Asylum seekers and refugees - who's who?

In the UK, a person is officially a refugee when they have their claim for asylum accepted by the government. If the 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.

A person whose asylum application has been unsuccessful and who has no other claim for protection awaiting a decision. Some refused asylum seekers 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.

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

“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.”

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

  • About 85% of the world’s refugees are living in developing countries, often in camps
  • Over 3 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. It is currently providing safety to 3.4 million Syrian refugees. Lebanon hosts 1 million refugees. In 2017, 1 in 6 people in Lebanon people was a refugee. By the end of 2018 the UK had resettled 13,961 Syrian refugees
  • The likelihood someone will be granted refugee status depends on the country where they apply for asylum. In the UK in 2018, 30% of people who applied were granted protection. In some countries, such as Switzerland and Finland, over 70% of applications succeed
The UK is home to less than 1% of the world’s refugees – of more than 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide

Asylum seekers are looking for a place of safety


children applied for asylum having arrived in the country of refuge alone, with no parent or guardian, worldwide in 2017
  • The top ten refugee producing countries in 2017 all have poor human rights records or on-going conflict. People seeking asylum are fleeing from these conflicts and abuses, looking for safety
  • 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. A European regulation allows a country such as the UK to return an adult asylum seeker to the first European country they reached. 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

Britain's asylum system is very tough

  • The UK asylum system is strictly controlled and complex. It is very difficult to get asylum. The decision-making process is extremely tough and many people’s claims are rejected
  • Initial Home Office decision-making remains poor. Many refugees had to rely on the courts rather than the Government to provide them with the protection they need. The proportion of asylum appeals allowed in the twelve months to September 2018 was 38%
  • There are particular problems with decisions on women’s claims. Women who turn to the courts for help when their asylum claims are refused are more likely to have their protection needs recognised by the courts. Women tell us that it is in part because the asylum system can feel very hostile and it is difficult for them to give full details of the violence they have experienced
  • Since 2005 most people recognised as refugees 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
In 12 months up to September 2018, 25,061 people entered detention in an immigration removal centre; among them many people seeking asylum. 54% were released back into the community rendering their detention pointless. Shamefully, around half of all asylum seekers find themselves detained during the asylum process. Despite the Government’s 2010 pledge to end child detention for immigration purposes, in the twelve months up to September 2018, 60 children were locked up in immigration detention

Asylum seekers and refugees do not get large handouts from the state

  • Asylum seekers 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 asylum seekers 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 asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are forced to rely on state support – this can be as little as £5 a day to live on
  • Asylum seeking women who are destitute are vulnerable to violence in the UK. More than a fifth of the women accessing our therapeutic services had experienced sexual violence in this country


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