Asylum | Key Topics


  • An asylum seeker is somebody who has submitted an application for asylum in another country because he or she fears persecution in the home country and is awaiting a decision. A refugee is someone who has been granted asylum. (Paragraph 3)
  • The UK received around 40,000 applications for asylum in 2015, the highest number since 2004. (Paragraph 5).
  • The average rate of grant in the last ten years (using cohort analysis data), including grants following appeal, is just over 50% (paragraph 9)
  • Yet, of those denied asylum in the last ten years, just 40% were removed. (See also paragraph 9).
  • Thus more than three-quarters of those who claimed asylum in the UK are probably still in the country. (Paragraph 9).

The Refugee Convention

1. In 1951 the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (the Refugee Convention) came into being. It was signed in the aftermath of the Second World War and sought to protect people fleeing events in Europe that occurred prior to 1951. Since then the Convention has been amended once; the 1967 Protocol removed these geographic and temporal limits and extended protection to anyone who ‘owing to 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.’ A total of 146 states have signed up to the 1967 Protocol.

2. The UK has a long history of providing sanctuary to those fleeing persecution. The UK provided sanctuary to French Huguenots who fled France in the 16th and 17th centuries and more recently provided refuge for Jewish people fleeng persecution in continental Europe in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century as well as the Ugandan Asians who were expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in the 1970s.

What is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?

3. An asylum seeker is someone who has submitted an application for asylum under the Refugee Convention. He/She remains an asylum seeker and may not be removed or deported from the United Kingdom for so long as an application or appeal against refusal of an application is pending. The term is technically neutral. A refugee is someone who has applied for asylum under the Refugee Convention and has been successful. The person will have satisfied the relevant authority that if he were to be returned to his country of origin he would face a reasonable degree of likelihood of persecution for a Convention reason – i.e. one or other of the reasons set out in the first paragraph above. In practice the word “refugee” is used in the media and in general parlance to denote people who may or may not have submitted an application and even to people who have been unsuccessful in their applications, leading to much confusion in the mind of the public. (See here)

4. In the early 2000s, the concept was significantly widened to include not just those in fear of persecution but also to provide “Humanitarian Protection” for those judged to face a real risk of serious harm as a result of violent conflict in their original country of residence. Humanitarian Protection is now particularly relevant in cases of asylum seekers from Syria. In most cases they will not qualify for asylum because they will be unable to show that if returned to Syria there is a reasonable degree of likelihood that they will be at risk of persecution for a Convention reason, but they will, of course, be able to show that they would be at risk of serious harm.

How many people claim asylum in Britain?

5. During the asylum crisis in the early 2000s the UK received over 200,000 applications in just three years, however over the last ten years Britain has received an average of 24,000 applications each year. Applications increased in 2015 as a result of the large numbers of people who had arrived in Europe fleeing conflict or poor economic prospects in their home countries. In 2015, the UK received around 40,000 applications for asylum, the highest number since 2004.More than 1.4 million asylum applications have been submitted in EU member states in the year to March 2016 (See Eurostat asylum data here).

6. While an applicant is awaiting a decision in the UK he may be entitled to support worth around £37 per person a week; asylum seekers are usually housed and their utilities are paid for. Applicants are not ordinarily allowed to work while they await a decision on their claims or on appeals against refusal. However, if an applicant is still awaiting a decision after 12 months and that delay is no fault of their own, they can apply to work although employment is confined to those jobs on the shortage occupation list. It is thought that granting asylum seekers the general right to work while they wait their decision would encourage the choice of the UK as a destination. A person who has been granted asylum in the United Kingdom is allowed to work with no restrictions.

7. Most other EU countries operate similar policies to the UK whereby limited working rights are granted only to those whose applications are delayed for no fault of their own. (See here)

How many people are granted refugee status in Britain?

8. An average of 8,500 applicants per year were granted asylum (or humanitarian protection) over the last ten years either as a first decision or on appeal, this is 36% of applications. In principle, a refugee is granted temporary leave to remain for five years however, in reality, those granted refugee status remain permanently as they put down roots in their new country. Once granted refugee status an individual is entitled to welfare, support and housing on the same basis as a UK citizen. They can also bring in their families to join them.

9. Of applications for asylum in recent years, about 36% were made only after discovery by Immigration and Enforcement officials (See data from January 2016 Parliamentary Answer here). Just over half of all applicants over the last decade were refused yet only just over 40% of those refused asylum either left the country voluntarily or were forcibly removed. Therefore of the 238,000 applicants over the last ten years, an estimated 84,000 stayed on legally and 72,000 stayed on illegally (see Home Office Asylum data here). Put another way, a claimant has had a 77% chance of remaining in the UK, legally or otherwise. This failure to remove unsuccessful asylum seekers undermines the entire system of asylum and is damaging to those who are genuinely fleeing persecution.

Does the EU play a role in the Asylum System?

10. Member States of the European Union accept an obligation under the Lisbon Treaty to adhere to the Refugee Convention. EU Regulations make provision for its administration by Member States and, in particular, the Dublin III Regulation makes it the responsibility of the Member State in which an asylum seeker first enters the territory of the EU to process his/her asylum claim. If an asylum seeker who has entered one Member State then tries to make a fresh application in a different State, the second State is entitled to return him/her and the original State has an obligation to accept the returned asylum seeker.

11. However, the fact that migrants can travel unchecked through the borderless Schengen zone of the EU means that, in practice, they can choose where they want to go in order to claim asylum. Enforcing the Dublin Regulations is made extremely difficult because it is nearly impossible for the authorities to establish an applicant’s point of arrival.

12. This, in part, explains the presence of large numbers of migrants/ asylum seekers camped in the Calais region. Most of those in Calais will have entered the EU via Hungary, Greece, Italy or Malta and have been able to make their way across the continent. However, it must also be the case that they believe that their prospects in Britain will be much better than in France.

13. The French authorities have now cleared the camp and thousands of migrants have been moved to other parts of France where they have been encouraged to claim asylum. The UK has accepted many unaccompanied asylum seeking children from the Calais camp together with those with family members in the UK.

Updated November 2016

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