third country” en route to Britain would be barred from claiming asylum in the UK. In theory, this would disqualify all those arriving on a small boat from France. 

Yet the reality is that this new rule is essentially meaningless unless the Home Office secures a number of bilateral agreements, says Sohenge. “While it exists in domestic law, the UK cannot enforce it.” In other words, Britain cannot send asylum seekers back to another “safe third country”, such as France, until that country has agreed to accept them. 

What’s more, when asylum applications are assessed, there is a hierarchy of reasons for why a country should grant an individual leave to remain, Sohenge adds. “Country of arrival is at the bottom of this hierarchical list.” At the very top of the list is “family ties in the processing country, which remains the main reason people seek asylum in the UK.”

When it comes to processing claims, it would be a glaring omission to look at how the UK’s asylum system has evolved – or why indeed it is “broken” – and not address the enormous, and ever-growing, backlog in asylum applications. 

Last month, the Home Affairs Committee revealed that only 4 per cent of migrants who made an asylum claim in Britain last year have had their application processed. Over 120,000 applications are still outstanding, and the average case is taking 480 days to process. Nor can the backlog simply be put down to a recent growth in applications. The situation was deteriorating long before Channel crossing figures shot up. The number of asylum seekers waiting over six months for a decision to be made on their case has drastically increased since 2014, and trebled since Priti Patel took over as Home Secretary in 2019.

Tackling this backlog is in everyone’s interest. Delays are costly to asylum seekers who are banned from working for the entire period in which their case is being assessed and forced to survive instead on a government allowance of less than £6 a day. Delays also place a strain on the taxpayer: the ban on the right to work means the government is not only using taxpayer money to provide this allowance, it is also spending £6.8 million each day accommodating asylum seekers in hotels until a decision on their case is reached. At the end of March 2022, there were 85,007 individuals in receipt of such support. 

The UK’s work ban is comparatively strict. Many other European countries grant asylum seekers access to employment much sooner. In Germany, asylum seekers can start working after three months if they are still waiting for their claims to be processed, while in France they can do so after six. In Portugal and Sweden, asylum applicants are eligible to work within a week

Fixing Britain’s broken asylum system is far from a straightforward matter. Most of the government’s proposed solutions to date – such as one-way flights to Rwanda – have prompted an enormous backlash. 

Yet the importance of speeding up the processing of asylum claims is one matter which has enabled even the likes of Suella Braverman and Diane Abbott to find common ground. A growing number of people across the political divide are recognising too that a lengthy ban on asylum seekers’ right to work – and the destitution level of support offered instead – help no one. 

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