Written by Anne Dawson-Shepherd, UNHCR Representative to the United Kingdom on 6 April 2005.
Asylum and refugee issues may well arise over the next weeks while you are on the campaign trail. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) would therefore like to share with you the most up-to-date facts and figures about asylum. While in places like Sudan’s Darfur region and elsewhere people are at grave risk from their own governments and need our support, the overall number of asylum seekers and refugees worldwide is actually declining.
These talking points should aid you in helping your constituents separate asylum myths from reality:
- The number of asylum claims in the UK has plummeted 61 percent in the last two years and is now back at the level of the mid-1990s
- Britain had dropped from second to third place amongst industrialised countries and received only 40,200 asylum seekers last year, well behind France which received 61,000, and the USA
- The UK falls even further down the list when considering the number of asylum seekers in relation to its population, as Britain ranks 11th among EU countries receiving asylum seekers
- With asylum claims plummeting, it is not possible to claim that there is a huge asylum crisis in the UK, or even Europe.
Why the fall in asylum numbers?
- Political changes in key countries of origin like Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkan region is partially behind the falling number of asylum claims
- The UK government and UNHCR are also working to improve protection for refugees in states closer to their countries of origin so there is less of a need for refugees to move further to seek protection and assistance
- Meanwhile, the UK government has started the modest Gateway resettlement scheme in coordination with the UN refugee agency under which it plans to yearly bring 500 refugees in urgent need of protection directly to the UK. In this way Britain can help some refugees to avoid resorting to people traffickers and possibly contribute to reducing the number of asylum seekers.
- UNHCR agrees that now is the time to devote more attention on improving the quality of asylum systems, focussing on protecting refugees efficiently and effectively rather than simply reducing numbers
- In 2004 the government invited UNHCR to assist the Home Office to address the quality and efficiency of the asylum claims process with twice yearly public reports being released under the joint UN/Home Office Quality Initiative project and being taken up by the Home Office
- So far, the UN has found that Home Office workers examining asylum claims need to be well qualified and to have better background materials and country of origin information. Basic research tools, proper training and support would help them more quickly determine asylum claims at the first instance level, saving public funds by reducing costly appeals.
Asylum or Immigration?
- Asylum-seekers and refugees are not migrants. Migrants choose to cross borders, while refugees are forced to flee their homes
- The UN refugee agency is concerned that any debate on immigration control should not confuse immigration with the act of seeking asylum
- Asylum is for individuals fleeing persecution who cannot return safely to their countries
- Asylum-seekers are individuals exercising their legal right to claim asylum; they may have fled acts of horrendous violence including torture, persecution and even genocide. They are legally in the UK while their asylum claims are examined
- Immigration is for individuals crossing borders voluntarily for reasons like employment or education. Should a migrant elect to return home they would continue to receive the protection of their government, while a refugee has valid grounds to fear their government
- Illegal immigrants are people who have crossed a border but intentionally avoided informing the authorities of their presence.
The UK, an asylum magnet?
- The UK is not the asylum capital of the world. Britain hosts only 2 percent of the world’s refugee population (UNHCR 2003 estimate: 276,522). This compares to the some 2 million Afghans in Pakistan or the 1 million in Iran
- In terms of the relative wealth of host countries, Pakistan is the most generous while the UK ranks just 74th world-wide
- The majority of refugees and asylum seekers are hosted by the world’s poorest countries, often in desolate camps in remote border regions, with devastating effects on the local environments and natural resources
- Asylum seekers and refugees do not stay in the UK forever as there is a growing programme of voluntary repatriation. Since 2002 UNHCR and the UK government have established an agreement with Afghanistan and asylum seekers are regularly returning on a voluntary basis under the UN-monitored initiative.
1951 Refugee Convention—help or hindrance?
- The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the Refugee Convention) was drafted after the Second World War to protect people from being returned to persecution. The Refugee Convention codified the centuries-old tradition of offering sanctuary to people fleeing persecution
- Recent proposals to withdraw from the 1951 Refugee Convention have been touted as a panacea to the UK’s “immigration problem,” but this treaty was never intended to address migration control
- The Refugee Convention does not prevent governments from establishing fair and effective asylum systems; it does not prevent the removal of failed asylum seekers, nor does it protect terrorists or others suspected of posing grave risks to society
- Withdrawing from the Refugee Convention would not remove the UK’s responsibility towards individuals seeking asylum. If the UK backed out of the Refugee Convention, which it helped write, it would send the wrong signal to countries that shelter the majority of the world’s refugees
- No state has ever withdrawn from the 1951 Refugee Convention. Even if Britain opted to withdraw, asylum seekers would still arrive and the UK would remain bound under domestic laws and jurisprudence towards hearing out their claims
- In order to remove all obligations to hear asylum claims the UK would also have to revise or withdraw from other international treaties that prohibit states from returning people to face torture as well as various EU agreements, possibly even the EU itself. If the UK were to withdraw from these international agreements it would find it difficult to obtain the cooperation of other states in other areas, including taking back people who had passed through their territories
- Greater cooperation among countries to address some of the root causes that force people to flee their homelands along with efforts to harmonize protection for refugees within the EU are some of the significant steps taken recently by governments to improve the way asylum systems work—the positive results of some of these actions are reflected in the dramatic fall in applications mentioned above
- The 1951 Refugee Convention is an enduring international instrument that has helped save countless lives and permits most refugees to find sanctuary close to their homelands
- Without international burden-sharing and a refugee protection system underpinned by the 1951 Refugee Convention, UNHCR believes the refugee problem worldwide would worsen, rather than improve. Withdrawing from the Refugee Convention could fatally undermine international efforts and could lead to more uncontrolled flows of refugees into the UK.
Over the crucial next weeks ahead of the General Election the UN refugee agency urges campaigners to show political leadership and social responsibility by working towards reversing the atmosphere of intolerance that has been fostered towards refugees and asylum seekers.
Refuting false and negative stereotypes and promoting a climate of understanding in regards to the reasons why people must still flee murderous regimes will help ensure that asylum seekers and refugees get the support they need while also fostering better community cohesion. Refugees are extremely vulnerable, having experienced violence in their homelands, and arrive in the UK without family or other support networks. They are not a threat, but are threatened, and thus deserve Britain’s support and understanding.
I hope you find this information useful. Should you require any further information please do not hesitate to contact UNHCR.
Representative to the United Kingdom