The New Statesman has used the latest data from Britain and the EU to map the movement of migrants using unofficial routes to enter the UK and other European countries. We will update our graphics as new data is published, and have included historical data, to provide a definitive representation of the numbers behind the headlines.
In early 2023 Rishi Sunak said that one of his five priorities in government was to stop people crossing the Channel to the UK in small boats. In 2022 the number of people migrating via this route totalled 45,000. The Prime Minister has also pledged to bring “migration down over time”.
What does this mean, in a country with a population of 67 million, which experienced an overall annual immigration rate of one million in 2022? Will net migration start falling to the tens of thousands, as is the Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s aim, or will it keep rising as it has done to record levels even since the EU referendum in 2016 – despite Vote Leave’s promises to “take back control” of Britain’s borders?
The first map in the New Statesman’s tracker shows the total number of people travelling into the EU and the UK via irregular migration routes. While the term “illegal immigration” is often used to refer to the unauthorised entry of people into countries, claiming asylum is not illegal so the New Statesman will use the term “irregular immigration” instead.
The rise in people crossing the Channel in small boats means that in 2022 this became a top three irregular migration route in Europe, when measured by the total number of people.
In the first ten months of 2022 40,000 people crossed the Channel, compared with 58,000 who took the central Mediterranean route between North Africa and Italy, and 87,000 who took the western Balkan land route into eastern Europe. These numbers pale in comparison to the state of play in 2015, at the height of the European refugee crisis. In that year 760,000 people travelled through the western Balkans, 150,000 travelled through the central Mediterranean, and 890,000 travelled through the western Mediterranean, between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece.
The Missing Migrants Project has found that more than 200 migrants have been recorded dead or missing in the Channel since 2014.
The second map shows how many asylum applications are made in European countries. Asylum applications are made by individuals seeking legal protection – which typically means being granted refugee status – in a new country, as a result of persecution in their home country.
In the UK legal grounds for asylum are defined as persecution regarding race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or “anything else that puts you at risk because of the social, cultural, religious or political situation in your country”.
In the year to September 2022 72,000 asylum applications were made in the UK, far fewer than in its similarly-sized European neighbours of Spain, France and Germany, and around the same number as claimed asylum in Austria (population nine million).
While comparably low, the number of asylum applications made in the UK has increased significantly: it had been around 20-30,000 a year for about a decade until 2021. The rise has coincided with that of small boat crossings. Safe routes to the UK for asylum seekers, however, have been restricted by successive home secretaries. Humanitarian organisations argue that for the majority of individuals seeking asylum following persecution, arranging passage with people smugglers across the Channel is now one of the only means available to get protected refugee status in Britain.
In the first three quarters of 2022 the number of people granted protection via seeking asylum was 12 times the number entering through official resettlement schemes, according to UK government data analysed by the New Statesman.
The third map shows where European asylum seekers are coming from, as tracked by the UN Human Rights Commission. In the first six months of 2022 98,000 European asylum applications came from Ukrainians. This figure does not reflect the full extent of movement from Ukraine into the rest of Europe, given that most Ukrainians travelled via separate resettlement schemes, as opposed to irregular routes. Next on the list are Afghanistan (72,000), Syria (57,000), Venezuela (27,000) and Iraq (27,000).
In the UK, it was revealed in December 2022 that not a single person had been evacuated from Afghanistan under the Home Office’s Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, launched in January that year. There were, by contrast, more than 3,000 asylum applications submitted by Afghans in the UK in the first six months of that year.
Politicians regularly describe the thousands of people that come to the UK via small boats as “economic migrants”, as opposed to refugees. However, data shows that most people who reach the UK via irregular means and claim asylum are granted it. In the year to September 2022 77 per cent of asylum applications were granted at initial hearings, while 44 per cent of appeals against rejection were successful.
Arrivals in small boats are typically sent to processing facilities such as the one at Manston in Kent, where there have been reports of severe overcrowding, outbreaks of diseases like diphtheria, drug dealing among staff, and violence.
The success rate of asylum applications in the UK could soon fall due to the Nationality and Borders Act, which came into law in April 2022. Measures included in the legislation include the introduction of what critics call a “two-tier” asylum system, whereby those who come via irregular routes are less likely to receive support; the standard criteria for establishing if someone is a refugee has also been tightened. The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, has warned that aspects of the act may be “incompatible with international law”.
Government data shows that more than a million immigrants came to the UK with work, study or other official visas in the year ending June 2022, compared with the 45,000 who reached the UK via irregular means.
After the Conservative Party has promised in four successive elections to “control” immigration, the latest data shows that immigration to the UK via both regular and irregular routes continues to rise. Restricting people seeking asylum in the UK – as the Nationality and Borders Act does – also means targeting a persecuted minority who, the data shows, mostly have a legal right to stay as refugees.
Additional reporting by Giacomo Boscaini-Gilroy. This article was originally published in January 2022.