The UK prides itself on its tradition of openness and justice for all under the rule of law. So how well do we perform when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees?
Why do we accept asylum seekers?
The short answer is that we are bound to do so by international law. Anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim. The Convention has saved thousands of lives, and we signed it in 1951.
More widely, the UK long supported broadly humanitarian principles. During the 1930s Spanish Civil war, for example, four thousand Basque children were evacuated to camps all over Britain, including a huge one in Southampton, where ordinary people volunteered to care for them.
Today, the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving here come from countries with a recent history of instability, and violence. In 2016, the three that topped the list were Iran (4,184), Pakistan (2,870), and Iraq (2,672). This has nothing to do with our welfare system being too attractive.
So legally and morally, we owe people in danger of their lives a welcome.
Is the UK under more pressure from asylum seekers and refugees than other countries?
No it is not, in spite of the picture painted by some of our politicians and media.
Out of 28 member states in the EU, the UK ranks ninth in terms of numbers of applications. In 2015, the UK received just fewer than 40 thousand asylum applications. Germany had over 400 thousand, ten times as many.
Today, for all sorts of reasons, refugee numbers are climbing. At the end of 2016, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide had risen to 65.6 million, up 6.1 million from 2014. But the vast majority of refugees (88%) live in developing countries, not wealthy industrialized ones.
And because the UK gets relatively few asylum applicants, we host fewer refugees – less than 1% of the global total. Turkey by contrast hosts the largest number of refugees of any country: it is currently giving sanctuary to 2.5 million Syrian refugees, while Jordan and Lebanon host 1.7 million between them. By the end of 2016 the UK had resettled 5,706 Syrian refugees.
And as an island off the north of Europe, we are under much less pressure from migrants than, for example, Greece. In addition, under EU (but not UN) rules, asylum seekers should claim asylum in the first safe country they come to, and can be sent back to where they first entered.
From where we stand
We recognise that the government needs to balance its international responsibilities to provide safe haven with the cost to the public purse of managing the asylum system. However, in our view three key aspects of the UK system are ripe for review:
1. High refusal rates
– The majority of UK asylum seekers’ claims (two in three) are turned down, the highest refusal rate in Europe. In Denmark, by contrast, four in five are successful.
2. Mistaken decisions
– A large number of initial decisions made by the Home Office on asylum cases are later found to be wrong. In 2016, the courts overturned Home Office decisions in 41% of asylum appeals.
3. Long delays
– While the government aims to process all asylum claims in six months or under, and has attempted to tackle backlogs, many take far longer and a significant backlog remains.