This essay, on the reality of immigration statistics, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 28 August 2022, under the headline “There are lies, damn lies, and then there is Home Office propaganda about migrants”.
There are Home Office statistics and then there are Home Office press releases. And the gap between the two is often so wide that even the most resourceful migrant would be unlikely to discover a way of navigating from the one to the other.
Take, for instance, the latest panic over Albanians. It began with an article in the Daily Mail, drawing on a “secret military intelligence report”, claiming that 40% of cross-Channel migrants were Albanian. Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday claimed that “government officials believe the majority” of people arriving on small boats were from Albania, a claim presented without challenge as a fact. That same day, the Home Office unveiled an agreement with Tirana to “fast-track” the removal of Albanians, who apparently don’t require asylum because they come from a “safe and prosperous nation”.
The statistics tell a different story. The number of Albanians crossing the Channel has certainly increased, but in the first six months of this year stood at around 17% of the total. It is possible that the figures have dramatically changed since the end of June, but we have little evidence for that except for unverified Home Office sources and a secret document from military intelligence.
The claim that Albanians don’t need asylum because they come from a “safe” country is also belied by the data. In the year ending this June, 53% of Albanian claimants had been granted asylum, or other forms of leave to stay in the country, on first decision, and a higher proportion on appeal. Between January and June this year that amounted to 385 people; fewer than half that figure were formally refused. What happens to the majority of Albanians who might otherwise have been granted asylum when they are placed in a “fast-track” deportation lane, no one will say.
The data also gives the lie to the claim made by Priti Patel that most asylum claims are bogus and that “70% of people crossing the Channel… are economic migrants”. In the year ending this June, three-quarters of all those claiming asylum were successful. Half of those who appealed against refusals were also successful, pushing the total success rate to almost 90%.
What of cross-Channel migrants? Of all the migrants who have arrived on small boats since 2018, 82% are still waiting for a verdict on their asylum claim. It shows how sclerotic is the Home Office process; this is not just because of higher numbers – though numbers have gone up, they are still below the figures seen in the early Noughties – but because it’s a system that seems almost designed to be glacially slow.
Of the fewer than one in five whose cases have received a decision, 49% were successful. Just 8% had their application turned down. And the remainder? The government refused to make a decision because they were deemed to have come from a “safe” country. But, given that the majority of Albanians, who come from a supposedly “safe” country, are granted asylum, one would imagine that a large proportion of those whose application the Home Office refused to consider would also, in a less ideologically driven system, have been successful.
The figures also question the claim that there is no need for unauthorised journeys to Britain. In 2018, just three Afghans – 1% of arrivals – came by boat across the Channel. In the first six months of this year that figure had shot up to 2,066 – about 16% of the total. The main cause is, of course, the Taliban takeover of a year ago.
There are supposed to be two official routes for Afghan asylum seekers. So why are so many arriving by boat from Calais? Because not only is it murderously difficult to apply for a visa under the eyes of the Taliban, but even those who might be thought of as the most deserving are often refused asylum. Last week, the story emerged of a former female Afghan judge who had jailed dozens of Taliban fighters, many of whom have been freed from jail since the Taliban victory and many of whom are now in government. She is in hiding with her son, in fear of her life. She has family in Britain.
Nevertheless, the Home Office rejected her asylum application. It’s almost as if the government wants Afghans to trust to people smugglers to help them make the perilous journey to Calais and then to embark on a rubber dinghy.
Britain also grants asylum status to many Rwandan refugees – at least seven so far this year. So, while the government has signed a deal with Rwanda for the mass deportation of unauthorised migrants, insisting that it is a “safe and prosperous” nation, it acknowledges at the same time that the country is unsafe enough for people to be forced to flee and be granted asylum.
Home Office statistics expose the hollowness of Home Office propaganda, indeed its mendacity. By themselves, however, they will not change anyone’s mind about the issue. This is not because people are irrational or because they are indifferent to facts, but because facts are always understood within a particular framework, as part of a narrative or story. And the story about asylum seekers that has become almost received wisdom is that most, especially those coming across the Channel, are scammers jumping the queue and that they deserve locking up and deportation.
The statistics not only help unpick that Home Office myth but point also to a different story. They show that there is no “queue” to jump; that the real problem is Britain’s refusal to open legal routes, even for those whose lives are in mortal danger, and to whom Britain owes a moral obligation; that those who cross the Channel on small boats are mostly genuine refugees forced to make that journey because of Home Office intransigence; that the policy of mass deportation of unauthorised migrants is dangerous and immoral.
That’s the story we need to tell. And the statistics provide the raw material from which to weave that different narrative, one that is not only more truthful but also more humane.