18 October 2023

Number of asylum seekers coming to UK overestimated by British public

  • Despite overestimating the total, majority of UK public support right for people to seek safety, polling shows    
  • British Red Cross launches interactive data report to tackle confusion and misunderstanding around the UK asylum system

Britons are overestimating how many people come to the UK by as much as tenfold, polling for the British Red Cross shows.

The poll, of 2,000 UK adults, found that 59 per cent of people overestimate the number of asylum seekers in the UK and that almost one in 10 Britons (nine per cent) think more than 75 per cent of people migrating to the UK are those seeking asylum. Last year, Home Office figures showed people seeking asylum made up just seven per cent of overall migration.

The British Red Cross commissioned the poll to mark the launch of a new data tool which aims to help address some of the misconceptions around refugees and people seeking asylum. The charity has created this tool to help people better understand the asylum system. 

Other findings of the poll include:   

  • Only a fifth of people (18 per cent) identified that asylum seekers make up less than 10 per cent of overall migration.  
  • The majority (63 per cent) of the British public believe most people seeking asylum travel further than neighbouring countries for safety, whereas UNHCR data shows 70 per cent of the world’s refugees stay in countries neighbouring their country of origin. 
  • However, the majority of the public (87 per cent) think the UK should offer refuge to people fleeing conflict and persecution.   

Mike Adamson, British Red Cross chief executive said:

“As the UK’s largest provider of refugee services, we see the kindness and support people have for refugees and people seeking asylum every day. Our polling reaffirms this, showing that most of us believe the UK should offer safety to people who are fleeing conflict or persecution. 

“Despite this support, conversations around refugees and asylum issues can be polarising and often includes misconceptions. That is why we’re launching a new data tool, to help debunk myths and separate fact from fiction. We hope this will empower people and bring a renewed focus on practical solutions that support local communities and the men, women and children in our asylum system.” 

The British Red Cross has launched its State of the Nation: the UK asylum system report, which includes accessible, interactive charts that anyone can use to understand the realities of the asylum system.

The report highlights key trends in the data. This includes:  

  • The highest recorded number of people in the asylum system waiting for a decision
  • How nationalities claiming asylum have changed over the last 10 years
  • The lowest number of family reunion visas granted in a 12-month period since 2014.     

The report shows asylum casework productivity at the Home Office has dropped by 70 per cent since 2015/16, despite a 307 per cent increase in asylum caseworking staff over the same time period. 

It also shows an unprecedented number of withdrawals from the asylum system – but there is no data on why those cases have been withdrawn, where the people are now or what support they have. From its services, the British Red Cross said it had been hearing about people who have been rejected due to administrative issues or aren’t even aware they’ve dropped out of the system. The charity says more detailed data from government is needed to fully understand the issue.  

Commenting on what the data tells us, Mike added: 

"The experience of our Red Cross teams across the country supports the data on destitution, with more and more people in the asylum system needing our help. This summer alone, our services saw destitution among refugees rise by 140 per cent.  

“The data tells us that practical solutions are urgently needed. We want to work with government to help tackle the backlog, create more safe routes and a more effective system that allows people to live in dignity with the support they need.” 


Notes to editors

The British Red Cross commissioned Opinium to conduct an online survey among 2,000 UK adults from 15-19 September 2023. Data were weighted to be nationally representative of UK adults by age, gender, region, and social grade. The poll found:

The proportion of migrants who claimed asylum in the UK last year

  • When asked what proportion of the 1.16 million people who came to the UK last year claimed asylum, only a fifth of people (18 per cent) identified that asylum seekers make up less than 10 per cent of overall migration, almost six in 10 people overestimated that number and more than one in five said they didn’t know the real figure or were unsure what an asylum seeker was.
  • The real figure is only seven per cent. Around a fifth of people (18 per cent) correctly identified that asylum seekers make up less than 10 per cent of overall migration.

 Where do people go to find safety – nearby countries, Europe, or the UK?

  • The majority (63 per cent) of the British public wrongly believe most people seeking asylum travel further than neighbouring countries for safety. 3 in 10 believe that ‘most refugees come to the UK’.    
  • Only a fifth (20 per cent) of respondents correctly identified that most refugees flee to live in a country neighbouring their country of origin. UNHCR data, highlighted in the British Red Cross report, reveals this is the case for 70 per cent of the world’s refugees.

The right to seek safety

  • Most people (87 per cent) said the UK should offer refuge to people fleeing conflict and persecution. Almost half (43 per cent) think the UK should offer refuge to ‘at least our fair share’ of people. 20 per cent said safety should be offered to anyone in need, and 23 per cent said sanctuary should be offered to a minimal number of people.    

This summer, British Red Cross services saw a 140 per cent increase in destitution for people with refugee status from 132 people between 15 June and 31 July to 317 people between 1 August and 15 September.  

About the British Red Cross    

For over 150 years, the British Red Cross has helped people in crisis, whoever and wherever they are. With millions of volunteers across 192 countries, the British Red Cross is part of an international humanitarian Movement that’s there for people before, during and after a crisis. Together, we are the world’s emergency responders. www.redcross.org.uk