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Asylum: What Are ‘Safe and Legal’ Routes?

The government is seeking to reduce ‘unlawful migration to the UK’, by introducing sanctions against those migrating to the UK for humanitarian protection, other than through ‘safe and legal’ routes. This article will provide an overview of the different ‘safe and legal’ routes currently in place in the UK and their limitations. 

‘Safe and Legal’ Routes

The government has introduced the Illegal Migration Bill, the Rwanda policy and the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, to deter ‘unlawful migration’ by ‘irregular’ or ‘unsafe and illegal routes’. Pursuant to these, people seeking asylum would only be able to come to the UK through ‘safe and legal’ routes.

The government’s measures are currently being challenged, with the Illegal Migration Bill recently suffering defeats in the House of Lords and the Rwanda policy being found unlawful by the Court of Appeal. 

The ‘safe and legal’ routes that currently exist in the UK are: 

  1. Refugee family reunion;
  2. Refugee resettlement programmes; and,
  3. Nationality-specific immigration routes.

These routes have varying criteria and grant applicants different status and associated conditions. Each will be dealt with in turn below. 

Refugee Family Reunion

Refugee Family Reunion is a route for the family members of people who have been granted asylum and recognised as refugees in the UK. Eligible family members must have been immediate family members of the person now recognised as a refugee in the UK, before that person left their country of origin, and must continue to be so. Immediate family members are partners and dependent children. Other relatives are not eligible under this route and would instead need to apply for leave under alternative routes, such as those outlined below, or the broader family routes

Following the introduction of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, the Refugee Family Reunion route was narrowed. Now, people who are granted asylum and recognised as refugees in the UK are split into two groups. Group 1 is for those who travelled directly and without delay to the UK from the country which they fled and who have a good cause for their unlawful entry and/or presence in the UK. All others fall under group 2. Those granted status under group 1 are automatically entitled to sponsor eligible family members under the Refugee Family Reunion route, whereas those under group 2 can only sponsor eligible family members if the refusal of their application would breach the UK’s international obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

In any event all applications under this route are free. Successful applicants are not granted asylum nor recognised as refugees, rather they are granted leave in line with the family member who sponsored them.

Refugee Resettlement Schemes

Refugee Resettlement Schemes are schemes for people who have been granted asylum and are already recognised as refugees in a country other than the UK. Under such schemes, people are voluntarily transferred to the UK and granted permanent residence – they do not go through the asylum process in the UK. 

People do not apply to be resettled themselves but rather are identified and referred to schemes, such as by UK and/or foreign immigration authorities, partner NGOs and/or the UNHCR. 

There are three types of resettlement schemes:

  1. UK Resettlement Scheme;
  2. Community Sponsorship; and,
  3. Mandate Resettlement Scheme.

The UK Resettlement and Community Sponsorship schemes are both for vulnerable refugees in refugee camps next to countries in conflict and/or that are unstable. Under the UK Resettlement Scheme, local authorities in the UK are responsible for integrating the relevant people with refugee status upon their arrival in the UK, whereas under the Community Sponsorship Scheme, such people are matched with local community groups that have volunteered to provide integration support in the UK.

The Mandate Resettlement Scheme is for those who have a close family member in the UK, who has permission to stay or is on a route to obtaining permanent status, and who would be willing to accommodate them.

Nationality-Specific Immigration Routes

There are also nationality-specific immigration routes. These only exist for three countries at present. 


Following the withdrawal of UK forces from Afghanistan in 2021, three ‘safe and legal’ Afghan routes were introduced. These are:

  1. Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy;
  2. Ex Gratia Scheme; and,
  3. Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme

The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy and the Ex Gratia Schemes are primarily based on applicants’ previous employment in Afghanistan with the UK government, who now face related risks. 

The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme is for Afghan nationals and their dependents in Afghanistan or neighbouring countries who are at risk due to the situation in Afghanistan. There are three referral pathways for this scheme for relevant people who:

  1. Have been evacuated or identified for evacuation at the time of the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan;
  2. Have fled to a neighbouring country, have been granted refugee status and identified by the UNHCR – this is a type of resettlement scheme;
  3. Are at risk, such as British Council Workers in Afghanistan – the period to express interest for consideration under this pathway has now passed.

Applicants under these routes would not be granted asylum or recognised as refugees in the UK.


Following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the Home Office introduced various schemes for Ukrainians. The Home Office introduced certain temporary visa concessions for Ukrainians, as well as introduced Appendix Ukraine Scheme which set out three schemes:

  1. Ukraine Family Scheme;
  2. Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme; and,
  3. Ukraine Extension Scheme. 

The Ukraine Family Scheme is for Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians with close Ukrainian relatives, living inside or outside the UK. Applicants must apply to join or accompany a UK-based relative, who must meet the immigration status requirement: they must be British, settled, hold refugee status/humanitarian protection or pre-settled status. Applicants and their sponsor must be immediate family members, extended family members or their immediate family members.

The Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme is for those living outside of the UK. Applicants need an approved sponsor who could accommodate them for at least six months. A family unit would need the same sponsor.

The Ukraine Extension Scheme is for those who had status in the UK on 18 March 2022, or which last ended on 01 January 2022, and their partners and children.

Applications under these schemes are free. These schemes are not dependent on applicants’ needs for protection, however, in all cases where applicants are applying from outside the UK, they must have been living in Ukraine immediately before 01 January 2022 – except for children born on or after that date. Consequently, successful applicants are not granted leave to remain as refugees. They are granted leave to remain for up to three years, with benefits other categories of leave including refugees do not benefit from, such as permission to access to public funds, work and study.

Hong Kong

Following human rights issues in Hong Kong in 2021, the Home Office introduced the Hong Kong British National (Overseas) (‘BN(O)’) visa and the Hong Kong BN(O) Household Member visa to facilitate the migration of people with British Nationality Overseas status and their dependents to the UK. 

Richmond Chambers recently hosted a webinar on UK visas for Hong Kong BN(O)s and their family members.

Applicants under the Hong Kong British National (Overseas) route must:

  1. Be at least 18 years old;
  2. Be a British National (Overseas) under the Hong Kong (British Nationality) Order 1986;
  3. Be ordinarily resident in Hong Kong (if applying to enter the UK);
  4. Be able to accommodate and support themselves in the UK for at least six months;
  5. Not fall for refusal;
  6. Provide a valid TB certificate, if required.

The Hong Kong BN(O) Household Member route is for adult children (aged 18 or over) of a BN(O) Status Holder or a BN(O) Status Holder’s partner, born on or after 01 July 1997, to live, work and study in the UK. 

Applicants under these routes must pay an application fee and the Immigration Health Surcharge. Successful applicants are granted leave to remain on a route to settlement, with permission to work and study.

Limitations of Current ‘Safe and Legal’ Routes

Current ‘safe and legal’ routes are extremely limited both in their eligibility criteria and the countries to which they apply. People coming to the UK for humanitarian reasons would need to be an immediate family member of a person already recognised as a refugee in the UK, recognised as a refugee in another country themselves or from one of the three countries identified above, in order to come to the UK via ‘safe and legal’ routes. 

At present, these ‘safe and legal’ routes are different from claiming asylum in the UK. Many people who have been granted asylum in the UK do not qualify for any of these ‘safe and legal’ routes. For those who do qualify for these routes, there are likely to be practical limitations in the country they are applying from which would make these routes inaccessible. 

The government’s push to reduce ‘unlawful migration to the UK’ without significantly expanding ‘safe and legal’ routes available has been widely criticised for restricting people’s ability to seek asylum in the UK. This was highlighted by a member of parliament who asked the Home Office Permanent Secretary: ‘if I am a young person escaping religious persecution in an east African country who has an aunt in the UK, or if I am somebody who is escaping the besieged city of Marib in Yemen—escaping from a warzone—with a distant relative in the UK, what is my best route, safely and legally, to get into the UK?’ to which the response was, ‘There is no dedicated safe and legal route for either of those conflicts.’

Contact our Immigration Barristers 

For expert advice and assistance regarding an application for a protection, human rights, family reunion, Ukrainian scheme, Hong Kong BN(O) or any other application, or for updates and/or advice on ‘safe and legal routes’ in the UK, contact our immigration barristers in London on 0203 617 9173 or complete our enquiry form below.


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