Asylum system a long way from crisis

If the media could stop seeing asylum as a peculiarly UK problem, there might be more chance we could participate in international solutions, says Matt Cavanagh.

By Matt Cavanagh, Associate Director at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

Today’s ONS figures show asylum claims for the second quarter of 2011 up 9 per cent on the second quarter in 2010. This is the second successive quarter showing a rise on the previous year – the first quarter of 2011 showing a year on year rise of 11%. Separate figures published today by the Home Office show a slowdown in asylum decision making, with decisions down 17% – despite the rise in claims.

Finally, another set of figures published today by the Home Office show the number of people being removed or departing voluntarily, who had claimed asylum, down 27% on the same quarter in 2010. This drop comes on top of annual figures that show the number of failed asylum seekers being returned fell 11% in 2010 compared to 2009.

Each of these three indicators is going in a direction that will give ministers cause for concern, especially with many expecting a rise in asylum claims prompted by the Arab Spring. However, it is important to remember that asylum claims remain at historically low levels. This crucial piece of context was deliberately obscured in a tendentious report released yesterday by the pressure group MigrationWatch and widely covered in the Sun, Mail, and Express.

In their desire to stoke up alarm about asylum seekers, and paint a picture of a system ‘in crisis’, MigrationWatch averaged the total costs of asylum over the last decade. As Figure 1 shows, this ignores the fact asylum claims reached their peak in 2002, then fell by more than two thirds by 2005, and have remained fairly stable since, at levels similar to the early 1990s.

Figure 1:

In 2002, asylum seekers and their dependents accounted for around a quarter of total non-British immigration; now they account for around 5%. Contrary to the picture painted by MigrationWatch, the Sun, the Mail, and the Express, costs to the taxpayer of asylum support, which were well over £1bn at the peak, have also fallen more than two thirds.

The truth is there was a European asylum crisis in the early years of the last decade, and Britain was heavily affected; but asylum trends across Europe are now broadly stable, not particularly high by historical standards, and the UK is firmly mid-table. As Figure 2 shows, in 2010 the UK received four asylum applicants per 10,000 people, below the European average of five, and among the lowest of the more prosperous European countries.

Figure 2:

If the media could stop seeing asylum as a peculiarly British problem, there might be more chance we could participate in international solutions to what is fundamentally an international problem. Proposals to ‘share the burden’ of asylum across the EU look unlikely, because too many countries fear they would lose more than they would gain, but there should still be scope for co-operation.

Countries should work together both on ‘upstream’ issues – like how best to co-operate with source and transit countries outside the EU, to discourage or prevent irregular travel by people who are essentially economic migrants – and ‘downstream’ issues, like how to make the EU a more difficult environment for employers of illegal labour, since an increasing proportion of asylum claims are made by people discovered working illegally.