Refugees, asylum seekers and the Syrian crisis – what is Scotland’s role?

Before someone can be granted refugee status they must make an asylum application. Across the EU, asylum applications have increased sharply since 2013.

  • 3 million – number of asylum applications in the EU in 2015, twice as many as in 2014. This increase is partly as a result of the situation in Syria (Eurostat 2016)
  • 38,878 – number of asylum applications (main applications and dependants) in the UK in 2015 (2.9% of the EU total), a 20.2% increase from 2014
  • 2,846 – number of Syrian asylum applications to the UK in 2015 (Syrians made up the fifth largest-group or 3% of asylum seekers) (Figure 14)
  • 400 – number of Syrian refugees resettled in Scotland under the VPR Scheme since November 2015.

Asylum applications (main applicants and dependents) to the UK by nationality, first ten countries of origin, 2015


Source: SPICe, based on data from UK Government 2016

What is the UK Government doing?

Since 2013, the European Commission has proposed a number of relocation and resettlement schemes[1] for people in need of protection, which the UK Government has chosen not to participate in.  However, in September 2015 the UK Government extended its Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement (VPR) Programme which was set up in January 2014 to provide a route for selected Syrian refugees in the Syrian region to come to the UK.

Under the VPR Scheme, the UK Government committed, in September 2015 and April 2016, respectively, to resettling 20,000 Syrians plus 3,000 (mainly children) by 2020.  Between January 2014 and the end of December 2015, 1,337 Syrian nationals were resettled under the scheme (UK Government 2016). This was in addition to the 5,850 Syrian nationals who were granted a positive asylum decision between January 2012 and December 2015 (UK Parliament 2016), taking the total number of Syrian refugees accepted into the UK over that period of time to 7,187.

Asylum seekers are not entitled to mainstream, non-contributory social security benefits, for example income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance and Income Support, but they may be eligible for accommodation and/or financial support from the Home Office. They are eligible for free NHS healthcare and may be eligible for free prescriptions, free dental care, free eyesight tests and vouchers for glasses. Asylum seeker children have the same entitlement to state education as other children and may be eligible for free school meals. Broadly, refugees can claim social security benefits and tax credits, and access services, on the same basis as UK nationals.

How are asylum seekers and refugees being supported in Scotland?

Asylum and immigration are reserved to the UK Government and Parliament. However, the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduced a policy of national dispersal for asylum seekers across the UK and many areas of social policy concerning the integration of refugees and asylum seekers living in Scotland are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, for example, education, interpreting and translation, policing, housing, health, provision of legal aid and child protection (Scottish Government 2013).

In 2013, the Scottish Government, in partnership with COSLA and the Scottish Refugee Council, published New Scots: Integrating Refugees in Scotland’s Communities, a strategy for 2014-17 aimed at providing a clear framework to support the integration of refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland.  In 2015, the Scottish Government set up a refugee taskforce to examine and help establish capacity in a range of services in Scotland, including housing, health services, language support, transport and social services.

The VPR scheme is voluntary for local authorities and they are encouraged to think carefully about whether they have the infrastructure and support networks needed to ensure the appropriate care and resettlement. The first 12 months of a refugee’s resettlement costs are funded by the UK government which has also committed to providing additional funding to assist with costs incurred in future years (UK Government 2015).  Roughly half of Scotland’s 32 local authorities are participating in the VPR Scheme. The first Syrian refugees arrived on 17 November 2015, and Scotland now has more than 400.  Action by the Scottish Government to help refugees and asylum seekers includes:

  • Providing English language training to all refugees as part of the New Scotsrefugee integration strategy, with funding allocated from the Overseas Aid Budget (Scottish Government 2016a2016a).
  • Launching the New Refugee Doctors Project, run by the Bridges Programmes, in partnership with the BMA and NHS Education for Scotland which will offer around 30 doctors support to access training, language support and professional mentoring and the work experience they need to re-enter their profession.
  • Amending existing legislation to ensure that Syrian refugees are able to benefit from student support in Scotland,[2] and to enable Syrian refugees to take up the Education Maintenance Allowance[3] (Scottish Government 2016b2016b).
  • Donating, in coordination with the Scottish Book Trust, 1,000 children’s books and toys to refugee families across Scotland (Scottish Government 2016c2016c).

The Scottish Government has also committed funds to helping refugees outside of Scotland, for example through the donation of over £500,000 to charities with humanitarian operations in mainland Europe (Scottish Government 2015, 2016d2016d).

[1] Relocation is the transfer of persons who need or already receive international protection in one EU Member State to another EU Member State.  Resettlement is the transfer of non-EU nationals or stateless persons who have been identified as in need of international protection to an EU state where they are admitted either on humanitarian grounds or with the status of refugee.

[2] The Education (Student Support) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Scotland) Regulations 2016 with regulations 5-10 making amendment to student support, coming into force on August 1, 2016.

[3] Regulations 1 and 11-13 amend eligibility for EMAs and will come into force on 31 March 2016.

Anouk Berthier and Iain McIver


Eurostat (2016) Asylum statistics. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2013) New Scots: Integrating Refugees in Scotland’s Communities, 2014 – 2017, COSLA, Scottish Refugee Council, Scottish Government.  Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2015) £300k to help refugees in Europe, Newsroom. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2016a) All Refugees in Scotland Receiving English Language Training, Newsroom. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2016b) Helping Syrian students, Newsroom. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2016c) Early reading support for refugee families, Newsroom. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2016d) Grant for medical supplies in Lesbos, Newsroom. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

UK Government (2015) Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement (VPR) Programme, Guidance for local authorities and partners, Home Office. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

UK Government (2016) National Statistics, List of tables, Asylum data tables, Home Office. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

UK Parliament (2016) Asylum Statistics, House of Commons Library. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]