How much does it cost the UK to house asylum seekers?

With the UK government struggling to process the record numbers of asylum seekers arriving on its shores, questions continue to be asked as to the true economic cost of the country’s migration policy.

In February, a Home Office spokesperson said: “There are currently more than 45,500 asylum seekers in hotels costing the UK taxpayer £5.6 million a day” – approximately £2.4bn a year. The system is costing “the highest amount in over two decades”, the Home Office last year.

As of March, said HuffPost, there were 51,000 migrants in 395 hotels and hostels (including those who arrive via legal routes from Afghanistan and Ukraine). Two years ago, said The Telegraph, that figure was 2,600: “The cost is phenomenal.” 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in December that this would stop, proposing a stringent new Illegal Immigration Bill. Suella Braverman, the home secretary, has just revealed plans to house about 500 migrants in a “floatel”: a floating barge off the coast of Dorset named “Bibby Stockholm”. 

But the expectation, said The Telegraph, is that hotels will be used until 2025, even after the bill becomes law. 

How much does it really cost to house asylum seekers?

Home Office estimates (£5.6m a day) are significantly lower than the £6.8m per day claimed by the Daily Express, or £7m per day according to the Daily Mail.

But they are higher than Migration Watch UK’s estimate from last September, of about £1.3bn a year – £3.6m per day. That’s approximately £4,300 per asylum seeker per month.

FullFact clarified the discrepancy in February, putting the figure at £5.6m a day. The tabloid claims “ignore that around £1.2m of this cost goes towards providing ‘bridging accommodation’ for Afghan refugees who arrived in the UK via legal resettlement schemes”.

Many of the costs are covered by the UK aid budget for the first year asylum seekers are in the UK, including accommodation and food, more than doubling from 3.2% of the budget in 2016 to 7.5% in 2021. Much of this is down to arrivals from Afghanistan and Ukraine.  

But an “ever-ballooning” amount of taxpayer money is now going to the private sector providers, said Migration Watch UK. 

As well as record crossings, Migration Watch blamed “a mounting case backlog”. In December, the prime minister told the House of Commons that the asylum backlog – 132,000 cases at the time – was half the size of the backlog left by the Labour government in 2010.

But the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) has disputed this, saying that various statements by ministers “do not reflect the position shown by the Home Office’s statistics”. The UKSA chair said the backlog in 2010 was 19,000, meaning that outstanding claims had in fact increased almost ninefold, to 166,000.

This week The Times and The Guardian both described the UKSA comments as a “rebuke” to the prime minister.

What would the new plans cost? 

Braverman’s “flotel”, moored in the privately run Portland port off the coast of Weymouth, would be “significantly cheaper” than hotels, said the Home Office. 

But the three-storey barge would cost at least £20,000 per day, for the 18 months it will operate – £4,500 per day to berth it, plus the £15,000 daily chartering fee, plus utilities, healthcare and catering, said the Daily Mail

Actually, it could cost a whole lot more, said The Times. Dorset residents, the council and local police are planning legal challenges over fears of negatively affecting tourism. The Conservative MP for South Dorset, Richard Drax, said: “We will look at any way we can stop this.” 

The 93-metre vessel was previously used to detain asylum seekers in the Netherlands, but was taken out of service after an investigation uncovered multiple rapes, abuse and at least one migrant death, according to the Independent

The prime minister also plans to house new arrivals in “disused holiday parks, surplus military sites and university halls”. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly opposes this, as one of the former RAF bases suggested is in his Essex constituency. Priti Patel, Braverman’s predecessor, is helping her local council to block similar plans at a base in nearby Wethersfield.

The government’s plans could cost more than £9bn in the first three years, said the Refugee Council, based on up to 250,000 people having their claims deemed inadmissible. “They will be unable to have their asylum claims processed, unable to work and will be reliant on Home Office support and accommodation indefinitely,” it said. 

Estimates are likely to still be on the low side “based on our experience”, it added. The government said that it did not recognise the figures. 

The delayed plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda has already cost the UK £140m, paid to the Rwandan government. It would cost a further estimated £13,000 per person to carry out, according to the BBC. To date, no asylum seeker has been flown to Rwanda.

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