Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

refugee child getting food

Normally we write about health and wellbeing with UK residents in mind. As such hopefully this story will never apply to you. But if you’re at school or college with people from foreign countries, or have friends that are, it’s worth thinking about the fact that not everybody lives in a place as liberal as we do.

The fact is when times get tough for people in their home countries they come and seek refuge here. Great Britain has always had a sense of fair play and benevolence. We think that’s something to be proud of.


In the UK there are 193,510 refugees, 15,170 pending asylum cases and 205 stateless persons. The terms asylum seeker, refugee and migrant are often used interchangeably which leads to confusion about the state of particular individuals. For an understanding of ‘stateless people’ we would refer you to that great Tom Hanks film ‘The Terminal’.

Asylum seekers are people who have applied for asylum in the UK and are awaiting a decision on their application – they have a legal right to stay in the country while waiting for a decision.  A refugee is someone who has proven that they would be at risk if they returned to their home country and the Government has accepted their claim for asylum.

A person who is an economic migrant has moved to another country to work, they may be legally or illegally residing, either with or without a work permit. From the UK point of view these are ‘immigrants’.


One of the things we hear most often about refugees is that they’re coming to Britain to claim benefits.  Asylum seekers are not given mainstream welfare benefits – their benefits come from a separate government service, the National Asylum Support Service.  A single person gets about £40 a week while a couple gets £63 a week, which is actually below the poverty line.

There is a difference between illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.  Asylum seekers are people who are known to the government, they have been security checked and are legally allowed to stay in the country while their case is assessed.  Illegal immigrants are people who enter the country without making themselves known to the authorities, or are known but have stayed in the country for longer than they were authorised to.


Worldwide there are more than 15 million refugees, of which less than 2% reside in the UK.  Most of the world’s refugees live in developing countries.  Over three quarters of refugees live in Africa and Asia, often in camps. In the UK in 2012 only 25% of people who applied for asylum were granted it. 

There are many misconceptions about asylum seekers and refugees – for them, moving to a different country is not so much a choice as a necessity. They are innocent people who are forced to flee their homes.  Some whole families become asylum seekers, and then refugees, while others are split up from their families and move to another country alone. A report by the Princes Trust states that 11% of all asylum seekers in London are unaccompanied children and young people.

Many of the young people that have fled dire situations in other countries have a sense of guilt for the families and lives they’ve left behind. Many of them turn to education and throw themselves into getting the best qualifications they can.  Coming from really bad situations they are grateful for the chance of having free education.  Having the chance to learn gives hope of a future brighter than they could have dreamt of in their lives before becoming refugees.  Sometimes they cannot contact their families back home and education works as a reassurance that they are making the most of the fact that they are in a better situation.


Many people who have come to the UK seeking refuge will have been forced to take some serious risks to get here as there is no legal way to travel when seeking asylum. People flee their own country if they are threatened and face persecution for: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or for belonging to a particular social group.  Once people arrive in the UK the asylum process can take up to six months and involves meeting with the UK Border Agency and having an official Asylum meeting.

Most people arrive in the UK after a long journey which can often take months in awful conditions, usually in lorries. They arrive scared and often can’t speak the language.  Many people who are seeking asylum will have paid an agent who will take them to another country – when they arrive many do not even know what country they are in.  Once the asylum seekers have arrived in the UK their agents no longer have any involvement with them.  This can mean that they have no idea what to do - some don’t even know about the process to be granted asylum.  This is where refugee charities come in, providing advice and support for people who have come to this country with nothing.


There has been controversy over a minimum earnings rule for immigration which has resulted in some people being separated from their families. The income threshold of £18,6000 is part of a government plan to cut migration into Britain and only allow people who can support themselves to live here.  These people aren’t seeking asylum in the country so it is a completely different process for them than that of refugees.

A report shows that many British citizens, including ones that have full time jobs, have been unable to bring their non-European partners to live with them. One of the examples in the report is a man earns £250,000 a year but cannot move to England to be with his wife and children as his wife is not employed – the rule does not count overseas earnings.  The rules are in place to stop ‘fake marriages’ whereby people can get a visa to stay in the country. The fact is that there have been many real families who have been split up under the new rules.


Extradition is something we hear a lot about in the news but what does it actually mean?  It’s when one country requests the surrender of a person from another country to either be prosecuted, sentenced for a convicted offence, or to carry out a sentence that’s already been imposed. To do this an ‘extradition treaty’ between the two countries concerned must have been previously agreed. Some countries do not have extradition treaties.

Two high profile extradition cases recently are Abu Hamza and Julian Assange.  Hamza is a radical Muslim cleric who was first arrested by British police in 2004.  There was an extradition case by the US government for 11 terror-related charges.   After the case was appealed many times – Hamza was eventually extradited in October 2012 after 8 years.

Assange is the Australian founder of Wikileaks, the website that publishes secret information.  In 2011 there was a warrant for extradition to Sweden against Assange for allegations unrelated to his website about sexual offences.  In June 2012 he applied for ‘political asylum’ in Ecuador because of concerns that once Assange had been extradited to Sweden he would then be extradited to America to face charges of espionage for which you can face the death penalty. He was granted political asylum last August and has been living in Ecuador’s embassy in London.

It’s a bit of a game of political chess here – the UK has an extradition treaty with Sweden which it would apply in this case of sexual misconduct. However the UK doesn’t extradite people to places for crimes where people may be condemned to death.Ecuador has no extradition treaty with any of the parties.


It’s true there are people who abuse the system and claim to be seeking asylum without having any reason to. Because of this there are strict rules to ensure only true cases are granted refuge. You have to have a real reason and prove that to be sent back to your home country would put your life or health in danger from death or torture.

When having debates about immigration it’s necessary to properly differentiate between different types of migrants to the UK.

The topic of immigration is one that is discussed almost daily in the media.  It is a subject that is very provocative and often leads to claims that asylum seekers and refugees are stealing our jobs and move here for an easy life.  We have to admit that asylum seekers do arrive at the borders of Britain dreaming of an easier life – a life easier than living in fear each day, a life where you aren’t at the daily risk of being persecuted or killed. We sort of hope somebody would help us if we were in the same situation, don’t we?