What is a refugee? Breaking down myths and misconceptions

Information on refugees and asylum seekers

Under the terms laid out in the 1951 United Nations Convention a refugee is defined as someone who:

  • has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion;
  • is outside the country they belong to or normally reside in, and
  • is unable or unwilling to return home for fear of persecution.

The Convention was drafted in the context of the millions of refugees in post-war Europe, and only applied to European nationals. In 1967, a UN protocol extended the convention to cover any person, anywhere in the world, at any time. The UK, along with over 130 other countries, is a signatory to the Convention and its protocol. These two documents remain the foundation of refugee law today, committing signatories to certain obligations. However the interpretation of these international instruments varies from country to country.

What is asylum?

If a person is recognised as having refugee status it means he is given protection by the UK authorities and he will not be sent back to the country from which he fled. Since October 2000 there has been another form of protection against removal available in the UK through the Human Rights Act. This Act forbids the UK authorities from breaching a person's fundamental human rights. If a person can show that to return him to the country from which he fled would breach one of his fundamental human rights, he will be offered protection from removal in the UK. If protection from removal is offered on refugee grounds, the applicant gets what is called Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR). ILR means the applicant can stay permanently in the UK. Exceptional Leave to Remain (ELR) means the government gives people protection where they have not got all the evidence for full refugee status but they are recognised as being in danger. This means the person can stay for the duration granted at the discretion of the Home Office, usually between 2 and 4 years. ELR is to be replaced by a new status of "humanitarian protection".

Where do most refugees to the UK come from?

In 2001, the highest number of asylum applications came from nationals of Afghanistan (13% of applications), Iraq (9%), Somalia (9%) and Sri Lanka (8%) and Iran (5%)

Figures released in February 2003 demonstrate that most people fleeing to the UK are forced to leave oppressive countries which are often torn apart through conflict. In recognition of this the Government figures reveal that the number of people granted protection, being given either Refugee Status, or Humanitarian Status (Exceptional Leave to Remain) has increased by 25% since 2001. Overall, well over 50% of all applications are being granted permission to stay.

Can refugees work?

Since 23 July 2002, asylum applicants are no longer able to work or undertake vocational training until they are given a positive decision on their asylum application, irrespective of how long they wait for a decision. The Government justified this new policy on the basis that most asylum decisions would be made in less than six months and based on its view that employment acts as a 'pull-factor'. This measure does not affect asylum applicants who were allowed to work before 23July 2002, nor those who applied for their work restriction to be lifted before 23 July 2002.

Refugees given leave to remain are allowed to work.

Who decides asylum cases and how?

The Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate, the branch of the civil service which makes the initial decision in asylum applications, has its own website which contains some very useful information, including the guidelines its own staff use to make decisions. These guidelines are called the Asylum Policy Instructions.

How and where can an asylum application be made?

Asylum can only be claimed from inside the UK. Once inside the UK, an asylum application can be made at a police station, at the Home Office in Croydon or a claim can be made to an immigration officer. From January 8th, 2003, Single people and childless couples will receive no support - no food, cash or accommodation - unless they claim asylum as soon as they arrive at a UK port.

What happens after the initial claim for asylum?

Often there will be an initial 'screening interview' in which the Home Office only takes the personal details of the applicant and gives that person a reference number for their application. The 'substantive interview', or 'asylum interview', when the applicant gets an opportunity to describe what happened to them and what it is he or she fears, is held some time afterwards. Some applicants are taken to the Oakington Reception Centre, where their application is 'fast-tracked'. They are held in detention while a decision is made on their application within seven days.

How long does it take to get a decision after an application has been made?

The length of time taken to reach decisions is being reduced at the moment. In previous years an asylum-seeker would often have to wait for two years or more. The Home Office intends for a decision to be made in four months eventually, but at the moment the average is nine months.

What happens to an asylum-seeker whose application has been refused?

All asylum-seekers have a right of appeal to the courts. An independent adjudicator who is not employed by the Home Office hears the appeal. The Home Office intends all appeals to be heard within two months of the initial decision but this target is not yet being met. At the moment it is usually around six months until an appeal is heard. Once this appeal has been heard, the decision can take up to four weeks to arrive and sometimes longer.

How does an asylum-seeker live in the UK while the asylum application is being considered or while he or she is appealing against a refusal?

Most asylum applicants are given what is called 'Temporary Admission', which means they are allowed to live freely in the UK on the condition that they live at a certain address and that they report to a certain police station or immigration officer either weekly or monthly.

If the Home Office does decide to detain an applicant, it will usually be because they believe that the person will fail to maintain voluntary contact with the Home Office and will disappear. The Home Office tends to believe this of asylum-seekers who use deception, for example by using false identity documents once inside the UK or by failing to declare themselves as asylum-seekers as soon as they have entered the country.

Asylum-seekers are eligible for a type of support from the government administered by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). Under this scheme, asylum-seekers without resources of their own are given approx. £34.50 per week. Asylum-seekers can also be allocated accommodation by NASS, almost always somewhere in the north of England or in Scotland. It is almost impossible to secure accommodation in London or the southeast through NASS. Parents and dependent children (under 18) are allocated accommodation together and NASS can usually allocate relatives accommodation in the same town or region. If NASS refuses to offer support to an asylum-seeker or refuses to continue giving support, an asylum-seeker does have a right of appeal against that decision. It is best to contact a Citizen's Advice Bureau or local Refugee Council centre for the details of how to do this.

(Information from the Immigration Advisory Service)

Did you know...

  • Michael Marks, co-founder of Marks & Spencer, was a Russian born Polish refugee who came to England in 1884.
  • The great British tradition -Fish & Chips was bought to England by 17TH Century Jews, expelled from Portugal.
  • The brains behind the Great British Mini and Morris Minor was Alec Issigonis, a refugee who fled the war between Turkey and Greece in 1922.
  • One of the world�s most popular musicals- Les Miserables was adapted from a novel by Victor Hugo. A refugee, who fled France in 1851 and lived in exile for 19 years.
  • The Saint, Thunderbirds and The Muppet Show were all creations of Lew Grade a refugee from the Ukraine who went on to become one of the giants in British television.
All asylum seekers are scroungers taking our benefits
Asylum seekers are not allowed to claim mainstream welfare benefits. If they are destitute, their only option is to apply for support with the National Support Service (NASS), the Government department responsible for supporting destitute asylum applicants. NASS support is very basic, a single adult had to survive on £37.77 a week � 30% below the poverty line.

The UK is a soft touch and recieves more refugees than any other country in the EU
The number of refugees the UK accepted in 1999 is less than 0.002% of the UK�s population.
In 2001, applications for asylum reached a record 119,015 � 74% of these applications were refused.

Refugees are illegally entering this country
Refugees are not in the UK illegally. The UK has signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees, which means that anyone has the legal right to come here, apply for asylum and remain in the UK until a final decision on their asylum application has been made.

An asylum seeker can be granted indefinite leave to remain (ILR) or exceptional leave to remain (ELR). ELR is given to those who do not necessarily fit within the strict definition of a refugee, but are granted between one and four years leave to remain if, for example, they have no homeland to return to.

Individuals with ILR or ELR are able to access the full range of social services, housing and job seeker benefits but may be unaware of how to access them.

Our town is too nice for refugees.. they will try to escape, rapists and theives will terrorise us.
A report published by the Association of Chief Police Officers recently confirmed that there is no evidence for a higher rate of criminality among refugees and asylum seekers. In fact, having fled from their home country, they are more likely to become victims of crime in the UK. There have been countless attacks on dispersed asylum seekers around Britain, including the murder of an asylum seeker in Glasgow in 2001.

Asylum seekers are a threat to our future
This idea ignores the enormous contribution that refugees make to the economic and cultural life of the UK. Refugees bring with them a wealth of skills and experience - even the Home Office has recognised this and aims to put such skills to good use.
According to a recent Home Office study, migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees - are far from being a burden on UK taxpayers. On the contrary, in 1999-2000, migrants in the UK made a net fiscal contribution of approximately £2.5 billion, worth 1p on income tax.
Research carried out by Personnel Today in November 2001, found that 9 out of 10 employers want to take on refugees to meet skills' shortages, but do not due to ignorance of the law and confusing Home Office paperwork.

Refugees are flooding into the UK like ants.
Far from being the top destination, the UK ranked 12th in the EU in terms of asylum applications in relation to the overall population in 2001.
The truth about refugee movements is that the vast majority flee to countries bordering their home country. Nearly two thirds of all refugees are found in the Middle East and in Africa. The Middle East hosts more than 6 million refugees, and there are more than 3.3 million refugees in Africa. The world's poorest countries bear the responsibility for the largest numbers of refugees.

Refugees don't integrate and they threaten Briitish values, their level of education is low and many can't speak english.

The majority of refugees are highly experienced with a wealth of experience to share.
Research conducted by The National Institute of Adults Continuing Education on 440 Leicester based asylum seekers revealed 85% held qualifications, from school certificates to higher and professional qualifications and 80% had been in employed in a variety of jobs including professions, skilled manual trades, business and service industries. 85% spoke more than one language.

Refugees increase unemployment and take jobs away from real British Citizens.
Europe�s working population is declining, while its population�s aspirations to do only clean, sedentary, well paid jobs are rising. Many now rely on foreigners to work their farms, clean their houses, mind their children, lay their bricks or to deliver their pizza. Higher proportions of foreigners, including refugees, work in construction and manufacturing than native workers. Reflecting the contribution they make to the less popular industries in their host countries.
The UN�s Population Division reports that low European birth rates will mean the EU will need to accept 1.6 million migrants a year simply to keep its working-age population stable between now and 2050.
All refugees are economic migrants

According to a European Commission-funded study, Asylum Migration to the European Union: Patterns of Origin and Destination (1997), most asylum seekers don't choose their country of asylum: where they end up depends mostly on how quickly they fled and by what means. Of those who are able to choose, important factors are those such as existing communities, colonial bonds and knowledge of language. Only a small group are influenced by economic factors, and most have little previous knowledge of regulations about work or welfare support in the UK.

Many refugees are professionals who lost a great deal when they fled their country. They may have left successful jobs and a decent standard of living. To assume they are all here for a better standard of living is inaccurate

Such statements fail to recognise the connection between the situation in countries of origin and the people who seek refuge in the UK. The vast majority of asylum seekers continue to come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Sri Lanka, where serious human rights abuses continue to occur.

What is a refugee? Breaking down myths and misconceptions