The United Kingdom has a long history of offering refuge to individuals fleeing persecution, conflict, and other political, social and military problems in their home countries. As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the UK is committed to protecting those who meet the criteria for refugee status. The asylum system in the UK is designed to assess and process claims for international protection, ensuring that individuals who qualify are granted asylum while those who do not are returned to their countries of origin.
However, the UK’s asylum system has faced increasing challenges in recent years, with a growing number of people seeking protection and a range of complex factors exacerbating the situation. From the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Ukraine to Brexit, these issues have placed significant pressure on the current system, and it has struggled to keep pace, leading to a burgeoning backlog in processing cases and consequent delays in access to essential services for vulnerable individuals. Simultaneously, the dangerous journeys undertaken by many asylum seekers in small boats across the English Channel demonstrate the critical need for safe and legal routes into the country and large-scale reform to manage asylum claims better and support asylum seekers. This post outlines several solutions for a more efficient and compassionate approach towards addressing the UK’s asylum system to serve better those seeking refuge.
To come up with solutions, it is first important to understand the causes of these problems. Several interrelated issues have placed considerable pressure on the UK’s asylum system, exacerbating existing challenges and highlighting the need for reform. These key issues include:
An increasing number of asylum seekers are risking their lives to reach the UK via small boats across the English Channel, often facilitated by human traffickers. This situation not only endangers the lives of those attempting the journey but also strains the resources of the UK’s border and immigration authorities.
The UK’s departure from the European Union has had significant implications for the country’s asylum system. Brexit has resulted in the UK’s withdrawal from several EU cooperation mechanisms and has limited access to shared resources, affecting the country’s ability to manage migration effectively.
The Home Office has experienced a growing backlog of pending asylum cases, leading to extended processing times and increased uncertainty for applicants. This issue has serious implications for the well-being of asylum seekers, who often face prolonged periods in limbo while awaiting decisions on their claims
The absence of accessible, secure, and legal routes for asylum seekers to reach the UK has contributed to irregular migration and dangerous journeys across the English Channel. Implementing alternative pathways for asylum seekers could alleviate pressure on the current system and provide much-needed protection to those in need.
Understanding these key issues is crucial for developing effective strategies to reform the UK’s asylum system, ensuring it remains efficient, fair, and compassionate in the face of evolving challenges.
One of the major concerns resulting from the current asylum system in the UK is the limited availability of safe and legal routes for entering the country. The treacherous journeys attempted by asylum seekers, often in small boats, endanger their lives and add to the workload of the government agencies and officials tasked with addressing the issue. It also creates a new source of income for criminals and smugglers who facilitate these crossings.
One solution is the creation of a new Humanitarian Visa, which would grant claimants the right to have their claims properly considered. Under such a system, applications for the visa would allow decision-makers to assess whether an individual’s claim might have a reasonable chance of success. In most cases where it is determined that there is a reasonable chance of success, the claimant would be granted entry clearance to the UK so that they may have their claim resolved in its entirety in the UK. In exceptional circumstances where the evidence is particularly strong, it may be possible for a claim to be entirely resolved and refugee status granted based on the visa application alone. This would help solve two problems, as it would assist in shifting the backlog by allowing the most straightforward cases to be dealt with swiftly so that more time can be spent on the more complicated cases. Such a visa scheme could also contain clear prioritisation criteria for caseworkers, with applications by people from active war zones and countries with high rates of successful claims prioritised. Some existing UK visa schemes function similarly to this proposal: the routes available to people fleeing Ukraine and Hong Kong. While these schemes differ, they offer a template for a hypothetical Humanitarian Visa to build on.
While a Humanitarian Visa would be the cornerstone of creating more legal routes for asylum seekers, it is not the only solution. For example, it could be combined with broadening the scope of family reunion criteria to include extended family members and the establishment of centres for a preliminary form of asylum processing in France and other countries so that those with legitimate claims can travel safely and legally across the Channel, would be a further solution that would almost certainly end all illegal crossings.
By facilitating the safe and legal entry of asylum seekers, the UK can maintain its international obligation to provide sanctuary to those in need while mitigating the dangers of illegal crossings and human smuggling.
As it stands, the UK’s asylum system moves very slowly, with claims often taking many months and even years to get a decision (and that is before you add the time spent on appeals and fighting removal). This has at least partly contributed to the huge backlog of pending asylum claims awaiting an initial decision (132,000 cases as of 31 December 2022). And yet the length of time processing applications has not led to better decision-making: 43% of refusals are overturned on appeal, with the appeal success rate growing every year since 2010, when the success rate for appeals against refused asylum claims was 29%. It is clear that reducing inefficiencies and streamlining the process to arrive at a decision more quickly can better serve both the UK government and the asylum seekers themselves.
This can be achieved through several measures. The most important thing, at least in the short term, is making more money available to those making decisions on asylum claims. While lack of resources is not the only issue, no solutions do not involve increased investment. However, when the system is working more efficiently, this increased investment will likely be balanced with savings in expenditures caused by the current inefficiencies and the backlog.
As described previously, introducing a Humanitarian Visa will likely lead to more efficiency as it will allow the decision-makers to weed out claims with the least merit and expedite the strongest cases early in the process. Currently, the Home Office is simplifying the decision-making process for applicants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen, as over 95% of claims from those countries are successful. While this move is in the right direction, it must be more ambitious. For example, claims from Iran and Sudan have a grant rate of over 80%. Clear criteria for decision-makers to prioritise claims from countries with high grant rates would go a long way toward making the system more efficient.
Similarly, these early assessments can help decision-makers differentiate claims early on. Firstly, they can sort claims based on whether their grounds for asylum clearly relate to the 1951 Refugee Convention criteria or not. Claims that do not clearly relate to a Convention reason can be allocated to a track to assess whether they are eligible for another type of claim (e.g., Humanitarian Protection or under the ECHR). Claims that relate to Convention reasons can then be evaluated as to their complexity. Less complex cases (e.g., where the risk to persons of a certain profile is accepted, so establishing whether a particular claimant has that profile is the only question for the decision-maker) that can be decided quickly can be allocated to one track. In contrast, more complex cases that require an individualised risk assessment based on a claimant’s profile, as well as examination of the claimant’s evidence and credibility, can be dealt with over a longer period.
By making the asylum process more efficient, successful claimants can escape the limbo of uncertainty sooner, while unsuccessful claims can be dealt with promptly, alleviating the strain on the system and allowing resources to be focused on the areas where they are most needed.
In many instances, asylum seekers arrive in the UK with a history of trauma and disruption, having fled war, persecution, or disaster. This means they require appropriate support services to aid their recovery and eventual integration into society. There are significant wait times for housing, physical and mental health care, and educational resources for asylum seekers, who often experience delays in accessing vital services.
As I have said in a previous post, the problems faced by migrants and refugees in the UK are often those everyone else in the country faces and thus expose issues with how the country is governed. Part of the reason refugees struggle to access housing, medical care and education is because everyone else also struggles to access them. These services have needed more proper investment and reform for a long time. A programme of reform and funding of these services, and ensuring that refugees can access them, is desperately needed.
In fact, there is currently a labour shortage, with many sectors of the economy desperate for more workers. Many asylum seekers possess valuable skills and significant work experience that could benefit UK industries. However, the current approach to refugees in the labour market remains inflexible: claimants are not permitted to work while their claim is being processed without obtaining a work permit first, while those who have been granted protection are offered little support in finding a job, which has led to underemployment or unemployment among this population. The UK can solve several problems at once by doing more to integrate refugees into the workforce. Claimants should be granted an automatic right to work once their claim has been made, while intensive language training and support for skills development should be made available to refugees that require them. Not only would this approach help refugees and asylum claimants become self-sufficient, be able to support their families, learn skills and gain the dignity that comes with work, but it would also help the UK economy and allow refugees and asylum claimants to contribute to the economy, rather than having to rely on state subsidy for all their needs.
The UK’s asylum system is in dire need of comprehensive reforms. By rethinking the current system, the UK has the opportunity to develop a new approach to managing asylum claims that is more compassionate and helpful for refugees and more efficient, cost-effective and beneficial to the UK as a whole. Establishing safe and legal routes, streamlining the application process, strengthening support services, and adopting more flexible approaches to labour market integration are essential steps to adequately address the needs of those seeking sanctuary while promoting the long-term interests of UK society.