How many asylum seekers does the UK have?

Rishi Sunak has vowed to cut net migration and to put a stop to small boat crossings across the Channel - but how many people are actually entering the UK?

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, by the Border Force following a small boat incident in the Channel. Picture date: Tuesday April 23, 2024. (Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak's Rwanda bill aims to curb the number of small boat crossings across the English Channel. (Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak has said “nothing will stand in our way” of getting flights to Rwanda after his controversial deportation bill passed through Parliament

Sunak has said he hopes the scheme will act as a deterrent to stop people making the perilous crossing across the English Channel in small boats, and to "break the business model" of criminal gangs organising the trips.

In a press conference on Tuesday, the PM also said those crossing the Channel are "undermining the British notion of fairness" by "jumping the queue".

Human rights groups including Freedom from Torture, Amnesty International and Liberty have said the new scheme is a “breach of international law” and undermines a Supreme Court ruling deeming the policy unlawful. Many groups have said they will continue to launch legal challenges where possible.

Just hours after the law was passed, five people - including a child - died while attempting to cross the Channel after a boat carrying more than 110 people got into difficulties.

"Stopping the boats" has become a mantra of Sunak's government, which has made Rwanda a flagship policy, but how many asylum seekers are actually coming into the UK? .

An asylum seeker is a person who has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, according to Amnesty International.

While the term "refugee" is sometimes used in a more general sense, it usually refers to a legal status someone has been given after arriving while they await a decision on their asylum claim.

The term "migrant" is a broad one, but is recognised by Amnesty to mean people staying outside their country of origin, who are not asylum seekers or refugees.

The chart below shows the overall number of asylum applications that are granted plotted against total UK net migration to give the extent to how small that number is.

In 2023, there were 4,330 successful applications and a total net migration figure of nearly 1.2 million people

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration Bill) means anyone arriving in the UK without prior permission can be sent to Rwanda and permanently banned from returning to Britain.

This applies in particular to asylum seekers arriving in small boats, who the government say are entering "illegally" and must apply through official channels. Campaigners argue these routes are very limited and say the government is betraying the 1951 Refugee Convention, which says people shouldn't be penalised based on how they arrive.

The PM has said an "initial cohort" of people has been chosen for the first flights, which are expected to begin around the end of July. It is not clear where they will be detained during this time, with Sunak remaining relatively tight-lipped over operational details to deter disruption by protesters.

It is understood that "illegal" asylum seekers will be given at least seven days' notice informing them they've been chosen for removal to Rwanda, giving them a tight window to appeal the decision.

In 2023, 67,337 applications for asylum were made in the UK, relating to 84,425 individuals, according to parliamentary research. Of those, 33% were refused at initial decision.

In 2023, 29,437 people arrived on small boats, 36% fewer than in 2022 (45,774), according to the Home Office.

Between 2004 to 2021, around three-quarters of applicants who were refused asylum at initial decision lodged an appeal and almost one-third of those appeals were allowed.

The chart below shows final outcomes of asylum applications, with green showing those who have been given permission to stay.
Home Office data shows the proportion of asylum seekers accepted compared to those who are turned away. (UK Parliament)

A total of 123,282 asylum decisions were made in 2023, with 32,626 applicants allowed grant of protection or some other kind of leave to remain.

This chart below gives you an idea of the long-term backlog of cases.
This table shows a mounting backlog of unresolved cases. (UK Parliament)

The number of asylum applications to the UK peaked in 2002 at 84,132, according to parliamentary research, after which the number fell to a 22-year low of 17,916 in 2010.

The number then began to slowly rise to 32,733 in 2015, dipped in 2020 during the pandemic, and then rose again to 81,130 in 2022, which was the highest annual figure since 2002.

The tables below show the overall trend between 1993 and 2003, including initial decisions on asylum applications, which included a considerable number of rejections in 2001.
Asylum applications were higher in 2001, as were rejections. (UK Parliament)

The answer to this question will likely depend on how successful the threat of being deported to Rwanda works as a deterrent, and how effectively the UK opens up official application channels.

There has been a downward trend in recent years, with the 67,337 applications in December 2023 marking a 17% decrease on the previous year.

The Home Office has data on the number of small boat arrivals so far this year, although this will not account for all asylum seekers.

Provisional data between 1 January and 21 April shows there were 6,265 small boat arrivals compared to 5,049 in the same period last year, an increase of 24%.

Vietnamese (1,266) and Afghan (1,216) arrivals comprised 40% of the total arrivals in this period and are the top two nationalities arriving so far in 2024,

Of those who arrive in small boats, only about 8% do not claim asylum, according to the Migration Observatory.

Ukrainians coming to the UK under the Ukraine Extension Scheme are often referred to as refugees but don't have the same status legally. As of February 2024, there had been around 29,000 applications received and 23,400 grants issued under the scheme.

According to the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the provisional estimate of total long-term immigration for the year ending June 2023 was 1.2 million.

Meanwhile, emigration was 508,000, meaning that net migration was 672,000 - a number that dwarfs the numbers of asylum seekers

To give you a snapshot of how this has changed over time, the table below shows an overall drop in net migration after Brexit and a sharp uptick after the COVID-19 pandemic, mainly due to non-EU migration.
Net migration is on track to come down. (ONS)

The UK has experienced broadly similar levels of migration compared to other high-income countries, on average, over the past few decades, the Migration Observatory says.

It says rising emigration may put downward pressure on net migration from 2024 onwards. For example, many people who come to the UK to study will leave the UK within a few years.

Projections of future net migration are "inherently uncertain", the Observatory adds, adding that in the past 20 years, official projections have usually underestimated the figures.