Refugee protection and asylum – what does it mean?

A refugee is someone who is in need of protection and would be at risk if they returned home. The word ‘refugee’ is often used to mean people who have fled danger which could arise from war, torture, political persecution, famine, economic crisis or natural disaster.

A person seeking asylum is the legal definition of a person who has fled to another country, has made an application for protection and is waiting for that country to decide whether they will be granted official refugee status. 

Under international law, the word refugee has a very precise meaning. The UK uses the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees to determine whether a person seeking asylum will be recognised as a refugee.

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According to the convention, a refugee is a person who has:

‘…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…’

Seeking safety in the UK 

There is no legal way to travel to the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum and there is no international law stating that refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach. The UN Convention on Refugees recognises that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means in order to escape and claim asylum in another country.  

It is often very difficult for people seeking asylum to provide the evidence required to be granted protection. Initial Home Office decision-making remains poor. Many refugees have to rely on the courts rather than the government to provide them with the protection they need. 

During the application process, almost all people seeking asylum 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, therefore most people seeking asylum live in poverty. 

If granted refugee status, most people 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 are often forced to live on Home Office support, equivalent to £5.66 per day

People seeking asylum are not allowed to work to supplement this. Many families cannot afford essential items like clothing and nappies.

There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker

The 1951 Refugee Convention guarantees everybody the right to apply for asylum in any country, recognising that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular routes. There is no legal way to travel to the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum.

About 1% of the world’s refugees call the UK home

Meanwhile, 85% of the world’s refugees are living in countries neighbouring their country of origin, often in developing countries.

Facts and figures

The welcoming and protection of refugees is not a numbers game. Every refugee’s personal experience is unique. Nevertheless, because there are a lot of wrong numbers out there it’s good to know some of the right ones.

The asylum process

How does someone become a refugee? This page explains the basics of the process an asylum seeker goes through when they seek protection in the UK.

Reports

If you want to find out more about refugees, look through this list of reports from the last few years.

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