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November 30, 2009 by USA Post 

How much do you know about refugees and asylum seekers in the UK? Lauren Wright and Rosanna Lolla investigate…

In light of the recent media coverage of the British National Party – Nick Griffin’s appearance on the BBC’s Question Time and the various demonstrations facilitated by the English Defence League (a noticeably racist faction of the BNP), the issue of asylum and the role of the UK government has sparked furious political and ethical debate.

Everyone has an opinion on a subject that, worryingly, few know much about. This article intends to dispel some of the myths wrongly associated with refugees, in the hope that the real human cause is not submerged beneath a wave of confusing political rhetoric.

First and foremost, the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘person seeking sanctuary’ need clarification. A person seeking sanctuary, generally refers to “a person who has formally applied for refuge in a foreign country, but whose application is undecided.” It must be understood that a person seeking sanctuary only becomes a refugee once this application is successful.

The aim of the application is to ultimately decide whether or not the person concerned fits the definition of a refugee, which according to the United Nations convention, is someone who is outside their country of origin and unable to get protection from their own state “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Essentially, to become a refugee is not a matter of choice, but rather necessity.

There exists a high level of stereotyping with regards to refugees and persons seeking sanctuary in the UK. It is a common misconception that people come to the UK to reap the rewards of the generous benefit system. Given that this is a student newspaper, most readers should be somewhat horrified by the fact that a single young person (18-25) seeking asylum in the UK is given £33.39 per week. Furthermore, many only receive vouchers for some of the main supermarket chains, so the money has to spent on food and therefore cannot be spent on other important things such as medical treatment, clothing or transport.

According to the BNP’s official website, their policy aims to:

1. Deport all the two million plus who are here illegally;

2. Deport all those who commit crimes and whose original nationality is not British;

3. Review all recent grants of residence or citizenship to ensure they are still appropriate;

4. Offer generous grants to those of foreign descent resident here who wish to leave permanently;

5. Stop all new immigration except for exceptional cases;

6. Reject all asylum seekers who passed safe countries on their way to Britain.

The party claims that this policy should be endorsed to ‘abolish the ‘positive discrimination’ schemes that have made white Britons second-class citizens. Also stressed is the need to clamp down on the flood of ‘asylum seekers’, all of whom are either bogus or can find refuge much nearer their home countries.’ A sweeping generalisation to say the least.

At this point it is important to finally dispel some of these myths. Due to the vast amount of stereotyping that takes place with regards to this topic it may come as quite a surprise that research done by the Refugee Awareness Project shows that in 2007, Afghanistan, Iran and China were the top three countries of origin for UK asylum seekers. People who decide to seek refuge will often opt for the closest safe country possible as many factors such as culture, religion and family ties will influence this decision.

Contrary to popular belief, it has been found that roughly 70% of the worlds’ refugees are hosted in Africa and the Middle East, with the UK being home to only 2%. In 2007 only 23% of first appeals in the UK were successful: at odds with the popular belief that the UK throws open its borders to anybody who wants to come in. The Home Office statistics show that, asylum applications in the UK “have fallen by almost half over the last five years,” yet due to negative media hype the case is generally believed to be quite the opposite.

Moreover, the process of gaining refugee status in the UK is both arduous and traumatic. When a person initially arrives in the UK they undergo a ‘screening interview’ in order to establish basic information such as their nationality, identity and any documentation that they may possess.

This is usually done at whichever port they arrive, however if a person requests a claim for refuge after entry in the UK then the ‘screening interview’ must be done at a screening unit (these are located in Croydon and Liverpool). A person is then given a case owner who handles the case and offers them advice throughout the process. It is highly important to note that the case owner is not a form of legal help; the person in question is supposedly granted a separate legal advisor, yet, often they will never actually be given the chance to meet their ‘legal advisor’.

In the UK, the government target is to have 90% of asylum claims completed with a definite decision being made within six months of the initial application. Shockingly, during this waiting period the person concerned is merely sent to live somewhere in the UK, without being given any choice and often lacking an adequate amount of information to actually understand what is happening. During this time it is illegal for a person seeking refuge to work.

At any given time in the process a person can simply be taken away to be detained without any prior notice. The persons in question are held in “Immigration Removal Centres”, previously known as detention centres. “There are ten IRC’s in the UK. Seven of these are run by private companies contracted to the UK border agency, while three centres are run by HM Prison Service.”

The centres are primarily used to detain those who are awaiting a decision to be made on their refuge or whose claim has been unsuccessful and are being forcibly removed. There is no maximum period of detention and instances of people being detained for twelve months or more are ever increasing.

The harsh standards of treatment in detention centres can be likened to prisons and no consideration is taken for those under special circumstances. For example, the BID found many cases of ‘people held in detention in spite of having evidence of being tortured, people with severe mental and physical health problems, survivors of rape, and pregnant women.’

Suicides and instances of self harm are not uncommon occurrences to take place under such circumstances. Children are no exception to the rule with a total of 1.800 children being held in these centres in 2005. Frequently children are separated from their families in these centres and aren’t told how long they will be detained for. Often these children feel they are being punished yet don’t know why, leaving them both depressed and traumatised. A mother giving an account of her seven year old daughter, who speaks of how “She was crying all the time… and saying ‘I’m going to kill myself.”

If an application is positive, the person seeking sanctuary is given refugee status and initially allowed to live legally in the UK for five years. This means that they have the same rights as a UK citizen with regards to working and claiming any benefits that they may need.

On the other hand, if an application is unsuccessful then the individual will be asked to leave the country. It is possible to appeal this decision but during this time all support will be stopped which often means that people are left homeless and without any form of help. This often leads to many people becoming destitute.

Destitution affects up to 280,000 unrecognised refugees in the UK. This happens due to the fact that if a person is not granted refugee status they don’t always have the choice of returning home owing to a great fear of persecution or even death in their homeland and so decide upon the lesser of two evils by living homeless on the streets of the UK and being driven to extreme measures such as starving, begging and sometimes even prostitution in order to stay alive.

One lady telling her side of the story to a spokesperson of Asylum Aid says, “I have been through hell, lived with a man who provided me with a roof, in return I had to sleep with him, he beat me regularly, at times tried to suffocate me, called me racist names, spat at me, all this because he knew that I can’t go to the police with fear of being deported.”

Many feel that refugees and people seeking sanctuary are ‘taking up space’ and leaving UK citizens ‘jobless’, however these tend to be more myth than truth. As stated above, people seeking refuge are not allowed to work which clearly makes this view bogus. Furthermore, if the time is taken to truly consider these people, it would be understood how desperate they must have been to come here.

After all, no one would come to a foreign country, unable to speak the language, unable to work and leaving all that they know behind, out of choice.

There are many groups within the UK which are set up to aid refugees, people seeking sanctuary and the destitute such as STAR (Student Action For Refugees.) In Cardiff, STAR hold weekly drop-in centres where students can help to support refugees in a practical way through volunteering. There is a drop-in held every Wednesday evening.

If you are interested in getting involved, find us on facebook. If you would like some more information, visit

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Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are that of the authors and not necessarily that of U.S.S.POST.


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