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Briefing: the real state of the UK asylum system

Briefing: the real state of the UK asylum system

The United Kingdom’s asylum system has been described by the current Home Secretary as “broken”. There is some truth in that statement. In many ways, the asylum system is now in a parlous state. What the Home Secretary does not say is that it was she who broke it.

In this briefing we will take a look at the whole of the process, from the numbers claiming asylum to the decision-making process, the cost of the system, the volume and quality of decisions, the outcomes of appeals, the use of detention and the number of removals. The information is drawn mainly from the quarterly immigration statistics and transparency data for the year ended March 2022, the most recent available at the time of writing.

The picture the data presents is of a system that has been overwhelmed. Not by new arrivals but by mismanagement. The people arriving to claim asylum are overwhelmingly refugees and they will, eventually, build new lives for themselves in this country. But they must endure bureaucratic purgatory first, seemingly to cleanse them of the supposed sin of irregular arrival. Waiting times for a decision run to years, during which time these refugees are forbidden from work, and forced to endure destitution-level support and temporary accommodation. As well as being bad for the refugees, it is causes an unnecessary charge on the public purse. And then, at the end of the process, despite all the tough posturing by the Home Secretary, almost no-one is removed anyway.

The time periods for some of the charts differ. The longest possible range has been used where provided in the data series.

Number of asylum claims

Following a significant peak in 2002, the number of asylum applications made in the United Kingdom was fairly stable between 2005 and 2020. The Syrian refugee crisis beginning in 2014 caused a slight rise in overall numbers.

The number of asylum applications increased significantly in 2021, however. This was largely due to increasing numbers of arrival by means of small boats, particularly in the final months of 2021.

The shrinking area of green for 2020 and 2021 on the chart reflects the fact that the increase in small boat arrivals in large part represented a change of route by asylum seekers. Previously, lorries had been the principal means of entry to claim asylum.

The trend of increasing numbers of asylum claims at the end of 2021 has continued into 2022. Statistics to the year ended March 2022 show a considerable year-on-year increase in asylum claims generally and in small boat arrivals for the quarterly period.

5,902 asylum claims were made in the period January to March 2021 compared to 12,508 in the period January to March 2022. This substantial increase is not fully explained by small boat arrivals. 1,363 entered by small boat between January and March 2021 compared to 4,540 between January and March 2022, representing a threefold increase.

The top five nationalities entering by small boat in the first quarter of 2022 were Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Eritrea, all of whom have very high chances of being granted asylum (see below).


Arguably the stand out problem of the asylum system today is the time it takes for decisions to be made. This is a recent development. The backlog of asylum seekers waiting more than six months for a decision to be made on their case has trebled since Priti Patel took over as Home Secretary in 2019. While the pandemic might have made the issue harder to remedy, the trend began long before it began. It looks like an example of failing to mend one’s roof while the sun shines.

This is not the whole story. Firstly, there is currently a 20 week wait to even register an asylum claim. It is only after the claim is registered that the case will appear in this data on delays. So the delays are actually much longer than they appear from the official statistics. Secondly, the chart above does not tell us what the total number of cases awaiting an initial decision actually is. At the end of March 2022, the latest data available, there was a backlog of 89,344 cases (relating to 109,735 people) awaiting an initial decision for asylum claims made since 2006. That number has more than quadrupled since the end of 2016.

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The reason for the growing delays appears to be straightforward: fewer decisions are being made and the number of asylum claims has increased.

The percentage of cases on which a decision is being made within 6 months has declined drastically since 2014.

This is despite an increase in staffing levels.

This has also led to more asylum seekers being provided with support during their claim. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work so they are generally forced to rely on government support for the duration of their claim. As we can see, the numbers in receipt of emergency and initial asylum support have increased considerably in recent years.

Increasing numbers of asylum seekers waiting for decisions means additional short term costs to the taxpayer. It also probably means longer term costs as well, because the longer a person is out of work the harder it is for them to re-enter the labour market. The majority of these asylum seekers will ultimately be recognised as refugees and allowed to remain in the United Kingdom long term. This is a terrible beginning to their new lives here in this country.


In 2021, 72% of initial asylum decisions by the Home Office were grants of protection. The percentage had crept up even further by the year ended March 2022, to 75%. That is an historic high not seen since since the 1980s, when there were far fewer asylum claims being made.

The success rate for some nationalities is very high indeed (from statistics to March 2022):


This is how the decisions break down into grants of refugee status, other grants of protection and refusal.

Not only that, but some of those asylum seekers refused protection by the Home Office will go on to win their appeals. We might expect the appeal success rate to fall somewhat as the initial application success rises but there is no evidence of that happening yet.

The average time it takes for the First-tier Tribunal to decide an asylum case was 48 weeks in the period July to September 2021 (table T_3 in the quarterly tribunal statistics). This is up from 29 weeks prior to the pandemic.

Age disputes

There was a significant increase in age disputes in 2021 despite no overall increase in the number of children claiming asylum.

This appears to represent a deliberate change of policy.


The number of people being held in detention at any one time has fallen in recent years. The number who enter and therefore experience detention has, aside from the year of maximum impact of the pandemic, remained fairly stead at 25,000 per year. What has changed is that the percentage of those experiencing immigration detention who are asylum seekers has increased markedly, from around 50% to around 80%.

These figures do not include those detained at the de facto detention camps at Penally and Napier barracks, from which asylum seekers were allegedly free to come and go.

Immigration detention is supposed to be for the purpose of removing those with no permission to remain in the United Kingdom. Immigration detention centres are formally called ‘removal’ centres. However, the number of detainees leaving detention to be removed from the country has fallen drastically. The vast majority are now released into the community.

This calls into question whether a decision to detain these people was the right one. The cost of holding a person in immigration detention is around £90 per day.

Substantial numbers of people experience fairly short term detention and some experience prolonged detention.

The percentage of people held in short term detention increased markedly in 2021. It seems reasonable to assume many of these individuals were asylum seekers given that the number of asylum seekers experiencing detention increased at the same time (see above). Their detention certainly does not seem to have led to faster decisions or to more removals so, again, the purpose of detaining them is unclear.

The full figures on how long people had been detained at the date at which they were released is as follows:

3 days or less7,884
4 to 7 days10,522
8 to 14 days1,280
15 to 28 days1,322
29 days to less than 2 months1,421
2 months to less than 3 months660
3 months to less than 4 months398
4 months to less than 6 months387
6 months to less than 12 months320
12 months to less than 18 months60
18 months to less than 24 months16
24 months to less than 36 months9
36 months to less than 48 months1
48 months or more0
Total leaving detention24,280

A total of 3,272 people had been held for over 28 days at the time of their release in 2021. These figures do not capture repeat immigration detention. From my occasional work for the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees I am aware that many in immigration detention have experienced repeated periods of detention, sometimes over many years. By definition, these individuals have been detained and repeatedly released into the community, again raising the question of whether it was appropriate to detention them at all.

Removals and returns

Very few asylum seekers have been removed or voluntarily departed from the UK in recent years. First of all, we can see from the overall numbers that there has been an overall decline for all enforced removals and voluntary departures. This includes foreign national offenders, overstayers and former asylum seekers:

Once former asylum seekers are separated out, we can see that only a very small number are being removed: just 113 enforced asylum returns in the whole of 2021.

The reality is that even those who lose their asylum cases — an increasingly small minority — are likely to remain in the United Kingdom in the long term.


The government likes to talk about safe and legal routes to reach the United Kingdom. The reality is that unless you are Ukrainian or Afghan there are no such routes. And even if you are Afghan, the resettlement scheme is only opening for applications this week with a cap in the first year of 1,500 places.

The good news is that as of 13 June 2022 a total of 77,200 Ukrainians had entered the UK under the two visa routes opened for them. You can see the latest statistics yourself here. Many more visas than that had been issued but not yet used. UNHCR have put together data on which countries are hosting how many refugees. By way of comparison, Poland is estimated to be hosting 1,170,000, Germany 780,000, Czech Republic 374,000, Italy 130,000 and France 88,000.

When the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan was complete in the summer of 2021, the UK government pledged to resettle 20,000 Afghans over the following five years. Around 7,000 Afghans are thought to have been evacuated at the time. They were considered to count against the total, leaving 13,000 places remaining.

There are also general resettlement schemes operated by the UK government. It is not possible for a person to apply for these schemes, though. Eligibility is determined by UNHCR. Essentially, a person has to be a registered refugee in a UNHCR administered refugee camp and hope they are picked for resettlement. If they are selected, they have no say over the country to which they are resettled. It might be the UK but it might be Australia, Canada, the United States or other participating countries. The scheme have existed since the early 2000s but were significantly expanded specifically for Syrians by David Cameron in 2015. 20,000 were resettled in this way over five years. The programme ground to a halt during the pandemic In the twelve months to March 2022, a total of 1,651 were resettled in this way. 67% were Syrian, 10% were Iraqi and 8% were Sudanese.

These general schemes are welcome but it is disingenuous for anyone to say that refugees should ‘join the queue’ to enter the UK. If a person has family in the UK or has other good reasons for wanting to come here specifically, there is no way for them to do that.


The United Kingdom asylum system is indeed broken. It is, to a very significant extent, Priti Patel who broke it. The asylum backlog was already growing when she took over but she has allowed it to triple further on her watch. Small boat crossings have soared yet Patel, with other hard Brexiteers, advocated withdrawal from the Dublin system of returns with the EU. It was not a foregone conclusion that the UK would no longer be able to participate, given that some other non-EU countries do so.

But the asylum system is not beyond repair. Asylum decisions need to be made much, much faster. Immigration detention is used too routinely, particularly against asylum seekers. There is almost no prospect of any failed asylum seeker being removed at the moment so their detention is entirely pointless. A serious attempt to negotiate re-entry to the Dublin system could be made. And if the government were serious about operating a meaningful asylum system, the few asylum seekers who are not formally recognised as refugees would be removed.

This would require focus on what matters. Pointless and cruel vanity schemes like the Rwanda deal or the new asylum camps proposed by Patel or automatic tagging of all new arrivals are a distraction from the problems which urgently need fixing. Morale is reported to be rock bottom at the Home Office, unsurprisingly. The government is creating unnecessary work for officials, for example by changing policy to force many refugees to re-apply repeatedly for status before being granted settlement. Each of these applications will almost inevitably be granted yet requires resources to decide and therefore worsens the backlog. There is no evidence that supports the theory that many adults claim to be children and yet far more age disputes are being raised and the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 removes responsibility for assessing age from local authorities, who are experts, and gives it to Home Office officials, who are not. The Home Office should do less, better.

Most of all, it is time to scrap the deterrent policies established in the 1990s and early 2000s, when far fewer asylum claims succeeded. Michael Howard, then Home Secretary, told Parliament in 1995 that only 4% of asylum succeeded as did a further 4% of appeals. The ban on the right to work, the destitution-level support offered instead, the squalid accommodation and camps and the highly bureaucratic, faceless asylum process all absorb vast Home Office resources to administer. These policies, which belong to a bygone age, deter no-one. They merely serve to punish genuine refugees who will get to stay in the United Kingdom in the long term. It is their interests and ours to help them integrate as soon as possible rather than forcing them into this demeaning purgatory first.

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Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.