“Since 2015, I think we have resettled – the UK, through refugee programmes – we have resettled over 25,000 people, more than any other country in Europe.”
That’s what the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, told Sky News this week.
It’s true that the UK has taken in more refugees through resettlement schemes than other European nations.
But if you thought that meant we’d accepted more refugees overall, you’d be wrong. In fact, the UK is far less generous when it comes to accepting asylum applications than many EU countries.
What is a refugee?
Before we get into the details, some terminology. We often hear the terms “migrant” or “immigrant”, “asylum seeker” and “refugee” used almost interchangeably. But we shouldn’t.
While there’s no single definition of a migrant or an immigrant, these are generally used as umbrella terms to describe someone who moves from one country to another. This can include people who are moving for economic reasons.
“Asylum seeker” is a much more specific term. Under the UN Convention of 1951, it refers to someone who is asking for safety in another country “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” in their home nation.
If an asylum seeker is granted asylum, they are given refugee status.
What is a resettlement scheme?
Resettlement schemes are where countries like the UK take in especially vulnerable refugees who have fled to another country that cannot adequately look after them.
The International Rescue Committee explains that “In the regions they have fled to – especially those that host large numbers of refugees – people and families are often forced to live in camps or substandard shelters for long periods of time.”
The UN Refugee Agency gives the example of a family that fled from Syria to Lebanon and was ultimately resettled in Sweden.
How many refugees has the UK accepted under resettlement schemes?
Since 2015, the UK has run six resettlement schemes, three of which are ongoing.
In that time, we’ve received over 25,000 refugees through the programmes – which is what Sajid Javid was referring to. As he said, that is more than our European neighbours have received through their equivalent policies.
UK is much less generous overall
But resettlement schemes are just one part of the asylum system. And when we look at the broader picture, we can see that the UK is much less generous overall.
Germany, for example, made more positive asylum decisions in 2019 alone (over 70,000) than the UK did in the six years from 2015 to 2020 combined (just under 66,000).
(“Positive asylum decisions” includes granting asylum as well as permitting someone to stay in the country on other humanitarian grounds).
And while 2020 saw some statistical quirks due to the pandemic, the UK was still a long way from being the most generous European nation.
Analysis of EU and UK data by the House of Commons Library shows that: “In 2020, Germany granted the largest number of positive asylum decisions among EU countries (62,500), followed by Spain (51,100), and Greece (34,300).”
The equivalent figure for the UK was 9,072.
And when we account for population size, the UK falls even further down the list. The same analysis ranks the UK fifteenth in Europe, as shown in this chart.
And it reveals the UK is far below the EU average: “In 2020, the UK granted around one positive asylum decision at first instance for every 10,000 people. Across the EU27 [the countries of the EU] there were 5 such grants for every 10,000 people.”
What does the government say?
A Home Office spokesperson told FactCheck: “The UK has a long history of supporting refugees in need of protection, and our resettlement schemes have provided safe and legal routes for tens of thousands of people to start new lives in the UK.
“Since 2015, we have resettled more than 25,000 refugees through safe and legal routes direct from regions of conflict and instability – more than any other European country. We have recently committed to welcoming 5,000 people in the first year of the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme – and up to 20,000 in coming years.
“Our New Plan for Immigration will fix the broken asylum system so that it is fair but firm, helping those in genuine need through safe and legal routes while stopping those who abuse the system.”
Sajid Javid said the UK has taken in over 25,000 refugees through resettlement schemes since 2015, and that this was more than any other European country.
This is correct, but it’s misleading because it omits a key fact: that resettlement schemes are just one part of a country’s refugee policy.
When we look at the overall picture, we can see that the UK takes in far fewer refugees than many EU nations.
For example, Germany took in more refugees in a single year (2019) than the UK did in the six years from 2015 to 2020.
And per head of population, we rank fifteenth out of 28 countries in terms of positive asylum decisions, and well below the EU average.