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.

What is asylum?

If someone is at risk of persecution in their own country and needs protection, they can apply for ‘asylum’ in another country. This is given under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

An ‘asylum seeker’ is someone who has applied for asylum and is waiting for the government to make a decision. If the government considers they will be at risk of persecution according to the 1951 UN Convention they will be granted ‘refugee’ status and permission to remain in the UK.

Application process

All asylum claims are processed by the Home Office. Asylum seekers have permission to stay in the UK while their claim is being decided.

Each case is assigned a Home Office staff member who is known as the ‘case owner’ and who oversees the process.


Asylum seekers go through a two-step interview process and must report regularly to the Home Office while their claim is under consideration. The Home Office first conducts a screening interview to collect the applicant’s personal details and check whether he or she has claimed asylum in the EU before. Fingerprints, a photograph and other physical identification information are collected and the applicant is given an application registration card.

Applicants will then attend a more in-depth screening interview within a few weeks where they are asked to describe why they fear persecution in their home country. Applicants do not always have legal representation, though interviews are sometimes delayed to allow them to obtain legal advice.


Depending on their financial situation, asylum seekers may be eligible for support from the Government while their case is being considered, including:

  • Cash — A single adult currently receives £37.75 per week for living expenses.
  • Housing — Applicants cannot choose where to live, however, and will be sent wherever the Home Office deems housing to be available outside of London and the South East.
  • Education — Children of asylum seekers have the same right to education as all other children in the UK and must be in full-time education between the ages of five and 16. For further and higher education, however, entitlements to financial support are restricted
  • Health— Asylum seekers and their dependents receive free primary and secondary healthcare from the NHS. However, it can be difficult to register with a GP due to confusion amongst healthcare staff over who is eligible. In Scotland and Wales, asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers are entitled to free secondary health care on the same terms as any other ordinary resident. In England, only those refused asylum seekers receiving some kind of support are entitled to free secondary health care. However, all refused asylum seekers can continue, free of charge, with any course of treatment already underway before their application was refused.

Applicants are not allowed to work except in some cases where the Home Office takes more than a year to make an initial decision on a case.

How the Home Office decides

The Home Office case owner considers the evidence submitted by the applicant, information on the political and human rights situation in the person’s country of origin, previous legal decisions on asylum and the applicant’s personal credibility.

If the claim is successful

If a refugee claim is successful, the claimant is granted refugee status for five years. After five years the person will be able to apply for ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ in the UK to stay permanently.

Once someone is granted protection, they have the right to work, receive benefits and be re-united with their spouse and children (under 18). However, a child who is recognised as a refugee does not have the right to be joined by his or her parents or siblings.

If the claim is refused

If the Home Office decides that an asylum seeker does not meet the criteria for refugee status, the person may still be allowed to remain in the UK under a different status.

  • ‘Discretionary Leave’ (DL) can be granted for up to three years and can be extended if the person cannot return home. Discretionary Leave is typically granted to children.
  • ‘Humanitarian Protection’ (HP) can be granted for five years if removing them would breach the rights outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights, for instance if they would be tortured upon returning to their home country.

Those granted Discretionary Leave or Humanitarian Protection have the right to work, be reunited with their immediate families and receive benefits.

Appealing a decision

Applicants whose cases are refused may have the right to appeal to the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, which is independent of the Home Office. Applicants are allowed to remain in the UK during the appeals process.

Appeals should be heard within two months of the initial decision. In England and Wales asylum seekers are only entitled to legal aid to pursue their appeal if it is judged to have a 50% or higher chance of success.

It is also possible to make a second asylum claim if new evidence comes to light, or if the UK’s asylum law has changed since the original case.

Voluntary return

If a second claim is unsuccessful, and Humanitarian Protection is not granted, the person will be expected to voluntarily leave the UK. If they do not, they may be forcibly removed.

Asylum seekers who agree to return to their home country may be eligible for assistance from the voluntary return programme.. Assistance can include help setting up a business, obtaining education or training, or getting a job.

Detention and removal

If an asylum seeker’s application and appeals have been denied and they have not voluntarily left the UK, the Home Office will inform them in writing that they intend to remove them. Thereafter the Home Office may detain refused asylum seekers and their families without warning until their removal can be arranged. There are a number of immigration removal centres around the country.

This short film by Scottish Detainee Visitors looks at what life can be like for those living in indefinite detention.

Further information

The information on this page was gathered from Asylum Aid and the Home Office . If you’re interested in learning more, the links below offer detailed information on the asylum process.

Asylum Aid
The Home Office

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