As she fought for her political survival in parliament on Monday, Suella Braverman claimed the south coast of England is being invaded by asylum seekers.
Her claim has been refuted by migration experts, who believe it falls down on a number of fronts.
Madeleine Sumption, the director of the Oxford Migration Observatory, said: “This is not an invasion – it’s not an army. But if instead she is referring to the number of people coming, we can compare the figures to other countries and see that the numbers coming in to the UK are relatively manageable.”
Seventeen EU countries received larger numbers of asylum applications per capita last year, according to an analysis of official figures by the OMO.
The UK received eight asylum applicants for every 10,000 people across the country in 2020/21, the figures show. This compared with just under 23 for Germany and just under 18 in France. Cyprus received 153 applicants for every 10,000 people in the country, the highest among 32 European countries.
Braverman appeared to argue that the UK is facing disproportionately more asylum seekers than at other times in our recent history, saying the numbers were “unprecedented”.
“When we face so many arrivals so quickly, it is practically impossible to procure more than 1,000 beds at short notice,” she said.
Figures from the Home Office showing the numbers of people claiming asylum from 1979 to 2021 demonstrate that the UK is on an upward curve now, but it is not unprecedented.
The number of asylum claims in 2021 was below 60,000 – well below the peaks of more than 80,000 of the early 2000s when there were conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. The Syrian refugee crisis beginning in 2014 caused a slight rise in overall numbers. But the current peak is closer to the levels in 1991 when there were conflicts in Sri Lanka and Somalia.
The trend of increasing numbers of asylum claims at the end of 2021 has continued into 2022. Data to the year ended March 2022 show a considerable year-on-year increase in asylum claims generally and in small boat arrivals for the quarterly period.
Sumption said that the numbers of asylum seekers have come in waves with occasional steep rises, depending on external pressures.
“Asylum numbers have always gone up and down over time. There is plenty of research showing that asylum numbers are volatile and governments need some flexibility to deal with the changes,” she said.
The significant and highly visible trend that has become central to current political debate is the rise in small boat arrivals. Almost 40,000 people have crossed the Channel in small boats so far in 2022, according to government data – the highest number since figures were first gathered in 2018. In 2021, the total was 28,526 people, while in 2020 it was 8,404.
Nearly all of those arriving by small boats claim asylum, according to the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence.
Over the year ending in June, small boat arrivals accounted for half of the 60,000 asylum claims.
The top five nationalities entering by small boat in the first quarter of 2022 were Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Eritrean, all of whom have very high chances of being granted asylum.
Colin Yeo, a barrister and author specialising in immigration, has pointed out that the numbers arriving by small boat are low compared with those granted through official schemes. A total of 75,764 visas were issued in the last year under the Hong Kong scheme for British nationals. In the last nine months, almost double that number – 140,000 – entered the UK through the Ukrainian scheme. Over the last year, a quarter of refugee arrivals into the UK came by small boats or lorries, he wrote.
Ministers have also focused on the growth in the number of arrivals by small boat by Albanians, who now make up about 60% of the numbers crossing the Channel every day.
About 12,000 Albanians have arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel so far this year, of whom 10,000 were single, adult men, the government has said. This compares with 50 in 2020.
In her combative Commons performance, Braverman denied ignoring legal advice to procure more accommodation amid warnings that a temporary holding centre at Manston in Kent had become dangerously overcrowded.
Critics claim that the crisis at Manston, where 4,000 people are living in accommodation for 1,600 people, is being fuelled by the failure to deal with a backlog of asylum claims.
In June, a total of 122,213 people were awaiting an initial decision on their asylum applications. A Guardian analysis has found that the processing backlog has risen 72% in a year – more than double two years ago and treble the period before the Covid pandemic – and that 75% of the total had been waiting for a decision for more than six months.