UK Outspends the Rest of Europe on Housing Asylum Seekers Commentary
Wikimeda Commons / Stephen Richards
UK Outspends the Rest of Europe on Housing Asylum Seekers

A recent report by One, an aid campaign, and figures from the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have found that the United Kingdom spends 40% more than its European neighbors on housing a single potential refugee or asylum seeker. This cost takes up nearly a third of its official aid budget and has caused a slash in aid spent overseas by 16.4%

The cost comes as a shock to the regular reader/browser of the UK’s immigration and asylum laws since the United Kingdom is no longer a part of the Common European Asylum System and its cornerstone third iteration of the Dublin Agreement and the Schengen Area Rules. There was already a lethal interplay between the Dublin Agreement, which advocated for a “one chance of asylum” rule and uneven levels of protection due to differentiated integration across the rest of Europe.

For instance, as per the ECRE 2009, asylum recognition rates for Iraqis in 2007 were 13% in the UK, 82% in Sweden, 30% in Denmark, and 0% in Slovenia and Greece. This is in parallel to the corresponding 20,000 Syrian refugees taken in between 2015 and 2020 and the 210,800 Ukrainian refugees taken in since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In comparison, Germany took in 1,086,355 Ukrainian refugees and Czechia took in 368,300 as of September 12, 2023.

The UK spent 29%, or $4.54 billion (£3.64 billion), of its total aid budget on refugees, according to the provisional figures for 2022. Germany spent 12.8% of its aid budget on housing refugees, the US 12%, and France 9.4%. Only the United States and Germany spend more than the UK in absolute terms on housing refugees, but their total aid budgets are much larger.

The OECD gives countries discretion to utilize their aid budgets to cover the first year of the costs of housing refugees; however, the rules are flexible on what costs can be covered. The One report finds that in 2022, the UK spent £3.7 billion of its aid budget on refugees in the UK, an increase on the £1.1 billion spent in 2021. The rise is not simply because of an increase in the number of Ukrainian asylum applicants but also due to a 400% increase in asylum seekers since December 2017, as well as a growing backlog of asylum claims.

The Wider Impact of Accommodating Ukrainian Refugees

The UK has been criticized for inappropriately loading more of the costs of accommodating refugees on to its overseas aid budget than other countries. The Home Office’s housing costs for asylum seekers have risen exponentially due to the number of Ukrainian refugees, leading to dramatic cuts in UK aid to alleviate poverty in Africa and Asia. Andrew Mitchell, the development minister, has been among those publicly critiquing the Home Office’s disproportionate aid cut in the past, but the One report suggests structural reform to bring costs under control has yet to be inititated.

The UK is spending three times as much on housing refugees as on bilateral aid to Africa, mutilating a program already battered by a cut in the proportion of gross national income spent on aid from 0.7% to 0.5%. Notwithstanding the cuts, the UK remains one of the world’s largest donors in absolute terms behind the US, Germany, France, and Japan.

The OECD figures also reveal foreign aid from official donors in 2022 rose to an all-time high of $204 billion, up from $186 billion in 2021.

One factor behind the 2022 increase in aid was aid to Ukraine rising to $16.1 billion—up from barely $920 million in 2021—including $1.8 billion in humanitarian aid. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has given rise to a significant increase in funding for receiving refugees in donor countries.

However, the figures confirm the fears of the Global South that Ukraine is proving a diversion for rich countries, leaving the poorest countries in the world strapped for cash in aid. The figures illustrate a 0.7% decline in bilateral Official Development Assistance (ODA) to least developed countries (LDCs) in 2022, a burgeoning drop from previous years. In 2021, UK Official Development Assistance (ODA) spent was £11,423 million, a decrease of £3,054 million (21.1% decrease) in 2020.

The chair of the OECD development assistance committee, Carsten Staur, remarked: “In a situation with increasing pressures on scarce development resources, we need to keep our commitment to support the least developed countries, many of which are in Africa.”

Amid the Ukrainian crisis and hosting the consequent flood of refugees, it is imperative to keep other countries in consideration when making aid cuts, which are due to remain the same in the absence of wider structural reform to the UK’s official aid budget.

However, more than half of asylum applicants in the UK are from countries other than Ukraine, such as Syria and Afghanistan. This suggests the damage to the aid budget is likely to be long term without structural reform to the Home Office’s handling of asylum claims, which is currently treating its overseas aid budget as a “blank cheque,” according to Romilly Greenhill, the director of One. Greenhill said, “Their policies are creating a lose-lose situation, which is bad for refugees, bad for people in low- and middle-income countries, and bad for the long-term security and prosperity of the UK.”

The Solution

The report also establishes that if asylum seekers spent 60 days or fewer in hotels that cost £120 a night, the costs could be cut by £1 billion. It also suggests that the UK could ringfence the overseas aid budget at the current 0.5% of GDP, thus protecting the amount of money that is being spent for its original purpose of alleviating poverty abroad. Countries such as Sweden have set caps on the percentage of the aid budget spent on domestic refugees.

The United Kingdom’s immature and absurd handling of its aid budget is reminiscent of a child handed a credit card with no spending limit; the least to be said is that better could be expected and achieved if the proportion of the aid budget attributed to hosting refugees is managed professionally and realistically, with other attributions kept in consideration. Or the Home Office could hire the services of a more competent accountant.


Eisha Chaudhry is a law student at Birkbeck College, University of London.


Suggested citation: Eisha Chaudhry, UK Outspends the Rest of Europe on Housing Asylum Seekers, JURIST – Student Commentary, October 17, 2023,

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