© Illustration by Adam Howling

What Europe can teach Britain about asylum

Forget wave machines, distant islands and illegal pushbacks. To deal with the asylum backlog, the UK need only look to Germany and France
March 1, 2023

Zain (not his real name) recently turned 22. He should be entering the world of work, visiting new places and starting to figure out his place in society. But while he wishes all this for himself, it is not possible. Instead, after fleeing Syria and his family’s bombed-out home in 2015, he and his mother Nour live in a dingy hotel room, are banned from working and must wait in limbo for the UK government to determine their fate.

Zain and Nour hoped that the UK would be the place where they would finally find refuge, but more than a year after applying for asylum, they are still waiting for a decision. “It’s like being in prison. It’s hell,” says Zain, sitting in a coffee shop in south London, not far from the hotel he calls home. He looks tired. Between them, he and Nour live on £16 in government support a week. “We are struggling,” he adds. “What’s the point of living? I think about death more than life.”

Right now, tens of thousands of people across the country are similarly trapped in a prolonged state of hardship and uncertainty due to Britain’s paralysed asylum system. A system in which traumatised people from conflict-stricken countries are forced to languish for more than a year, banned from working—despite an acute shortage of workers in Britain—while living on support funded by UK taxpayers; a system in which families are crammed into often overcrowded and unsanitary small rooms for months on end, causing long-term harm to children while costing the public purse £5.6m a day; a system that ministers have repeatedly promised to fix, but which has become only more broken. More than three in four asylum seekers will ultimately receive a positive decision—but until then, they’re stuck.

The situation has not always been so desperate. In 2018, most people seeking refuge in the UK would receive a decision on their asylum application within a year; in 2021, most had to wait for more than 18 months. 

Since 2019, the number of applications for asylum has doubled, while the number of asylum decisions made by the Home Office has fallen by 10 per cent. In  the year ending September 2022, just 18,699 initial decisions were made. The number of people waiting for an initial decision has grown threefold since 2019, and 60 per cent in the past year alone. It is now at a record high.

Successive home secretaries have pledged to fix what they describe as a “broken” system, but so far none have succeeded. While there’s been a lively debate about immigration and asylum in the UK, any meaningful conversation about how to address the system’s failings has been hindered by a tendency to look inwards, as though Britain is facing the challenges of surging migration alone. 

But Britain isn’t the only country to see a rise in claims: last year, monthly asylum applications across the EU reached their highest level since the so-called refugee “crisis” in 2016. Yet other countries handle asylum applications better. 

The UK may no longer be part of the EU, but it can help to look to our neighbours to compare both the scale of the challenge and the possible responses.

Germany and France, two nations with economies of a similar size to the UK, are processing asylum cases much faster, despite both receiving more claims than they used to and considerably more than the UK. 

Immigration lawyers in both countries are quick to point out that neither system is perfect—France, in particular, stands out as having a considerably higher asylum rejection rate than many other European nations—but why has asylum processing in the UK slowed down so dramatically, while similar-sized economies in Europe have fared better?

As Channel crossings have increased—a result of bolstered security at the Eurotunnel through which people used to cross from France in lorries—British ministers have gradually ratcheted up the narrative that asylum seekers are a threat. Each year, the conversation moves further to the political right; language that was unacceptable before becomes mainstream. 

In 2019, Sajid Javid was heavily criticised for questioning, as home secretary, whether people arriving in small boats were “genuine” refugees. His words seem moderate, however, in comparison to those of his successor, Priti Patel, who repeatedly and wrongly referred to those crossing the Channel as “illegal migrants”. This hostile rhetoric moved up another notch when Suella Braverman, the current home secretary, proclaimed last year that the rise in Channel crossings represents an “invasion” of the south coast.

This has been accompanied by a steady flow of controversial, headline-grabbing policy proposals pledging to “stop the boats”—very few of which have come to fruition:

  • 2020: Send asylum seekers to remote islands or disused oil platforms while their applications are processed. Ditched.
  • 2020:  Create a “giant wave machine” off the UK coast to repel small vessels. Among the most outlandish proposals. Ditched.
  • 2021: Have Border Force conduct illegal “pushbacks”. Turning small boats back in the Channel breaks international law. The Home Office spent months trying to make this happen, only to be forced to admit that it couldn’t. Ditched.
  • 2022: Send asylum seekers to Rwanda. Under the notorious bilateral agreement struck last April, the African nation would take in UK asylum seekers in return for a £120m upfront payment. Almost a year on, the money has been handed over but no one has been sent to Rwanda. Legal challenges continue.
  • 2022: Ban all Channel-crossers from claiming asylum—then deport them. No discretion. No legal basis. No clarity on where they would be deported to.

The point is that not only have the Home Office’s avowedly tough plans in recent years turned out to be largely performative, they’ve also been a damaging distraction from meaningful reform. Desperate attempts to implement unworkable policies will have shifted focus and resources from other essential parts of the department. One of these is, of course, asylum decision-making.

One civil servant who assesses applications told me they felt Home Office ministers were pushing “unworkable, attention-grabbing policies” for “political clout”, in turn leading to the “neglect of the fundamentals of how the asylum system functions”. 

Another Home Office staffer who has been tasked with implementing elements of the Rwanda deal told me there was a naive “assumption” in the upper ranks of the department that sending asylum seekers there would “bring arrivals right down”—and that, as a result, there was “no plan B in place” in the event that it didn’t work. Describing ministers as having an “obsession” with making the policy work, the civil servant said there was a tendency to “ignore evidence presented to the contrary”. 

We know the Home Office has tight budgets. Devising legally dubious plans and ordering civil servants to execute them, despite little to no evidence that they will work, can only lead to the erosion of vital existing functions of the department.

Data from our European neighbours shows that there could be a much simpler solution. 

In 2015, Germany opened its doors to refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. The country saw a 267 per cent surge in first-time asylum claims within two years, with more than a million people lodging applications between 2015 and 2016. 

This presented an immense challenge for the German authorities. The average time taken to make an asylum decision increased from around four months to more than a year, leaving swathes of people waiting in limbo. The German electorate was concerned about the influx of people; Angela Merkel’s usually high poll ratings as chancellor slipped by several points. But, unlike the UK, Germany was pragmatic in its response.

German ministers launched a huge recruitment campaign. The number of staff in its asylum department increased nearly fivefold between 2014 and 2016 to almost 10,000—making it the largest asylum processing system in the world. “That was a really good thing,” says Gerald Knaus, co-founder of thinktank European Stability Initiative. “It was a political decision to increase staff. During that time, they also improved the procedures, more quality control. It worked. Suddenly there were considerably more decisions to make, and the asylum system didn’t collapse.” 

Desperate attempts to implement unworkable policies will have shifted resources from other essential parts of the department

France, too, has experienced a dramatic increase in applications and managed to prevent the backlog of cases from spiralling. In the four years to 2019, the number of people claiming asylum in France almost doubled. 

The French government’s response? It also increased staffing and sped up the decision-making process. This approach has paid off. In 2021, more decisions were made than applications lodged. At the end of 2020, the backlog of pending asylum cases was 84,000; one year later, it was just 49,500.

Britain, in comparison, has failed to tackle the backlog. Rishi Sunak admitted last November that “not enough” asylum applications were being processed. A recruitment drive led to the number of caseworkers rapidly increasing from 597 in 2019-2020 to around 1,276 at the end of last year—but this has not been accompanied by any meaningful effort to improve the speed at which cases are resolved. 

In fact, the number of decisions made by caseworkers has fallen over the same period—according to analysis by the Migration Observatory, an average staff member made just two per month in the year ending March 2022, compared with eight in the year ending March 2016. This decline can be attributed to several factors, including inadequate staff training, low morale and a high turnover because of a lack of career progression and pressure to meet targets—none of which ministers appear to be addressing.

Maintaining a functioning asylum system at a time when arrivals are rising is a huge challenge, but the British government’s response is only making it harder.

Ministers should focus on tackling the asylum backlog as a priority, as Germany and France have done when faced with a considerable increase in claims. They should concentrate on viable proposals for safe and legal routes—an alternative for people who may otherwise risk their lives in the Channel. At present, these refugee routes are largely restricted to specific nationalities (Hong Kongers, Ukrainians, Afghans), and some are falling far short of what they promised.

They could go further and create an official pathway to the UK for people who have already reached Europe. The European Stability Initiative suggests that Britain could agree to take in 30,000 refugees from EU countries in return for France agreeing to accept returns of people who have crossed the Channel. The latter part of this idea raises ethical and logistical challenges, but willingness to coordinate with Europe around responsibility-sharing could be helpful. It certainly holds more potential than the Rwanda plan. 

The UK’s “broken” asylum system is a political choice. If the government doesn’t change tack soon, and those in power keep on trumpeting tough-sounding but legally dubious and ultimately futile solutions, more sensible opportunities to alleviate the backlog will be missed. People will carry on risking their lives crossing the Channel, growing numbers of refugees like Zain and Nour will languish at the public’s expense, and our post-Brexit asylum system, which the electorate was promised would bring more control, will continue to unravel at its seams.