People seeking asylum and refugees - who's who?

The definition of a refugee according to The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

In the UK, a person becomes a refugee when government agrees that an individual who has applied for asylum meets the definition in the Refugee Convention they will ‘recognise’ that person as a refugee and issue them with refugee status documentation. Usually refugees in the UK are given five years’ leave to remain as a refugee. They must then must apply for further leave, although their status as a refugee is not limited to five years.

A person who has left their country of origin and formally applied for asylum in another country but whose application has not yet been concluded.  Wherever possible, we prefer to describe someone as a person seeking asylum as we feel that the term asylum seeker is dehumanising.

A person whose asylum application has been unsuccessful and who has no other claim for protection awaiting a decision. Some people who have had their asylum claim refused voluntarily return home, others are forcibly returned. For some, it is not safe or practical to return until conditions in their country change.

Someone who has moved to another country for other reasons, such as to find work.

Developing countries – not the UK – look after most of the world's refugees


of refugees live in countries neighbouring their country of origin
  • At the end of 2020 around 82.4 million people were forcibly displaced across the world. Of these, 26.4 million were refugees, while 48 million were internally displaced within their country of origin.
  • 86% of the world’s refugees are living in countries neighbouring their country of origin, often in developing countries.
  • Over 6.7 million people have fled conflict in Syria, and many more are displaced inside the country. Turkey is the biggest refugee hosting country in the world. At the end of 2020 Turkey was providing safety to 3.7 million Syrian refugees.


The UK is home to approx. 1% of the 29.6 million refugees, forcibly displaced across the world.

People seeking asylum are looking for a place of safety


of refugees across the world are children
  • The top ten refugee producing countries in 2020 all have poor human rights records or on-going conflict. People seeking asylum are fleeing from these conflicts and abuses, looking for safety
  • In 2020, more than two thirds of the refugees across the world came from just five countries: Syria (6.7 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.2 million), Myanmar (1.1 million) and Somalia (0.9 million).
  • There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim
  • It is recognised in the 1951 Convention that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means in order to escape and claim asylum in another country – there is no legal way to travel to the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum
  • The 1951 Refugee Convention guarantees everybody the right to apply for asylum. It has saved millions of lives. No country has ever withdrawn from it
There is nothing in international law to say that refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach. When the UK was part of the EU, it had signed up to a European regulation allowing a country such as the UK to return an adult asylum seeker to the first European country they reached. There is nothing in law that compels a person to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach though. This means that countries on the edge of Europe have responsibility for a lot more asylum seekers than others. Some of the countries through which people travel to get to Europe are unsafe for some. Many have not signed the Refugee Convention, meaning that people who remain there will not get international protection and be able to rebuild their lives

Refugees make a huge contribution to the UK

  • About 1,200 medically qualified refugees are recorded on the British Medical Association’s database. It is estimated that it costs around £25,000 to support a refugee doctor to practise in the UK. Training a new doctor is estimated to cost between £200,000 and £250,000
  • Children in the UK asylum system contribute very positively to schools across the country. This in turn enables more successful integration of families into local communities

Most people who claim asylum in the UK are successful and are recognised as refugees.


of decisions made in the year ending June 2022 resulted in a grant of asylum or other form of protection
  • The UK asylum system is strictly controlled and complex. It is very difficult for people seeking asylum to provide the evidence required to be granted protection. Despite these challenges, in the year ending June 2021, 76% of initial decisions resulted in a grant of asylum or other form of protection.
  • The decision making process can take months or years, and there is a growing backlog of cases awaiting an initial decision. At the end of June 2022, 117,945 people were awaiting an initial decision on their asylum claim.
  • Since 2005 most people recognised as refugees through the asylum system are only given permission to stay in the UK for five years. This makes it difficult for them to make decisions about their future, to find work and make definite plans for their life in the UK

People seeking asylum do not get large handouts from the state


People seeking asylum are often living on Home Office support equivalent to under £6 per day
  • People seeking asylum do not come to the UK to claim benefits. Most know nothing about welfare benefits before they arrive and had no expectation that they would receive financial support
  • Most people seeking asylum are living in poverty and experience poor health and hunger. Many families are not able to pay for the basics such as clothing, powdered milk and nappies
  • Almost all people seeking asylum are not allowed to work and are forced to rely on state support – this can be as little as £6 a day to live on


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