Safest Ways For Refugees To Enter The UK

The government frequently invokes the phrase “safe and legal routes” to support ever-tougher regulations designed to stop migrants from arriving in the UK on their own initiative. The claim is that refugees should arrive to seek asylum via these secure and authorised channels rather than small boats or the backs of vehicles.

In this blog, we examine the safe and legal options that are available, how to use them, and the benefits that those who succeed are entitled to. In order to evaluate the effect of these customised routes on arrivals, we also looked at asylum claims submitted over the same time period.

UNHCR Resettlement Schemes

The UK resettlement scheme (or UKRS), the community sponsorship scheme, and the mandate resettlement scheme are the three general resettlement programmes run in collaboration between the UNHCR and the UK government. All three rely on UNHCR to determine who is qualified. The UK Refugee Resettlement policy guidance has all the details.

Under the first two of these three programmes, there is no application process for relocation. The UNHCR is clear about this. All one can do is wait and pray that they will be chosen. They have no control over the nation in which they will be given resettlement, even if they are chosen. To put things in perspective, they submit fewer than 1% of the total number of refugees in the globe each year for resettlement in their partner countries.

UNHCR identifies and interviews individuals with potential resettlement needs under the UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS), determines whether they are refugees, and then refers them to the UK if they fit the requirements for resettlement as outlined in UNHCR’s Resettlement Handbook. The programme is open to unaccompanied minors.

The UK resettlement programme works in collaboration with the community sponsorship programme. It stipulates that newly arrived families in the UK will receive assistance from community organisations, including housing for at least two years and assistance in gaining access to services like English language instruction, the NHS, social services, cultural orientation, and assistance with finding employment and achieving self-sufficiency. Before submitting the application to the Home Office, permission must be acquired from the local authority.

When the community sponsor is prepared and paired with a family, they must work together with the local authority to agree on the family’s arrival. In most cases, the family will follow 6 to 12 weeks later. Following the same procedures as for the UK resettlement programme, UNHCR identifies the family.

Reset, an agency that assists community groups in taking part in the programme, receives support from the Home Office. Community organisations in Yorkshire and the Humber are given support by the Refugee Council to take part in the programme. Being a community sponsor, which is typically a church group or registered charity, entails fulfilling a number of conditions.

Only those individuals who have been recognised as refugees by UNHCR and determined to be in need of resettlement are eligible for the third programme, known as the “mandate.” This programme is for those who have a close relative living in the UK, who must be residents of the country or have temporary permission to enter on a path to permanent residence, and who are prepared to house and support the refugee. The refugee must be a UK-based relative’s spouse, parent, grandparent, or minor child who is under the age of 18. Other family members are only eligible for the programme under exceptional conditions.

Grants under the mandate scheme are negligible, with only four last year, two in 2021 and five in 2020. As can be seen from the below, the majority of grants are under the UK resettlement scheme. In comparison to the other resettlement schemes we’ll look at here, we can see that the numbers are relatively low.

People are given six months of leave outside the rules after being accepted by the UK, which enables their immigration. They are then given an indefinite leave to remain and refugee status after they arrive here. This group may apply for refugee family reunion under Appendix Family Reunion (Protection) to bring eligible family members across to join them.

Refugee Family Reunion

Where a person meets the requirements, they are allowed to bring their partner and children to the UK if they have refugee status but have not naturalised as a British citizen. Applications for family reunions may be submitted in accordance with the immigration regulations’ Appendix Family Reunion (Protection). The regulations include no provision for youngsters to apply to bring their relatives to the UK.

The procedures for refugee family reunion do not officially recognise those who come as refugees.

Applications may also be submitted under paragraph FRP 7.1 on the grounds of exceptional circumstances if the rules cannot be met. These applications might be risky for the applicant and are significantly more demanding.

Recent FOI data obtained by the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL) reveals that between 2019 and 2022, 1,386 (66%) of family reunion applications refused by the Home Office were approved on appeal. Anyone making these applications must read our article, Top advice for making refugee family reunion applications outside the standard rules.

One of the most important paths for refugees to reunite with their families is through family reunion. However, without a legal assistance attorney with the necessary capacity and skill, the applications can be excessively complicated and challenging to navigate. Grant rates are hence generally low.

Those who are accepted are given a leave of absence that lasts until the same period as their refugee relative, but they are not given refugee status.

Hong Kong

On June 30, 2020, China’s parliament passed a harsh new National Security Law for Hong Kong without consulting Hong Kong’s own Legislative Council. In response, on July 22, 2020, the UK government announced the Hong Kong British National (Overseas) Visa. Later, on January 31, 2021, Appendix Hong Kong British National (Overseas) was launched. This article goes into great depth on the programme, including how to apply.

The BN(O) Status Holder and BN(O) Household Member paths are distinct from one another. The second of these is for adult children and their dependents who lived in the same home as a BN(O) Status Holder and were their immediate family members. A dependant partner, children, and other family members with a “high level of dependency” are all welcome to travel with BN(O) Status Holders.

The application price for this one and only of these customised routes is £180 for applications for two and a half years and £250 for applications for five years. You must additionally pay the Immigration Health Surcharge. It presently costs £1,560 for children under two and a half years and £3,120 for children under five.

The number of grants is beginning to decline dramatically, as can be seen in the chart below. The bulk of those who are eligible and want to move to the UK are probably already here because the programme has been in place for more than two years.

After five years of continuous residence in the UK (including any time spent there before the grant of leave through this route), those who were granted leave under this route are eligible to apply for indefinite leave. The No Recourse to Public Funds condition was first attached to this kind of leave, and there was no way to request that it be lifted. However, this was later changed, and today those having this sort of leave are able to request that the requirement be lifted.

Several other nationalities, including Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Malaysia, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan, Portugal, Russia, Taiwan, Vanuatu, Angola, Burma, Canada, and Yemen, have access to and have used the BNO route. Therefore, it is challenging to evaluate the effect of this route as a substitute for erratic arrivals. Less than 40 applications from Hong Kong residents are submitted each quarter, which has remained a relatively low amount.

Since the beginning of 2020, just 22 Hong Kong citizens have been awarded refugee status. This low number may be somewhat explained by delays, but it appears likely that some claimants withdrew their applications after the BNO route was established.


In August 2021, the Taliban took back control of Afghanistan, and as part of Operation Pitting, the UK evacuated about 15,000 individuals to safety. The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) and the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) are the two programmes that have been announced to assist Afghan refugees.

Applying for the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme is not possible. The plan is divided into three Pathways, the first of which was already full of people who had been evacuated as part of Operation Pitting before it ever opened. Pathway 2 is only available in instances that the UNHCR refers to the UK, just like the general resettlement programmes described above. The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office solicited expressions of interest from British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors, and Chevening alumni for Pathway 3, which had 1,500 spots available, including family members.

You can submit an application for ARAP. A person must first submit an application for a “eligibility assessment” that the Ministry of Defence conducts before they may use the ARAP scheme. It is explicitly stated on the form that this is not an application for leave. The Ministry of Defence submits the application to the Home Office on the applicant’s behalf if it is determined that they are qualified. Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP), Appendix, contains the pertinent immigration regulations. In December 2021, the ARAP eligibility requirements were further tightened.

In addition to bringing their partner, children, and extra family members, candidates may also include their family members in their original eligibility application.

Those who were successful received an extension of their leave for six months after they arrived in the UK (ultimately), followed by an indefinite leave to reside. They cannot participate in family reunions since they were not given refugee status. Afghans were placed in hotels as opposed to the Homes for Ukraine programme, and many have remained there up to this point despite being told they must vacate by the end of July 2023.

Given that persons evacuated from Afghanistan as part of Operation Pitting successfully filled both programmes’ first-year quotas, there have only been a small number of payments since then. Asylum seekers arriving over the Channel, on the other hand, have increased significantly.

Unknown how many of individuals travelling would have qualified under other ways, but many do so because they have relatives but cannot reunite with them under current programmes.


The Ukraine Family Scheme, the first of the UK’s three programmes to assist individuals affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was launched on March 4, 2022, just over a week after the invasion. On March 18, 2022, the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, often known as “Homes for Ukraine,” went into effect. For those who were already in the UK, a third programme was subsequently developed, thus that is not addressed here.

More family members, including grandparents, grandkids, siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles, may be brought than under any other aspect of the immigration laws or resettlement programme.

Successful applicants under the Ukraine schemes are granted three years’ leave to remain, and there is no path to settlement. At the moment the scheme looks successful due to the numbers arrived, but it has not been without its problems, both during set up and since, and the question of what happens to Ukrainians after year three will become more and more urgent as time passes, and it is unclear what the government’s plans are for this large group of people.

In the fiscal year that ended in March 2023, four Ukrainian nationals received protection; there were no rejections. Given the lack of a settlement option for Ukrainians in their unique plans, the number of people applying for asylum may start to rise.

In the second quarter of 2022, only one Ukrainian is known to have crossed the English Channel in a tiny boat and entered the UK.


The UK’s resettlement programmes have helped a sizable number of refugees and those in need of protection during the past few years. But this “bespoke” strategy has flaws, not the least of which is how challenging it is to set them up as soon as is required and how opaque some of the schemes’ access procedures are.

Overwhelmingly, those who have been able to access protection have been from Ukraine and Hong Kong and, for a brief moment in 2021, from Afghanistan. Notable recent examples of where safe routes are needed but have not been provided include Uganda (in respect of LGBTQI+ people) and Sudan.

There are no “safe and legal” ways for these individuals to enter the UK. Despite government efforts to create a mechanism for people to leave our interconnected world, we will still see people coming here on their own in search of protection.

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Written by:

Ghulam Mustafa

Director, Barrister