FFS Explains: How do people claim asylum in the UK?

The recent media coverage of people crossing the English channel in boats to claim asylum has led to heated discussion over the different ways that people come to the UK.

Some politicians have claimed that those crossing in boats are “jumping the queue” of asylum seekers looking to find safety in the UK.

Ferret Fact Service | Scotlands impartial fact check project

So how does the process of claiming asylum work, and are those crossing the channel in boats affecting those who arrive via more recognised routes?

What is the process for gaining asylum in the UK?

Asylum policy in the UK is reserved to the UK government, and is regulated by international laws and agreements.

Anyone can apply for refugee status in the UK, but to be granted asylum they need to be “unable to live safely in any part of own country because fear persecution”, according to the UK Government.

An asylum application for this status can only be made when they arrive in the UK, or if they are already in the UK when it becomes clear they cannot safely return home. This can mean coming to the UK and claiming asylum at port of entry, or applying when they are already in the country. You cannot apply from outside the UK.

A person seeking asylum must then attend a meeting with an immigration officer, called a ‘screening’ interview. This is followed by a substantive interview which allows them to put across their case for asylum. The Home Office will then decide whether or not to grant refugee status. This status allows them to work and apply for benefits denied during the asylum process.

A small number of people separately come to the UK under United Nations (UN) resettlement schemes. This is for refugees who are “particularly vulnerable due to health conditions, or because they are at a high risk of harm or exploitation”.

The UK has said it will take between 5,000 and 6,000 refugees in 2020-21. While Prime Minister David Cameron committed to taking 20,000 Syrians fleeing the civil war by 2020.

Is there an asylum queue?

No. There is no formal queue for those seeking asylum, nor do those crossing the English channel in boats jump ahead of those who have come to the country via legal means, such as crossing into the country as a tourist then claiming asylum once there.

Asylum applications are assessed based on the perceived validity of their claim, using the criteria set out in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants – What’s the difference?

Terminology around migration into the UK is often clouded, with media outlets and politicians often using words like migrant, refugee and asylum seeker interchangeably.

There are differences between each term, however.

The widely-accepted definition of refugee comes from the 1951 UN convention. It states that a refugee is someone who is outside their country of nationality and cannot go back “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

A person seeking asylum, often called an asylum seeker in UK media, is a refugee who has left their country and applied to stay in another country, but has not had their asylum case concluded.

A migrant is a more general term which usually refers to someone who moves from one country to another.

What is a bogus asylum seeker?

Terms such as ‘bogus’ or ‘illegal’ asylum seeker are used in some newspaper coverage of the asylum system. There is no such thing. Under international law, refugees can apply for asylum in any country which is signed up to the 1951 UN convention.

The convention gives refugees the right not to be penalised for entering a country illegally, so long as they present themselves to the proper authorities as soon as they can and can show good reason for their illegal entry.

Their claim will then be assessed and they will be given either leave to remain, or their application will be refused and they may be sent back to their country of origin, and could have Home Office support withdrawn.

Some who do not qualify for refugee status may still be granted leave to remain in the UK for humanitarian or other reasons.

Do those seeking asylum have to settle in the first safe country they get to?

There is no requirement for people to seek asylum in the first country they arrive in after leaving their home.

A refugee can travel through a number of countries before coming to the UK and claiming asylum there. This could be done for a number of reasons, such as command of the language or existing friends or family who are settled in the country. Historical and colonial links appear to play a role for those refugees who have the option to choose where to apply, according to research from the Refugee Council.

There is a mechanism within European Union (EU) law, known as the Dublin regulation, which aims to decide which EU country is responsible for handling the asylum claim of a person.

It makes it possible for a nation to send back someone to the first country they entered in the EU and have the asylum claim processed there. This resulted in 1,395 people transferred abroad from the UK between 2015 and 2018.

It is not yet known exactly how Brexit will impact the UK’s ability to transfer asylum seekers to other EU countries.

How many people seek asylum in the UK?

There were 35,566 asylum applications in the UK in 2019.

Many of the applications have yet to be settled and are subject to appeal, so it is not yet possible to tell how many of these applications will be accepted.

The UK Government offered asylum to 20,703 people in 2019, but many of these are claims were started before 2019, as there is a significant backlog of asylum cases which have not been decided.

As of 30 June 2020, there were 54,073 asylum applications which were awaiting an initial decision on their application, while 2,403 were ‘pending further review’.

The UK has around five asylum applications for every 10,000 residents. This is lower than the average across the EU, which has 14 asylum applications for every 10,000 people. In the EU, the UK has the 17th highest number of asylum applications per head of population.

Between the start of 2014 and the end of 2019, 25,493 people were resettled to the UK under refugee resettlement schemes.

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Go to, email us at or join our Facebook group.

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