LGIU | Refugees, Asylum, and Immigration: A Primer


Refugees, Asylum, and Immigration: A Primer

Andrew Jones LGiU associate

1 October 2015


  • The global movement and displacement of persons currently has reached almost unprecedented levels; the crisis this movement has created for European border control, enlarged massively by the war in Syria, has rarely been out of the news over the summer of 2015.
  • On a per capita basis, the UK takes a far smaller number of applications for asylum than many of its European neighbours; there were nonetheless 25,771 main asylum applications in the year to March 2015, covering a total of 33,000 persons, and these numbers are likely to rise; over the same period, a total of 636,000 people migrated to the UK.
  • This briefing provides an overview of the rules and processes governing immigration and asylum seeking in the UK; there is also a statistical overview of trends in immigration and asylum seeking, and this is placed in the European context.
  • Local authorities have an important role in the system of resettlement for asylum seekers, and this is described below, along with links to more detailed guidance and information; the final sections provide a brief overview of what is known of the local economic and social impacts of migration.
  • It should be cautioned that migration is a huge subject, and this review is necessarily selective; immigration law, particularly as it pertains to benefits eligibility is especially complex, and the sections below are meant to offer a broad overview only and should not be treated as a definitive guide.
  • This briefing should be of interest to all elected members and officers, but particularly those with an interest in corporate planning, community relations, welfare benefits, and poverty reduction.

Briefing in full

Background: A Global Crisis

We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before” – António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees June 2015.

The suffering of migrants and refugees is rarely out of the news, but media reporting built into a crescendo over the summer of 2015 following repeated tragedies in the Mediterranean, the crisis in Calais, and, in early September, the shocking spectacle of a dead Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach.

The movement and displacement of persons currently has reached levels unprecedented in the post-WWII era. The scale and geographical location of the displacement is set out in the 2014 report of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). By the end of 2014, 59.5 million people were in a situation of forcible displacement worldwide, 8.3 million more than in 2013, and the highest annual increase in a single year. Of these, the largest number (38.2 million) were internally displaced persons, that is, people involuntarily displaced from their homes but still within their country of origin. Of the 19.5 million displaced into another country, 14.4 million fell under the mandate of the UNHCR, whilst another 5.1 million were Palestinian refugees registered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Among the more important sources of displacement are the continuing unresolved conflicts in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia. The war in the Syrian Arab Republic was a major cause for the global increase in 2014, but in addition new conflicts in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine, and Iraq caused major displacement

Syria became the world’s largest source country of refugees during 2014, overtaking Afghanistan, which had held this position for more than 30 years. After Syria and Afghanistan, the largest source countries were Somalia and South Sudan. Because of the Syrian crisis, Turkey became host to the world’s largest number of refugees, a ranking that had been occupied by Pakistan for more than a decade. Together, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran accommodated 36 per cent of the world’s refugee population in 2014. Lebanon and Jordan, accommodated, respectively, the third and sixth largest number of refugees, but were the top two in terms of the ratio of refugees to indigenous population.

Unsurprisingly, 2014 was also a record year for asylum applications. More than 1.66 million individual applications for asylum refugee status were submitted to states or the UNHCR in 157 countries. The largest number (274,700) was registered in the Russian Federation, followed by Germany (173,100), the USA (121,000), Turkey (87,800) and Sweden (75,100). The UNHCR registered 245,700 directly.

It is estimated that more than 219,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea during 2014 to reach Europe. Reports made available to the UNCHR suggest that about 3,500 died in the attempt. Mediterranean crossings appear to have escalated in 2015, along with the build-up of migrants along Europe’s borders. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that more than 350,000 migrants were detected at the EU’s borders between January and August 2015, although a higher estimate of more than 500,000 has been made by Frontex, the EU’s border agency, after a fifth consecutive monthly record was registered in August when 156,000 crossed the EU borders. The main maritime migration routes are from north Africa to Spain or Italy in the western and central Mediterranean and to Greece from north Africa in the eastern Mediterranean. A combined overland and maritime route passes through Turkey to Greece or Bulgaria and from there through the western Balkans to Hungary or Croatia. It has been estimated that 1,600 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in the first three months of 2015, whist 13,500 were rescued.

The rules governing the movement of people within the EU, including the Schengen Agreement, and the Dublin Regulation appear to have been temporarily suspended. The Schengen agreement allows for the unchecked movement of people across the borders of its signatory countries, whilst the Dublin Regulation established a hierarchy of Member State responsibility for an asylum claim, assigning predominantly to the Member State through which the asylum seeker first entered EU territory, but with considerable allowance for family links. In September, Hungary declared a state of emergency in its border areas, and finished physically sealing its border with Serbia. There are border controls between Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary and between Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. The Dublin Regulation is de facto suspended because Germany is no longer sending back Syrians to other EU countries, and Greece, Italy and Hungary cannot cope with the influx.

The situation at Calais, which dominated UK media reports in July and August, is a smaller part of the migration crisis in Europe. Migrant camps have existed in Calais since 1999, in which French authorities estimate there are about 3,000 people currently living. Many want to claim asylum in the UK, but Natacha Bouchart, Mayor of Calais, echoed a popular view by saying that illegal migrants perceive Britain as a “soft touch” for benefits and jobs in the black economy. There is little evidence for this. More likely explanations are that the UK is a preferred destination for reasons of language and links to established networks of friends and family. Further, the UK is not the most favoured destination for migrants arriving through irregular channels, being some way behind Germany, Sweden, Italy, France, and Hungary. No-one knows how many of the Calais migrants make it to the UK, in part because data on asylum applications are not analysable by point of entry.

There is considerable ambiguity in the terminology used to describe the people involved in these movements, not only in the media, but also in Member State and EU pronouncements. Distinctions are made between ‘legitimate’ asylum seekers (or refugees) and ordinary migrants, economic migrants, or irregular migrants. These distinctions are not always clear, given the prevalence of economically ruined ‘failed states’ and ‘post conflict conflicts’. The difference between asylum seekers who are yet to claim asylum and illegal or irregular migrants is ambiguous because the legal status of many people has yet to be resolved. Decisions to grant asylum are governed in part by lists of what are known as ‘safe states’, that is, countries which are considered safe to send failed applicants back to, and this accounts for much of the variation in the outcomes of asylum applications between countries, because favoured destinations differ among national groups.

The UNHCR report quoted from above notes that the current movement of migrants across the Mediterranean contains both ‘ordinary migrants’ and refugees. Refugees are defined and protected in international law. One of the most fundamental principles is that refugees should not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom would be under threat. The way in which international agreements and protocols apply to British law are described in more detail below.

European leaders are meeting currently to attempt to agree a quota system for the dispersal of refugees across Member States. In the UK, David Cameron has announced that the UK would accept up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. The UK has so far taken 216 Syrian refugees under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Scheme. It has allocated over £1bn to assist displaced people in the immediate Syrian diaspora.

In the year ending March 2015, 636,000 people migrated to the UK. Net migration to the UK has never fallen below 100,000 a year since 1998, but reached 330,000 in the year ending March 2015. In 2014, there were 25,033 asylum applications in the UK.

Immigration is a major source of public controversy, both in the UK and elsewhere. It has been a live issue in British political debate for at least six decades, and consistently appears among the top issues of importance in the Ipsos MORI Issue Index.  For local communities, there might be implications for social cohesion, and impacts on labour and housing markets and public services, but of all this is uncertain. There is much debate about the net economic benefits of migration.

The remainder of this briefing provides an overview of the rules and processes governing immigration and asylum seeking in the UK. There is a statistical overview of trends in immigration and asylum seeking, and this is placed in the European context. Local authorities have an important role in the system of resettlement for asylum seekers, and this is described below, along with links to more detailed guidance and information. The final sections provide a brief overview of what is known of the local economic and social impacts of migration.

Migration is a huge subject, and this review is necessarily selective. Immigration law, particularly as it pertains to benefits eligibility is especially complex. The sections below on the UK’s immigration system is meant to offer a broad overview only and should not be treated as a definitive guide.

The UK’s immigration system: A brief overview

The definition of who is or is not or who can become a British citizen has a very long and convoluted history, not least because of Britain’s complex development first as an imperial and subsequently as a post-imperial power. The British Nationality Act 1948 established the status of Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC) and until the early 1960s there was little difference between the rights of CUKCs and other British subjects. Early instances of the perennial controversy that accompanies immigration led to a progressive tightening of controls on immigration from the Commonwealth during the 1960s and 1970s. The Immigration Act 1971 provided that only British subjects with sufficiently strong links to the British Islands (mostly through marriage, parentage or grand-parentage) had a right to live and work in the Islands. The current legal framework for nationality derives mostly from the British Nationality Act 1981 which effectively ceased the recognition of Commonwealth citizens as British subjects.

People born in the UK automatically acquire British citizenship at birth if one of their parents was a British citizen or living in the UK without an immigration time restriction at the time. People born overseas are automatically British citizens if one or both parents are British and not also born overseas, but people who do not automatically acquire British citizenship at birth may be able to apply to become a British citizen on account of their residential or ancestral ties with the UK. An adult can apply to ‘naturalise’ as a British citizen after five years’ continuous legal residence in the UK in a qualifying immigration category. Following the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, applicants must demonstrate they are of good character and pass Knowledge of English and Life in the UK tests, and, on acceptance attend a Citizenship Ceremony where they take an oath of allegiance. Citizenship Ceremonies are organised by local councils. A simpler route to citizenship for certain categories, for example, people who were British Nationals in Hong Kong before 3 February 1997, is through registration. In 2014, 125,800 foreign citizens naturalised as British citizens. From 2009 to 2013, citizenship grants averaged 195,800 per year. In 2014, the largest share of naturalisation was from people whose former country of nationality was India (17 per cent) followed by Pakistan (10 per cent). Statistics on naturalisation are available from the Home Office.

Under European Law, European Economic Area (EEA) nationals, and their family members, have free movement rights. The EEA includes EU Member States, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. Free movement rights also apply to Swiss nationals.

The right of EEA citizens and their family members to move and reside freely within the EEA territory is governed by the Rights of Residence Directive 2004/38/EC. Free movement means that nationals and their family members covered by the agreements need not apply for a visa in order to come to the UK. They can stay in the UK for up to three months for any purpose, but those staying longer must qualify as a worker, job-seeker, student, self-employed or self-sufficient person, in order to have certain rights attached to their residence such as eligibility for welfare benefits. This is known as having a right to reside. EU citizens and their family members acquire the right of permanent residence in a host country after a 5-year period of uninterrupted legal residence.

The entitlements of EEA nationals to social security benefits are dealt with in more detail below.

Non-EEA nationals are subject to the UK’s immigration laws specified in the UK’s Immigration Rules. Both the rules and their frequent updates are available on the Government’s UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) pages. Non-EEA nationals must apply for a visa in one of the categories of workers, students, or family members. Whether or not they require a visa in order to enter the UK as a visitor depends on whether they are from a visa national country. .

Most visa categories initially give temporary permission to stay in the UK, which is known as leave to remain. There are varying possibilities to extend the permission or switch to a different immigration category without leaving the UK, or to apply for permission to stay in the UK permanently, which is known as indefinite leave to remain. Indefinite leave to remain does not confer full citizenship status.

Rights of refugees and asylum seekers

A migrant is someone who changes their country of usual residence. An asylum seeker is someone who does so from fear of persecution or serious harm.

People who fear persecution in their country of origin can claim asylum in the UK, and by law must have their claims assessed. Asylum claims are assessed by UKVI with reference to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Refugee Status is granted to asylum seekers who are found to meet the Refugee Convention’s definition of a refugee, that is, a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution in their own country. Humanitarian Protection is granted to asylum seekers who are found to be at real risk of suffering serious harm, but for reasons not covered by the Refugee Convention. Both types of status give permission to remain for five years initially, with the right to work and access mainstream welfare benefits with the possibility of eventually applying for indefinite leave to remain. There is an additional status granted in a small number of cases known as Discretionary Leave to Remain for people falling outside the main categories, for example, people with serious illnesses or who have been victims of trafficking.

The UK operates a couple of limited refugee resettlement schemes which enable selected refugees to come to settle in the UK without having to go through the asylum process, one of which currently, as we have seen, is specifically for vulnerable Syrian refugees.

Asylum decisions can be appealed. If a person is not eligible for protection, but removing the person from the UK would breach the UK’s obligations under the ECHR, they may be given temporary permission to remain in the UK, subject to conditions such as ‘no recourse to public funds’, of which more below. If an application has been refused and the appeal rights exhausted, the refused asylum seeker is expected to leave the UK.

Changes to the UK’s immigration and asylum system under the Coalition

The Conservative Party’s 2010 manifesto had set out a commitment to reduce net migration levels from “hundreds of thousands” to the “tens of thousands” a year (p.21). This commitment was not repeated in the May 2010 Coalition Agreement document which instead announced an intention of introducing “a cap on immigration” and of reducing “the number of non-EU immigrants” in order to “ensure cohesion and protect our public services”. The commitment nonetheless re-appeared in the Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto, in which an important route to realising it was further reforms to the benefit rules for EU migrants.

Much of the Coalition’s actions on immigration focused on establishing a more selective system for non-EU migrants through changing the rules or imposing caps for the five main ‘tiers’ of immigration. These ‘tiers’ are:

Tier 1: Highly- skilled migrants

Tier 2: Skilled workers with a job offer

Tier 3: Low skilled workers (indefinitely suspended)

Tier 4: Students

Tier 5: Temporary workers and youth mobility schemes

In each tier, points are allocated to specified attributes, including skills and savings. Tiers 3 and 5 are temporary routes, and immigrants are not allowed to switch out of them once they are in the UK. Tiers 1, 2, and 4 immigrants can switch between tiers, providing they meet the criteria of the tiers they are switching into. Dependents are allowed under all four tiers in operation. Currently, Tiers 1 and 2 can currently lead to settlement, but Tiers 3, 4, and 5 do not do so directly. There are also rules for family members entering to join relatives admitted under one of the five tiers above.

Annual limits on certain visa categories came into effect in 2011.

In the tier 1 category, these included a cap of 1,000 visas on migrants with ‘exceptional talent’ in the fields of science, academia, the arts, or digital technology, and a cap of 2,000 visas on ‘graduate entrepreneurs’. A visa category which enabled highly skilled migrants to enter the UK without a job offer was closed to new applicants in December 2010.

In the tier 2 category, new skilled workers with a job offer from a licensed employer and the most highly-paid workers (Tier 2 general category) were capped at 20,700 visas. Eligibility for skilled worker visas was restricted to ‘graduate level’ jobs and the minimum salary requirement was raised to £20,800 as of 6 April 2015). A new minimum salary requirement for most Tier 2 migrants applying for permanent settlement after April 2016 was raised to £35,000 per annum, with exceptions for scientists and researchers doing PhD level jobs, and workers filling vacancies on the shortage occupation list. New maximum lengths of stay were introduced for some skilled and temporary workers (applying to both tier 2 and 5).

On the other hand, ‘high net worth individuals’ were encouraged by providing for faster eligibility for permanent settlement and allowing more days’ absence from the UK during the qualifying residence period.

In March 2011, a comprehensive set of reforms were announced for student visas (Tier 4). Students comprise one of the largest categories of migrant entry into the UK. International students’ entitlements to work and to bring dependent family members to the UK, extend their stay in the UK, and ‘switch’ into a work visa category were limited. Education providers were required to satisfy more demanding criteria in order to be allowed to sponsor international students.

Since November 2010 non-EEA nationals applying for leave to enter or remain as the spouse or partner of a British citizen or permanent UK resident have been required to demonstrate a basic command of English. Since July 2012, only British citizens or permanent residents who have a gross annual income of £18,600 or above have been able to sponsor a visa for their non-EEA national partner. The waiting time to apply for permanent settlement for new foreign spouses was raised from two years to five. The eligibility criteria for adult dependent relative visas, which allows family members of British citizens or permanent residents to settle in the UK, were narrowed in July 2012 to those who require long-term personal care, which can only be provided by their relative in the UK.

In July 2012, the immigration rules governing permission to stay in relation to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights were tightened. These rules affected people seeking to remain in the UK on account of family ties or long residence, as well as foreign nationals liable to deportation due to criminal behaviour. The Immigration Act 2014 provided legislative underpinning for these changes, and courts and tribunals are required to have regard to public interest considerations specified in the Act when determining whether an immigration decision is in breach of Article 8.

The Coalition Agreement stated that the Government would explore ways to improve the asylum system. A new process for handling asylum applications, called the ‘Asylum Operating Model’, was launched in April 2013 with the intention of improving the consistency and speed of decision-making. A new process for enforcing the removal of families refused permission to stay in the UK was introduced, further to a Coalition Agreement commitment to end the detention of children for immigration purposes. Another change enacted also included in the Coalition Agreement was a commitment not to enforce the removal of asylum seekers who would be at risk of persecution on account of their sexual orientation.

Migrant rights to benefits in the UK

The rules on eligibility for benefits for migrants are complex. Among other considerations, eligibility depends on nationality, immigration status, the circumstances under which the person arrived in the UK, whether they are deemed habitually resident, whether they are in work or looking for work, and whether they arrived alone or with other family members.

Non-EEA nationals with indefinite leave to remain can access social security benefits and tax credits on the same basis as UK nationals. However, most people admitted to the UK from outside the EEA will have limited leave to remain and will be subject to the condition that they have no recourse to public funds during their stay in the UK. Public funds covers a wide range of benefits including income related JSA, income related ESA, Child Benefit, Housing Benefit, PIP, and allocation of local authority housing. Eligibility for contributory-based benefits which depend on National Insurance contributions became restricted to those entitled to work in the UK after the Welfare Reform Act 2012. There are some limited exceptions to the rules for non-EEA Detailed guidance is available in the UKVI document Public Funds.

If a non-EEA national is not prevented from claiming benefits because of their immigration status, they may still be prevented from claiming certain benefits within a certain period of arrival if they are deemed not to be habitually resident. The Habitual Residence Test is applied to people who have recently arrived in the country and who make a claim for certain benefits, or seek housing assistance from a local authority. It applies to returning UK nationals as well as to those coming to the UK for the first time. Factors that may be taken into account in determining habitual residence by the DWP or a local authority include length of time in the UK, length of uninterrupted residence, the person’s reasons for coming to the UK, and employment prospects.

Contrary to popular perception, people coming to the UK from EEA countries do not have unrestricted access to UK social security benefits. As we seen, granting of a right to reside governs access to benefits. A right to reside applies if a person is economically active, or is able to support themselves. An EEA citizen who moves to the UK and qualifies as a “worker” is immediately eligible for in-work benefits like tax credits and housing benefit. However, their work must be considered “genuine and effective”.

The UK Government amended Directive 2004/38/EC in 2006 to ensure that people who had a right to reside solely on the basis of the Directive’s three-month right of residence would not be able to claim benefits for that reason. A worker has the right of residence for as long as they are in genuine and effective work, but can retain worker status when they stop working in certain circumstances, for example, if they are temporarily unable to work because of illness, or have been made unemployed and are looking for work. EEA nationals have a right to reside as a jobseeker if they can show that they are looking for work and have a genuine chance of being engaged, and are habitually resident. Access to benefits on the same basis as a UK citizen become available to EEA nationals who have resided legally in the UK for a continuous period of five years.

Provisions for access to family benefits are in EC Regulation 883/2004 on the co-ordination of social security systems for people moving between Member States. The key provision is Article 67 in which where an EEA migrant is eligible for the social security benefits of the host state, family benefits can be paid even when they are for dependents resident in another Member State. This has been the subject of some controversy, and among the reforming aims of the last and current Governments, of which more below.

Changes made by the Coalition Government to migrant rights to benefits

Since December 2013, a more “robust” process has been used to determine whether claimants are habitually resident, involving more rigorous questioning of individuals.

From January 2014, in order to be treated as habitually resident for income-based JSA purposes, a person must have been living in the UK for three months. This affects returning UK nationals as well as well as those coming to the UK for the first time, and effectively tightened up any ‘loopholes’ affecting the three-month period during which EEA nationals are not normally eligible for certain types of welfare benefits. One such loophole would be where jobseeker interrupted their stay in the UK and therefore failed the Habitual Residence Test, although not all temporary absences would be treated in this way.

From June 2014, EEA jobseekers or former workers have to show that they had a genuine prospect of finding work to continue to get JSA after six months (and if applicable, Housing Benefit, Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit). For those with a right to reside as a jobseeker the test was subsequently applied after three months on JSA.

From March 2014, a new minimum earnings threshold was introduced to help determine whether an EEA national is or was in “genuine and effective” work, and so has a right to reside as a worker or self-employed person (and with it, entitlement to benefits). The threshold was set at around the level of earnings where employees start to pay National Insurance contributions.

From April 2014 new EEA jobseekers who have a right to reside solely as a jobseeker have been prevented from accessing Housing Benefit even if they are in receipt of JSA.

From July 2014, new jobseekers arriving in the UK would need to have lived in the UK for three months in order to claim Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit.

From April 2015, an NHS Surcharge was added to the normal cost of a visa for non-EEA citizens.

From 10 June 2015, EEA jobseekers have been prevented from claiming Universal Credit.

Further welfare changes for EU migrants were proposed in the Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto. They included:

  • Restricting claims for tax credits and child benefit to EU migrants who have lived in the UK for a minimum of four years
  • A new residency requirement of four years for social housing
  • No Child benefit or tax credit for an EU migrant’s child living abroad
  • No job-seeking benefits for EU jobseekers
  • A requirement for jobseekers to leave if they have not found a job after six months.

Some of these proposals appear to be contradictory to the fundamental principles of the EU set out in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) which provides protections against discrimination for EU citizens choosing to exercise their right of free movement. Equal treatment means that EU migrants should be entitled to in-work benefits in the same way as nationals of host Member States, and it is likely that these proposals would require treaty change.

Financial support for asylum seekers

Under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, destitute individuals who submit an asylum application UK can apply for accommodation and financial support from UKVI whilst their claim is being decided (customarily referred to as ‘section 95 support’).

Accommodation is provided to asylum seekers by private providers contracted by the Home Office. There is no right of refusal on accommodation offered. There is a policy of dispersing asylum seekers to accommodation outside of London. A summary of the process is available in a 2014 National Audit Office report which also assess the performance of the private contractors involved in the process.

Local authorities are responsible for approving proposals for new properties to be used to house asylum seekers within their areas, working to agreed cluster limits, (mostly defined by a limit of one asylum seeker per 200 residents) and, alongside central government departments, for meeting a range of needs if asylum seekers are granted leave to remain in the UK.

Currently, contractors are required to consider a range of social cohesion, housing and community factors alongside cost when proposing properties to be used for dispersal accommodation. These factors are monitored by local authorities, who have the right to withdraw existing consent for specific properties to be used for asylum seeker accommodation or reject new proposals.

Financial support is provided in cash, collected from Post Offices using an Application Registration Card (ARC card). Rates are some way below current benefit allowances for UK citizens. A single asylum seeker over 18 years of age qualifies for £36.95 per week, a couple £72.52 per week, and a lone parent £43.94 per week. Asylum seekers are eligible for free NHS healthcare and may be eligible for free prescriptions, free dental care, free eyesight tests and vouchers for glasses. Asylum seeker children have the same entitlement to state education as other children and may be eligible for free school meals.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work whilst waiting for a decision on their asylum claim, but they can apply for permission to work if they have waited for over 12 months for an initial decision on their asylum claim. Asylum seekers granted can only do jobs on the official shortage occupation list.

Asylum seekers are not entitled to support whilst their asylum application is under consideration if they are found not to have applied for asylum “as soon as reasonably practicable”. However, there are exceptions for families, people with special needs and cases where a refusal of support would be a breach of the individual’s human rights.

People granted asylum (given ‘Refugee Status’, ‘Humanitarian Protection’ or ‘Discretionary Leave to Remain’) become eligible to work in the UK without restrictions, and to claim mainstream welfare benefits on the same basis as British citizens.

People granted limited leave to remain on ECHR Article 8 grounds (if removal is considered to be a breach of their rights to respect for family or private life) are generally not eligible for public funds, unless the Home Office receives evidence of destitution or other compelling circumstances.

Asylum seekers who have been refused asylum and exhausted the appeals process cease to be eligible for asylum support. In limited circumstances destitute refused asylum seekers can apply for a different type of support from UKVI, known as Section 4 support from the 1999 Act. Section 4 support is not given in cash, but through a payment card. In November 2014, there were 3013 people who had spent between 1-5 years on section 4 support.

Refused asylum seeker households that include children (under 18 years old) who were born before a final decision was made on the asylum claim generally continue to receive asylum support until the youngest child turns 18 or the family is removed from the UK.

Local authorities are prevented from providing support to refused asylum seekers who have not cooperated with removal directions and persons unlawfully in the UK, unless refusing support breaches their human rights.

UKVI decisions to refuse or withdraw asylum support can be challenged by an appeal to the First-Tier Tribunal (Asylum Support). Legal aid is not available for asylum support appeals. The Asylum Support Appeals Project is a voluntary organisation which, amongst other services, provides some free legal advice and representation in relation to asylum support appeals. It also has some useful information on its website for asylum seekers and advisers about asylum support and rights of appeal, including a factsheet on local authorities’ duties

Local authorities, rather than UKVI, are responsible for providing support to unaccompanied asylum seeker children under the Children Act 1989 or Children (Scotland) Act 1995. Local authorities’ duties to support destitute adults subject to immigration control who have a care need are limited. They are not obliged to provide support to all foreign nationals facing destitution, but section 17 of the Children’s Act can require the provision of accommodation and financial support where families with dependent children are destitute. The No Recourse to Public Funds Network works with and on behalf of local authorities on these issues. It has produced guidance which explains how local authorities should approach assessing whether they have a duty to support. A Research unit, Compas at the University of Oxford has produced a detailed assessment of local authority responses to families with no recourse to public funds in the light of the requirements of the Children Act.

How many migrants? Immigration statistics

The headline estimates of immigration, emigration and net migration for the UK come from the ONS long-term international migration (LTIM) series, which uses a UN-recommended definition of a long-term international migrant, that is, someone who changes their country of usual residence for a period of at least a year. However, the LTIM data are essentially flow figures, and other sources have to be consulted to obtain a snapshot of how many people from other countries are living in the UK at any point in time.

Among the data used to build the LTIM is the International Passenger Survey (IPS) which began in 1964. Before 1964, there was no systematic attempt to measure immigration, and the number of people coming to the UK from abroad had to be inferred from the change between census years in population not accounted for by natural change (births minus deaths). During the first three decades of the twentieth century the UK experienced net emigration of about 80,000 a year. Between 1931 and 1961, the direction of flow reversed, with net immigration of about 19,000 a year. Net emigration returned between 1961 and 1981, averaging around 20,000 a year, but between 1981 and 1991, net migration changed from positive to negative, with an overall average for the decade was slightly positive. However, 1993 was the last year in which the figure was negative, and net migration reached levels of over 100,000 a year for the first time in 1998.

The chart below, taken from the latest ONS Migration Statistics Quarterly Bulletin, illustrates the acceleration in net migration over the first decade of the twenty first century. Notable in these figures, though, is an acceleration in both inward and outward flows of migrants. An interactive version of the figure is available on the ONS website, in which for every year covered by the chart, immigration, emigration, and net figures are given, along with key events influencing migration flows and (after 1975) the top three last countries of origin of immigrants and the top three destination countries of emigrants. In 2005, Poland became the top country of origin, a position it held until 2009, when it was overtaken by India.

Source: ONS

The table below shows net migration for each year ending December 2005 to March 2015. The column for ‘All Citizens’ shows the original (pre 2001 Census) figures (in brackets) and the revised (post 2011 Census) estimates. The other columns have not been revised.

For each year, net migration is positive by the hundreds of thousands, and in the calendar year 2014 exceeded the previous 2007 high of 273,000. The number of British citizens emigrating is greater than the number immigrating. Despite the boost given to net migration by the accession of eight countries to the EU in 2004, to whose workers the UK, along with Ireland and Sweden, allowed unrestricted access, net non-EU migration is larger than net EU migration in every year, although EU net migration has risen for every year since 2012.

Screen shot 2015-10-23 at 07.01.45

These net figures tend to understate the overall size of flows. For example, in the year ending March 2015, 636,000 people immigrated to the UK, of which 553,000 were non-British nationals. On the other hand, 306,000 people exited the UK, of which 174,000 were non-British nationals.

The LTIM also gives figures on the reasons for migrating to the UK. The table below shows the main reason is work related, in which the larger number have a definite job offer. For three years (2009-11) those entering to study outnumbered those entering for work reasons. The fall in the number of migrants arriving for work-related reasons over 2010-11 probably reflects the impact of recession, which meant fewer job opportunities. The decline in the numbers entering for study between 2011-13 probably reflects a reduction in Tier 4 visas issued to non-EEA nationals. The available data indicate that the FE sector and English language schools were most affected, with only a slight fall in the HE sector.

The LTIM provides a breakdown of reasons for entry by nationality group. Broadly speaking, non-EU nationals are more likely to come to the UK for reasons of study than EU nationals – in the year ending March 2015, about 53 percent of non-EU nationals arrived to study compared with about 19 per cent of EU nationals. On the other hand, 25 per cent of non-EU nationals arrived for work-related reasons compared with 66 per cent of EU nationals.

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As indicated, the LTIM only provides flow data, which cannot show the total number of migrants residing in the UK, because the LTIM cannot track what people do after they enter the UK. Some people, for example, might decide to shorten their stay. Others might decide to switch to a different visa category and stay longer than a year.

Where the context is not one of transit, the definition of who or is not a migrant becomes a little more complicated. The data, derived from the Annual Survey of Population, which are available at local authority level, defines migrants in two ways – those whose country of birth is not the UK, and those whose nationality is not British. However, it should be borne in mind that those whose country of birth is not the UK could, for various reasons, include British citizens, whilst those with British citizenship could have been born outside of the UK.

The tables below shows the proportion of population born outside the UK and the proportion of population by nationality in 2014. Notable is the high concentration of foreign born and foreign citizens in London. The proportions of foreign born and of non-UK citizenship in the UK has risen from, respectively, 7.6 per cent and 4.2 per cent in 2001.

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The Home Office provides detailed statistics on asylum applications (here). The data cover applications by nationality and outcomes. Asylum applications increased from 4,256 in 1987 to 84,132 in 2002 before falling to 17,196 in 2010. They have since started rising again, and in the year ending June 2015, there were 25,771 main asylum applications, covering a total of 33,000 persons. The largest number of applications for asylum over the year came from nationals of Eritrea (3,552), followed by Pakistan (2,421) and Syria (2,222).

Between 2011-13, 32 per cent of asylum applications were granted at the initial stage of application, 11 per cent were withdrawn, with the remainder being refused. Of the 70 per cent of decisions appealed, 28 per cent were allowed, leading to a further 13 per cent of applications granted (45 per cent in all) from the overall cohort.

The Home Office also provides statistics on asylum seekers granted section 95 support by region and local authority area.

How many migrants? The UK in the EU

The table below shows the number of residents with foreign citizenship or foreign born in each EU country. Countries are ranked according to the proportion of population that are foreign born (highest first). The proportion with foreign citizenship tends to follow the foreign-born proportion, with some notable exceptions. The UK has the second highest number of foreign born population (after Germany) but is the 11th highest in terms of foreign born population as a proportion of total population.

Eurostat also publishes a quarterly report on asylum seekers. The bulletin contains links to its database. According to the latest bulletin, there were 647,050 first time asylum applicants to EU countries in the twelve months up to March 2015. Overall, the number of persons seeking asylum in the first quarter of 2015 reached 184,800, which was 85,400 more than in the same quarter of 2014. Out of the 202,800 total asylum applicants (including repeat applicants), 91 per cent were first time applicants. Citizens of 144 countries sought asylum for the first time in the EU in the first quarter of 2015. Kosovans, Syrians and Afghanis were the top 3 citizenships of asylum seekers.

The highest numbers of first time asylum applicants in the first quarter of 2015 were registered in Germany (73,100), Hungary (32,800), Italy (15,300) France (14,800) and Sweden (11,400). During the first quarter of 2015, 121,600 decisions were made by Member States. Among them, 46 per cent were positive (giving a type of protection status). Syrians have received by far the highest number of protection statuses in the EU (24 400 or 96 per cent), followed by Eritreans (4 800, or 84 per cent), Iraqis (4 700, or 87 per cent) and Afghanis (2 500, or 70 per cent). By contrast the rate for Kosovans was 2 per cent and for Albanians and Serbians 4 per cent and 1 per cent respectively.

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The Home Office data gives an overview of asylum applications by EU country. The table below ranks EU countries by number of applications received per 1,000 population. Although the UK is the fifth largest receiving nations in terms of absolute numbers, on a per capita basis it ranks 16 among 28 European countries.

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The impacts of migration

As indicated at the start of this briefing, immigration into the UK is an issue of perennial controversy. Much of the debate hinges on the presumed labour and housing market impacts, and on the likelihood of additional pressures on public services. Another source for anxiety is the presumed impact on community cohesion.

There is a considerable body of research covering these issues available from a variety of thinktanks, academic research units, NGOs, and government departments, and brevity dictates that only a small part can be dealt with here. Selecting the most authoritative is a matter of judgment, but probably among the more important sources is the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) which is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Home Office with a responsibility for providing independent advice on migration issues. All of its reports are available on its website, covering, among other issues, the impacts of immigration, and likely effects of government policy. Another important source is Home Office Migration Research and Analysis.  More research is available at the Migration Observatory based at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford.

On labour market impacts, most economists would start their analysis by assuming that the employment effects of immigration are at least neutral, but more likely beneficial in the long-term, although they probably would not be willing to specify how long the long-term is. This is because as migrants become employed, they create output and income that becomes the basis of others’ employment – or, put another way, they contribute to overall economic growth which then absorbs employment. There is a popular view that the supply of jobs in an economy is fixed, known as the ‘lump of labour fallacy’. It cannot possibly be true, because otherwise economies could not have absorbed into employment the massive growth in population and productivity of the past 200 years. Further, migrants (particularly highly skilled migrants) might fill vacancies which otherwise would not have been filled, in which case the employment effects are positive. Because migrants bring with them new ideas and ways of doing things, there might be indirect effects on innovation and productivity, which forms the basis of long-term growth, and hence jobs (although this is hard to measure). However, most economists would concede that there can be negative short term impacts, through either lower wages, shorter hours, or unemployment.

A Home Office report published in 2014 provides a reasonably up-to-date summary of extant knowledge on the employment impacts of immigration. In summary, any displacement effects on native workers tend to dissipate over time, are more likely to occur during recessions and periods of especially high net migration, and are most clearly observed in their effects on lower-skilled and lower paid natives. A 2014 report by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) enlarges on the likely impact of migration on low skilled workers, but concludes, in aggregate, that the evidence suggests modest effects on the employment and unemployment of UK-born workers. There might be downward pressure on wages for the low-paid as a result of migration, although this is moderate at the national level. The effects on the low paid might possibly be more serious in small local areas where the influx of migrants has been especially high or rapid, although even here the evidence is not consistent and dynamics within particular local areas should be analysed separately. It is pointed out that the influx of migrants appears to be disproportionately concentrated among a relatively small number of local authority areas. It is also suggested that poor compliance in minimum wage regulations might account for the slight downward adjustment in wages, and there are some interesting case studies in the report of migrants’ exploitation, which for reasons of space cannot be summarised here.

A short briefing produced by The Migration Observatory echoes the conclusion that the labour market effects of migration are always specific to time and place. It is noted that the effects on wages depends on the extent to which the skills of migrants substitute or complement the skills of native workers. If they substitute then enlarging the labour supply can lead to increased competition for jobs and hence drive down wages. Once again, it is concluded that the greatest effects are likely to be on low paid workers, but there is an important additional observation that the greatest effects are likely to be on resident workers who are themselves migrants, because the skills of new migrants are likely to be close substitutes for the skills of migrants already employed.

The MAC report extends its analysis to the impact on housing markets. A larger share of migrants (35 per cent) than UK-born residents (15 per cent) use the private rented sector, whilst migrants have a slightly higher share of social housing than UK born residents, at 19 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. As we have seen, migrants from the EEA who have the right to reside in the UK are eligible for social housing, but for non-EEA migrants, access to social housing is only granted once they receive indefinite leave to remain. EEA nationals are less likely than British nationals to be in social housing, but non-EEA nationals with indefinite leave to remain and migrants who are now UK citizens are more likely than British nationals to be in social housing. This is because these non-EEA groups are more likely to have the socio-economic characteristics of social housing tenants. Nevertheless, the probability of a UK-born household being in social housing has fallen over time, due to the reduction in the stock of social housing, the increased number of immigrant households, and changes to the allocation procedures meant to eliminate discriminatory practices.

A Migration Observatory briefing also deals with the impacts of migration on housing. Positive net migration may affect house prices and rents, but the impact of immigration on housing can also be expected to vary across local areas with different housing markets and varying scales of migrant inflows and outflows. However, the evidence is contradictory and uncertain: migrants might be drawn to areas of buoyant labour demand, where house prices are already rising, but it also likely that existing house prices might affect migrant decisions. Migrants might also affect the mix of housing coming onto the market, which means it is difficult to identify trends over time, let alone establish causality.

There is little in the way of systematic analysis of the variable impact of migration at local levels. One exception is a report produced in 2013 by the Home Office on the social and public service impacts of international migration at the local level. The analysis distinguished between different types of migrants (including international students, and non-EEA skilled workers, low-skilled migrants, and asylum-seekers), and developed a typology to classify 348 local authorities in England and Wales based on volumes and types of migrants. It went on to analyse the potential impacts of types of migrants on selected public services, and on the local economy and social cohesion. Desk research was complemented by a panel interview with local authority practitioners.

As with other studies, some attention is given to housing, although once again the results are not especially conclusive. Drawing on reports from local authority practitioners, there was evidence of pressure at the lower end of the housing market, with associated problems of exploitative landlords, poor quality and overcrowding, unregistered housing in multiple occupation, waste management and pest control and inflated rents, particularly in London. On house prices, one expert report drew upon concluded that, over a twenty year period, with net migration continuing at its current rate, house prices would be 10 per cent higher than they would be otherwise. Other studies drawn upon could find no conclusive evidence on migrant impact on house prices and rents.

On impacts on education, the report draws on other studies which show no negative effect of migrant children on the attainment of non-migrant pupils, which can, if anything, have a positive effect on general school and pupil performance, possibly in part because additional resources are often available for schools that receive larger numbers of migrants. However, a key migration-related issue was confirmed by the practitioner interviews, that of pupil turnover or churn, creating problems for tracking educational progress. This issue is associated with more mobile migrant types, like low-skilled workers and asylum seekers. There was general agreement among practitioners that demand for health services, especially mental health, was particularly high among refugee and asylum seeker groups. Asylum seekers and low skilled migrants were also seen as having the most negative impacts on social cohesion, the management of which local authorities were seen as having a key role.

Overall, asylum-seeking and refugee families, and asylum seekers or refugees without children are likely to have the highest impact on services compared with other groups, because of their particular circumstances and levels of need. However, on social cohesion, available evidence suggests that an area’s local migration history is particularly influential, with impacts felt less in areas with high migration but with a longer history of migration, London being the prime example. High migration clusters with limited previous histories of migration experience the most noticeable impacts. Within the local authority typology, around 50 per cent of the population of England and Wales live in areas experiencing relatively high migration flows, covering 127 local authority areas.

There is a consensus that the impact of EU migration from the Accession States on overall GDP growth has been massively positive for the UK, although the impact on GDP per capita has been negligible. The MAC report notes this consensus, and also that the pattern has been repeated across the old EU15 countries, with the Republic of Ireland being among the largest beneficiary in terms of overall GDP growth, but again with negligible GDP per capita growth. There is some controversy over the net fiscal impact of migration (the difference between taxes paid and the value of .public services received). The best summary of the somewhat voluminous literature on this is provided by the Migration Observatory. A common conclusion is that the net contribution varies with age, skill level and length of time in the UK. One study showed that both recent EEA and recent non-EEA migrants made a contribution that was higher than the UK-born group, mostly because they were younger and less likely to use the welfare system. Of the three groups, and on a person-by-person basis, recent EEA migrants made the largest contribution, but non-recent non-EEA migrants made the lowest, the reason being that non-recent non-EEA migrants were likely to be older (or retired), to have families and to work in low-paid jobs. However, with regard to working age cash transfers, a Migration Observatory analysis indicates that foreign born people are less likely to be receiving key DWP out-of-work benefits than the UK born, but more likely to be receiving (in work) tax credits.


Given the unlikelihood of quick resolutions to current conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, it is very unlikely the pressures on European borders will abate in the near future. There will be a continuing rise in asylum seekers in the UK, although their origins and routes into the UK are likely to very different from those in the EU. As we have seen, the UK is bound by international protocols that are older and go beyond those of the EU’s, from which the UK has in any case has negotiated opt-outs.

Local authorities have a pivotal role in the resettlement of asylum seekers, and it is to be hoped that resources will be available to help them fulfil this role. On immigration more generally, the weight of evidence indicates that the long term impacts are generally positive, but there are short term pressures hinging on competition for jobs and housing, and once again local authorities should play an important role in alleviating pressures and dealing with community tensions. Because the debate on migration is controversial and often emotive, fact-based evidence is critical. Future, albeit somewhat shorter briefings, will deal with these issues. and their implications for local government as they arise.


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