Behind the Numbers:
The UK's Refugee Intake and Gary Lineker
“There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?”
Those were the words of Gary Lineker, presenter of the BBC’s football highlights programme Match of the Day and former England international footballer, on 7 March 2023 that led his brief suspension and subsequent reinstatement from his presenting duties by the BBC.
The comments, particularly the comparison to 1930s Germany, criticised from various quarters, particularly from government ministers and Conservative Party Members of Parliament, while others expressed support for Lineker’s sentiments.
The controversy arose after the Home Office shared a video on its official Twitter account of Home Secretary Suella Braverman proposing the government ban asylum claims from people arriving in the UK on small boats. Lineker criticised the policy and described it as “beyond awful”. The statement cited above was tweeted by Lineker in response to condemnation of his criticism of the policy.
The story escalated on 10 March 2023, however, when the BBC announced that Lineker had been suspended from presenting Match of the Day due to his tweets, which the BBC considered to have breached the BBC’s duty of impartiality, as they were critical of government policy. There was immediately a backlash to the suspension, mostly due to the perception that political pressure had been put on the BBC, alleged double standards in how pro-government BBC presenters were treated compared to Lineker, and the links between many top BBC executives and the government. Furthermore, many of Lineker’s BBC colleagues announced over the following days that they had pulled out of roles in BBC programmes in solidarity with Lineker. This resulted in a U-turn from the BBC on 13 March, with Lineker reinstated.
The whole affair has raised many broader questions: freedom of speech, the meaning of impartiality, the relationship between the government and the BBC, the appropriateness of making comparisons to Nazi Germany, and many more.
But this blog will seek to answer one more fundamental question: was Gary Lineker right in saying that the UK takes in fewer refugees than other European countries? While many of the questions raised by this row are of a more subjective nature, the number of people granted refugee status is a verifiable statistic that can be compared to the number other countries take to produce an objective ‘yes or no’ answer.
But firstly, a brief background.
The UK offers various routes to individuals seeking refugee status within its borders. These individuals can either travel to the UK to claim asylum or be granted status via a number of resettlement programmes, such as the schemes established for those fleeing Afghanistan.
In 2022, the UK received 74,751 asylum seeker applications, representing 89,398 individuals, including dependents of main applicants. This number is the highest the UK has seen in the past two decades, surpassing the 84,132 applications received in 2002. While the number of applications has been broadly rising since 2010, the number for 2022 represented an unexpected increase.
However, while the number of asylum seeker applications is high, it does not necessarily indicate the number of refugees the UK has taken in. According to figures released by the Home Office, the UK offered protection to 23,841 people in 2022, including those granted UK visas via the Afghan resettlement schemes. An additional 4,473 partners and children of refugees living in the UK were granted entry through family reunion visas.
It is worth noting that these figures exclude those who have been granted UK visas via the various schemes established to aid individuals fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. A total of 233,770 UK visas were granted to Ukrainians in 2022. Moreover, the UK also supplied visas to 53,836 individuals fleeing from Hong Kong under the British National (Overseas) route in 2022.
It is important to recognise that individuals living in the UK under the Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Hong Kong visa schemes do not technically hold official refugee status. Nonetheless, the government has cited these programmes as an example of how many individuals have been allowed to come to the UK under “safe and legal” channels.
While the UK’s efforts to provide refuge to those in need are commendable, there is room for improvement in its overall intake and processing of refugees. Further analysis of the number of asylum seekers and refugees granted protection in the UK can provide valuable insight into how the UK is fulfilling its international obligations to provide refuge to those fleeing conflict and persecution.
'Us' against 'Them': Comparisons to the EU
Then, how does the UK compare to the rest of Europe?
To begin, a comparison of the UK’s intake of asylum seekers can be made in relation to other EU countries. According to the latest EU-wide data available, the UK received 48,540 asylum seeker applications in 2021. In comparison, three EU countries received more asylum applications than the UK: Germany (190,500), France (120,700), and Spain (65,300).
However, the UK is below the EU average when considering the number of asylum seeker applications relative to the population. Cyprus received the most applications in 2021 relative to population, followed by Austria, Malta, Greece, and Slovenia, while Slovakia and Estonia received the fewest.
Furthermore, when it comes to granting refugee status to asylum seekers, the UK issued 10,492 positive decisions in 2021, whereas seven EU countries issued more positive decisions. These countries include Germany (59,850), France (33,875), Italy (21,805), Spain (20,405), Greece (16,575), Austria (12,105), and the Netherlands (12,065).
Moreover, a comparison of Ukrainian refugees currently living in other European countries reveals that the EU has granted temporary protection rights to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war. The UK is presently accommodating 163,500 Ukrainian refugees, while several European countries are accommodating higher numbers, such as Poland (1.56 million), Germany (1.06 million), the Czech Republic (493,149), Italy (171,739), and Spain (168,654).
UK's Stance and Afghan Refugees
Finally, a comparison of the UK’s resettlement of Afghan refugees can be made in relation to European countries. Since August 2021, the UK has resettled 21,365 individuals, whereas a group of 15 EU states pledged to take in 40,000 Afghans for resettlement, with Germany accepting the majority (25,000). The UK’s efforts in this regard may be considered commendable, but there is room for improvement in its overall intake and processing of refugees.
In recent years, questions have been raised regarding the UK’s commitment to offering refuge to individuals fleeing conflict and persecution abroad. Comparing the UK’s intake of refugees to the intake of other European countries can provide valuable insight into this matter.
Asylum Seekers: Expectations and Performance
The UK falls below the EU average when considering the number of asylum seeker applications received relative to the population. This indicates that, while the number of asylum seeker applications may be high, it is not necessarily proportional to the country’s population.
Moreover, in terms of granting refugee status to individuals who have submitted asylum applications, the UK issued 10,492 positive decisions in 2021. In comparison, seven EU countries issued more positive decisions, including Germany, which granted refugee status to 59,850 individuals, France, which granted status to 33,875 individuals, and Italy, which granted status to 21,805 individuals.
Furthermore, several European countries are currently accommodating a higher number of Ukrainian refugees than the UK, which presently houses 163,500 Ukrainian refugees. These countries include Poland, which is home to 1.56 million Ukrainian refugees; Germany, which accommodates 1.06 million Ukrainian refugees; the Czech Republic, which is home to 493,149 Ukrainian refugees; Italy, which houses 171,739 Ukrainian refugees; and Spain, which accommodates 168,654 Ukrainian refugees.
It is important to acknowledge that the number of asylum seeker applications and refugees accepted by a country is not the only indicator of its commitment to providing refuge to those in need. Nonetheless, a closer examination of these numbers can provide useful insight into how countries are fulfilling their international obligations to offer protection to those fleeing conflict and persecution.
Does that mean Gary Lineker was right or wrong?
The UK, after all, does take a higher number of refugees than many other European countries. However, the UK is also one of Europe’s biggest countries, so it is to be expected that it will take more than, for example, Luxembourg, a very small country that has taken a smaller number but a larger percentage relative to its population than the UK. If the metric for assessing the how refugees a country takes in is relative to its size and population, then the UK is very much lagging behind and Lineker is absolutely right in what he said.
While the UK has made efforts to resettle Afghans via its resettlement scheme and granted UK visas to more than 50,000 Hong Kong nationals in 2021, it still needs to catch up in terms of the number of refugees it has accepted in comparison to other European countries.
- Gary Lineker’s Tweet
- The House of Commons Library Research Briefing – Asylum Statistics
- Ibid (2023). Click to access the full report.
- Eurostat Data Browser – Asylum and first time asylum applicants – monthly data
- Reuters – Ukrainian refugees feel welcome in Germany, 37% keen to stay permanently: survey
- News – UNHCR expands operations in Poland to reach refugees from Ukraine amid rising vulnerabilities
- The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, Briefings – Asylum and refugee resettlement in the UK
- The House of Commons Library Research Briefing – Asylum Statistics
- UNHCR – Ukraine Refugee Situation Tracker