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Refugee “safe return reviews” needlessly causing anxiety, statistics suggest


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About 18 months ago, the Home Office announced that refugees would no longer get indefinite leave to remain automatically after being in the UK for five years. Officials are now supposed to review whether the refugee still needs the protection of the British government:

All those who apply for settlement protection after completing the appropriate probationary period of limited leave will be subject to a safe return review with reference to the country situation at the date the application is considered. Those who still need protection at that point will normally qualify for settlement.

A safe return review might, for example, find that conditions in the refugee’s home country have changed so much that “a fear of persecution can no longer be regarded as well-founded”. In theory, refugees refused settlement face detention and removal.

As a result, refugees, campaigners and lawyers have become anxious about what happens when a refugee applies for ILR. Should submissions routinely be made on safety? If refusal is contemplated by the Home Office, what is the process? What is the refusal rate? We took a detailed look at policy and practice in this earlier blog post: Safe return reviews and Home Office policy on settlement for refugees.

What effect has the removal of automatic settlement rights had in practice? We made a Freedom of Information request back in August 2018 to try and find out. We finally got a response and although some of the information could not be provided, the internal Home Office figures provided suggest a very limited impact, if any at all. The number of refugees refused settlement each year is as follows:

Refugees refused indefinite leave to remain
Jan-Mar 201810
Source: Home Office, FOI 49793

The small print reveals the figures to be embarrassingly vague. They are rounded to the nearest five, so the grand total of 80 refusals since 2010 is in fact some unknown number between 62 and 98. And the fact that 10(ish) refusals were recorded in just the first three months of 2018 could mean that the full year total does show a spike of some sort.

As against that, the safe return review policy kicked in at the start of 2017 and no increase in refusals was recorded in that year. It looks as though the policy is simply not being implemented. As we pointed out when safe return reviews first emerged, reviewing each and every refugee’s case when they come up for settlement creates a huge amount of work for the Home Office just as the build-up to Brexit is underway. It may be that the department simply lacks the resources to systematically carry out refugee reviews.

Alternatively, the policy may be designed to be deliberately very selective in the way in which it is applied, with safety on return not the true trigger for a review. Individual refugees to whom the Home Office takes a particular dislike — for example because of criminality or some other behaviour in the UK — may find their home country being labelled safe in their particular case after review.

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found precisely that in a report earlier this year: see Refugees with criminal records are being told it’s safe to go home. David Bolt discovered that “cessation” decisions — cancelling refugee leave midway through — are being made where the refugee has a UK criminal record, but rarely for other refugees from the same country. Personal conduct is not supposed to be relevant to cessation, but the practice is evidently to target only certain refugees with the discovery that their home country is suddenly safe for return. We may end up in the same place when it comes to safe return reviews.

Whatever the reasons for the policy, we know that it has caused huge anxiety to refugees, the uncertainty makes it psychologically harder for them to get on with their new lives in the UK and makes it harder for them to secure employment (because their status seems less secure than previously. And yet, in truth, the policy appears not to be implemented in practice.

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Colin Yeo

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


2 Responses

  1. Hi Colin,

    You state in the article that “Legal aid is not generally available for this” – as long as the client is financially eligible, then SET(P) applications are within the scope of LASPO:

    30(1)Civil legal services provided in relation to rights to enter, and to remain in, the United Kingdom arising from—
    (a)the Refugee Convention;
    (b)Article 2 or 3 of the Human Rights Convention;
    (c)the Temporary Protection Directive;
    (d)the Qualification Directive.


    1. Thanks ever so much for flagging this, Chris. I don’t know if Colin had a reason for putting that sentence in but as he is on holiday this week I have just removed it from the article and will discuss with him when he’s back.