Asylum Seekers and Refugees: Mythbuster

Morgan Mead - 03 12 20

What is an asylum seeker?

In the UK, an asylum seeker is someone who has arrived in the country and asked the UK government for protection.  Until a decision is made on their case – an exceptionally challenging, hostile, and lengthy process – they are known as an asylum seeker, although a less dehumanising term is ‘person seeking asylum’. If their asylum claim is accepted, then it generally means that the person is granted legal status as a refugee. This means they have five years’ leave to remain in the country, and can work, rent, and access mainstream benefits.

Why are they all coming to the UK?

They’re not. In 2019, there were 35,566 asylum applications made in the UK. That’s less than 0.05% of the entire population, or 5 asylum applications for every 10,000 residents. Looking at the total number of people who are either still waiting for a decision, or who have been granted refugee status, we’re still talking around one quarter of a percent (0.26%) of the UK’s total population. Proportional to both our population and GDP, we are well below average in Europe when it comes to asylum applications.

Those that do seek asylum in the UK have different reasons for doing so: some have family or an existing community here; some speak English; some are brought by smugglers and have no idea where they were headed eventually; and some have faced destitution, racism and police harassment in other European countries, and so decide to keep going.

Why dont they come on a legal route

Because there isn’t one. There is no legal way to travel to the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum. A very tiny number of people might manage to get a student, tourist or work visa and then claim asylum once here – but this is very much dependent on the country they arrive from. For many others, the only way in is by lorry, ferry, or boat. However, if you claim asylum after you arrive, then the way you made it into the country is irrelevant. The right to seek asylum is a legal entitlement that we all share.

Surely its illegal to cross the Channel by boat?

If you are seeking asylum, then no, it is not illegal. The 1951 Refugee Convention even recognises that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means to both escape, and claim asylum elsewhere.

Dont people have to claim asylum in the first safe country?

No, they don’t. Under the Dublin Regulation, the UK government has the right to try to deport someone back to another EU country if they can prove that they were there (for example, if they were fingerprinted). However, there’s no law that requires you to claim asylum in the first safe country you reach. You can claim asylum anywhere you feel safe.

What about the housing and benefits they get?

Most people seeking asylum are banned from working, and are forced to rely on state asylum support. Even applying for this support is difficult, and requires you to submit extensive evidence to prove that you would otherwise be destitute. Many people end up homeless or exploited because they cannot navigate these applications at all. For those who do manage to access support, they survive on approximately £5.65 per day (which is less than 50% of the standard Universal Credit rate), and have no choice over where they are housed. Accommodation is often of a poor standard; people share houses and sometimes rooms with strangers; and maintenance and upkeep is notoriously bad. COVID-19 has seen an increase in the use of hotels and former military barracks to house people – often in very remote areas, with limited access to amenities including healthcare, no choice in the food they eat, and little to no financial support at all.  

Isnt this a drain on the economy?

Yes! Tens of thousands of people – with skills, abilities, ambition and qualifications – are kept trapped in limbo for years, living way below the poverty line and completely reliant on state support. Many are desperate to work and keep themselves busy, but aren’t allowed to. The ‘Lift the Ban’ coalition have been campaigning for years for the government to allow people to work and contribute to the economy. They have calculated that if just half of the people seeking asylum earned a national average wage, £42.4 million would be recouped by the government through tax and national insurance payments, and savings on financial support.

Doesnt the ban on work increase the likelihood of exploitation?

Yes. People seeking asylum, and people who have been refused asylum, are at particular risk of exploitation. If you keep someone in enforced poverty, then they become an easy target for offers of cash-in-hand work. When someone has no working rights – and would not be able to report an employer without fear of repercussions – then they become extremely easy to exploit.

What is life like for them in the UK?

Life in the UK can be exceptionally unpleasant for people. They experience daily hunger; they live below the poverty line, and they face huge challenges in accessing good quality legal advice, healthcare and education. People seeking asylum also have increased vulnerability to mental health conditions including depression, PTSD, and other anxiety disorders – which can be linked to both previous experiences, and ongoing challenges such as separation from their family, the asylum process itself, and enforced poverty. 

What happens if their asylum claim is refused?

The asylum process is very tough and unpleasant, and (as of June 2020) 47% of people’s initial asylum claims were refused by the Home Office, and had to be taken to appeal – where courts overturned 45% of those decisions. If someone’s claim is refused at appeal, then usually their financial support stops; they are evicted from their accommodation; and they become at risk of being detained or deported. Many people end up street homeless – but unable to work or claim benefits, there is often no alternative. At this point, if foodbanks and charities did not exist, then many people would simply starve to death – and have.

What happens then?

If you can somehow (while homeless and destitute) gather new evidence and find another legal aid lawyer to represent you, then you might have a chance of submitting a new asylum claim. While the UK government considers this claim, you become eligible for state support once again. However, if you cannot get support or legal advice, then you could remain destitute indefinitely. People seeking asylum have likened this time to a ‘slow death’, and the options are incredibly limited at this point. 

Cant they just go back to where they came from?

Yes – if someone wants to return home, then generally they can. The Home Office ‘Assisted Voluntary Return’ scheme even pays people to return. Despite this, many still choose to stay in the UK – often street homeless, at risk of exploitation, and close to starvation. For so many people, home would be the best place in the world. But if your home no longer exists, or you know you’re likely to die if you go back – then home is just not an option anymore.


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