What will Brexit mean for asylum in the UK?

Brexit was a vote largely against regular movement from the EU, but what about refugees? A new series seek to explore what Brexit will mean for those in search of safety.

Lucy Mayblin
6 December 2016

A man from Iraq roasts mushrooms as children watch in the Dunkirk refugee camp, in northern France, in November 2015. Michel Spingler/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Brexit has already impacted upon many migrants living in the UK and the ‘exit’ hasn’t even happened yet. The level of speculation about what Brexit will mean for migrants living in the country, particularly EU migrant workers, has been intense. But less has been said about what exiting the EU could mean for asylum seekers.

The UK has remained relatively unaffected by the crisis of refugee reception occurring in Europe over the summers of 2015 and 2016 due to its geographical location and reluctance to take part in European burden sharing. But what of those asylum seekers who do make it to the UK? Here are five things that politicians, lawyers, policy makers, asylum seekers, and advocates might want to consider:

The right to asylum

The first thing to say is that in a sense the fundamentals won’t change. Britain is signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, and has ratified both. These international commitments are not specific to the EU. This means that people from other countries will still have the right to make an application for asylum if they reach British territory (and are not from a designated ‘safe country’). They will furthermore continue to have the right to have that application fairly assessed and to not be deported before their application is refused and all appeal rights exhausted.

It is slightly more complicated than this, of course. The EU has rules regarding reception conditions while awaiting a decision on an asylum application, and what a fair assessment looks like. Great Britain has signed up to some of these rules as well, though opted out of others, and so the experience of applying for asylum in Britain may deteriorate. But in its most basic form, leaving the EU won’t take away the duties under the UN refugee conventions.

The Dublin regulation

One of the issues which experts have been drawing attention to since the referendum is the Dublin regulation. This, in simple terms, allows European states to return asylum seekers to other European countries which they have passed through on their journey. Britain disproportionately benefits from this because it is an island off the northwest coast of continental Europe and is consequently not the first port of call for most asylum seekers. If Britain leaves the EU it will not be able to take part in Dublin transfers. In practice, however, the numbers of transfers between Britain and other countries under the Dublin regulation are pretty low and so the impact will probably not be significant enough for the British state to be concerned. Some have suggested that this may be positive for asylum applicants, such as those who have travelled via Calais, because following Brexit it will be much more difficult to send them back to France. It may possibly be easier for them to arrive to Britain from Calais as well.


In 2002 former Home Secretary David Blunkett made a deal with the French government whereby British border police would be located on French soil at Calais. This was part of the solution to the problem of the Sangatte migrant camp (superseded by the recently destroyed ‘Jungle’ camp) alongside an amnesty for some of the asylum seekers living in Sangatte. The agreement was a boon for Britain, as only individuals physically present on British soil may apply for asylum in Britain, and still stands today. There has been much speculation about whether or not the French will allow this to continue following Brexit, but so far the French commitment to this as part of the solution to the problem of migrants clustering in Calais seems to be holding.

Reception conditions, qualification, and procedures directives

The Dublin regulation is only one of several regulations making up the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). The Reception Conditions Directive sets out the minimum standards of reception (housing, welfare support, health care etc.) that states must provide to asylum seekers. The Qualification Directive defines the status of refugee and beneficiary of subsidiary protection, and the rights attached to each of these statuses. The Procedures Directive establishes some standards which much apply in the determination of all asylum applications. These three plus Dublin form the CEAS.

There have been two rounds of CEAS. Britain opted in to the first in 2005, which set minimum standards, and opted out of the second, which set common standards. Critics of the CEAS have argued that the directives lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ in which conditions are in fact eroded in countries with less punitive asylum systems, and that Dublin has highly negative impacts on asylum seekers. Since Britain has one of the most (if not the most) restrictive and punitive asylum systems in Europe, the directives which it signed up to had a positive impact on the treatment of asylum seekers. Yet by rejecting the common standards Britain retained its ability to make the experience of seeking asylum quite unpleasant with the aim of encouraging applicants to leave, and would-be applicants to stay away.

The logic of removing economic ‘pull factors’ (labour market access, higher levels of welfare support) as a means of reducing the number of asylum seekers has been shown to be unfounded but it is likely to continue. Leaving the EU will therefore lift some of the obligation to improve standards for asylum seekers and the hostile environment is likely to be developed in new directions.

EU funding for asylum-related projects

One issue which has not drawn the attention of commentators so far is that of EU funding for migration-related projects in Britain. For example, the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) is a €3.137 billion, EU-wide fund which runs from 2014-2020. It was established to “promote the efficient management of migration flows” and the UK has been allocated up to €370 million to spend on projects of its choosing for the seven year period.

The Home Office has so far spent most of this money on research into schemes that will increase deportation rates. However, one key project is the provision of support to asylum applicants in order to help them to navigate the asylum system and to access statutory support. A surprising number of asylum seekers find themselves destitute at various points in the application process, and many struggle to make sense of the asylum system. This project is a vital lifeline for many.

The NGO Migrant Help holds the current contract for doing this work (i.e they are paid from the EU AMIF fund). But what will happen when the allotted £3 million for Migrant Help ceases to be available from the EU after Brexit? In the likely event of a recession, it seems possible that this contract will end and that future governments will not prioritise its reinstatement. My own research has found that voluntary sector organisations are spending at least £13 million a year on supporting asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers – and that is a massive underestimation. The sector is increasingly stretched financially and it seems highly unlikely that new funding will be found unless a large organisation such as the British Red Cross steps up to fill the gap.

There are countless other examples of EU funding streams, such as regional structural funding, which support work with refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants in relation to destitution, integration, and access to basic services. EU funds also support research into related topics, such as healthcare service provision for diverse communities. The combined effect of the removal of this funding – for research and practice – within the context of an increasingly restrictive asylum policy regime, is likely to be highly negative for asylum seekers in Britain.

Contribute to Brexit Migration Watch

It is clear that Brexit is going to significantly impact immigration and asylum law, policy, and the lives of immigrants in the UK. And yet if the likelihood of ‘implications’ is clear, the specific policy, legal and other changes remain unknown. OpenDemocracy’s new series Brexit Migration Watch provides a space for expert analysis and reflection on the theme.

If you would like to contribute, please email the editors Lucy Mayblin (University of Warwick) or Cameron Thibos (openDemocracy) with a short pitch of up to 300 words and a two-sentence bio sketch.

Areas of interest include:

• Post-Brexit immigration policy in relation to EU, Commonwealth or other migrants

• Post-Brexit migration for study to the UK, student visas and higher education

• Brexit: implications for refugees and asylum seekers

• Legal implications in relation to immigration and asylum law and Brexit

• The rights of EU citizens living in the UK post-Brexit

• Focus on particular sectors affected by possible limits on labour migration e.g. agriculture or hospitality

• What will Brexit mean for the Common European Asylum System, Schengen, and/or Freedom of Movement within the EU?

• The impacts of Brexit on migrants e.g. hostility, harassment, solidarity, job opportunities, family reunion, plans to stay or go

• Brexit, the far right, and anti-immigrant sentiment

• Brexit and the refugee and migrant third sector (Charities, NGOs, community organisations etc).

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