What do Asylum Seekers and Refugees face in the UK?

It seems that everyone has an opinion on refugees and asylum seekers, but very few people seem to have much idea of how the system actually works. This often leads to nonsensical complaints about “illegal immigrants claiming benefits” (if you were in the country illegally, you wouldn’t be able to even open a bank account or rent a house, never mind claim benefits) or asylum seekers entering the country illegally as “jumping the queue” (there is no queue, and the UK’s border controls mean that pretty much the only way of claiming asylum in the country is to enter illegally, often tremendously dangerously).   

This article is meant as a very brief introduction to the asylum process and the rights of a refugee once someone has successfully applied for asylum. Keep in mind that it is only an extremely simplified overview, and you shouldn’t rely on stuff you read here in court! The UK’s immigration laws are unbelievably complex and ever changing as they are often a central political issue, so if we went into much depth about the specific laws involved, they would likely be changed before you read it!  

Central to everything is the 1967 Protocol to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees (usually simply together referred to as the ‘Refugee Convention’) which defines a refugee as some 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 is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to return to it.”

1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees

It is this overly long sentence that every asylum seeker is trying to prove applies to them. Both men and women, despite its wording! 

Firstly, let’s look at the UK asylum process: 

  • Asylum applications made outside the UK are pretty much never successful, or even considered. People need to be outside their country of nationality to be considered a refugee, and then the UK will insist that they should claim asylum in whatever country they’ve made it to, rather than the UK. It’s because of geographical reasons that, for example, Lebanon and Uganda have 1.4 million refugees each and Jordan has 2.9 million (the UK has around 120,000). 
  • Because of this, often the only way someone can claim asylum in the UK is by entering the country illegally. A UK borders system often referred to as ‘weak’, forces men, women and children to make unbelievably treacherous journey across maybe thousands of miles to just be given the opportunity to be considered as a refugee. If you want to get a more vivid impression of this, try travelling from the UK to Bangladesh with no passport, no means of transportation and no money and see how easy you find it [legal note: absolutely do not try and do this!!] 
  • If you miraculously make it to the UK and past immigration control, you are required to make a claim for asylum as soon as possible. You can do this at many places, including with an immigration official at your port of entry, or by ringing a phone line, or by going directly to the Screening Unit in Croydon. If you delay in making this claim without good reason, this might be held against you later as proof that the claim isn’t completely genuine. If you used a false document to enter the country, or entered the country for a different reason (such as to visit or work/study) but then quickly claimed asylum, these could be seen as counting against your trustworthiness as a character and also later count against your asylum claim! 
  • First, there’s the ‘screening interview’, soon after you make your claim, where you will give an overview of your situation and why you fear persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.  
  • When in the EU, the UK were party to ‘The Dublin Regulations’, where a person is supposed to claim asylum in the first EEA (the ‘European Economic Area– the EU countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) country they entered. It’s, obviously, far more complex than that, but that’s a large part of the criteria for deciding which EEA country’s responsibility it is to process the asylum claim. Previously, the UK would run a person’s fingerprints through an EEA-wide system and if they had been previously registered in another EEA country they would try and remove them to that country (if the other country agrees!). As with many things, it’s unclear what will happen after Brexit, with the UK potentially having far more asylum claims to deal with. 
  • After the screening interview, if the Home Office decide that your case has enough merit to constitute an asylum claim (and they can’t find another country to take you off their hands!) and you will be accepted as an asylum seeker. You will normally be asked to regularly report to a police station or immigration reporting centre. 
  • As an asylum seeker, you are entitled to publicly funded legal representation (i.e. ‘legal aid’) for your initial asylum application (up until the point of decision), subject to a means test 
  • As an asylum seeker, you can claim £37.75 a week asylum support, and also to be housed in National Asylum Support Service (NASS) AccommodationNASS accommodation famously varies in quality and could be anywhere in the UK apart from London. You have no choice where in the country you will be situated unless you can prove close family ties to a particular area or a medical need. NASS Accomodation is currently provided by three private companies under contract to the Home Office: Serco, Mears Group and Clearsprings Ready Homes.  Serco have the contract for the North West. 
  • Eventually, the asylum seeker will be invited to the full asylum interview, where you’d be expected to lay out all of your reasons for claiming asylum, in precise and explicit detail. Because of the amount of information that needs to be told, these interviews can last up to three hours and often far longer! 
  • The Home Office can make a decision any time after the Asylum Interview. The Home Office have stated that it shouldn’t take longer than six months, but a recent report by Refugee Action showed how more than 60% of asylum seekers wait longer than that. 
  • If your claim is refused, you get one attempt to appeal the decision. 
  • If that appeal is also refused, then you are a ‘refused asylum seeker’. You have no rights in the country, are forced to leave your NASS Accommodation, and have no access to benefits or ways to earn money. 
  • Your only choice at this point, if you don’t agree to the Home Office removing you from the country (which they can do at any time) is to launch a ‘fresh claim’. 
  • A ‘fresh claim’ isn’t just another opportunity with your asylum claim. You have to show the Home Office that the fresh claim is either based on significantly different reasons or giving notably new evidence. The Home Office won’t let you launch the claim if they don’t think there’s any chance of it succeeding. 

…and that’s the brief guide! 

The possibilities of an asylum claim aren’t just ‘refusal’ or ‘refugee status’- there are numerous grants of leave that the Home Office could issue, with refugee status being the best (you’re able to appeal any other grant of leave if you feel that you deserved to get refugee status).  Whatever the decision- even if it’s a decision to refuse! – you are given 28 day to leave your NASS Accommodation. In those 28 days, the Home Office expects you to find a house, start a bank account, claim benefits… basically set up your whole life in your new country. The unfairness of this system is one of the main things MRSN’s Refugee Integration Service seeks to counterbalance.  You would be issued with a Biometric Residence Permit, a credit card sized form of ID that includes a photo, date of birth, type of leave granted and many other essential pieces of identification. This card is incredibly important, and must be reported and replaced if it is ever lost. 

There are three main grants of leave that it’s useful to know about: 

This is the main grant of leave that everyone wants! As a refugee, you have much the same rights as any UK born citizen. You can apply for benefits, there are no restrictions on either your work or study, you can use the NHS, apply for council housing*… Basically, any rights that you have as a UK citizen, people with Refugee Leave to Remain also have.  

If a refugee ever had a passport from their country of birth, it was likely handed over to the Home Office as part of their asylum claim. Even if they haven’t, as a refugee they are saying that they can no longer accept the protection of their own country, and if they were caught travelling on that country’s passport it could invalidate their whole refugee status!! Thankfully though, The Refugee Convention understood how cruel it would be to force someone to spend winter in a country like the UK, so refugees are able to apply for a Refugee Travel Document so they’re able to travel on holiday to any country they like (apart from the one they fled from!!). 

Refugee Leave to Remain lasts for five years, then you can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (sometimes referred to as ‘settlement’). This application is free, though MRSN is not currently qualified to legally support clients to make it. 

*the irritating issue is that a refugee’s ‘local council’ is the one where their NASS accommodation was located. You might get moved to asylum accommodation in Stoke, for example, and when you’re granted refugee status want to move to a city like Manchester where there are more opportunities and maybe a bigger refugee community. Unfortunately, Manchester City Council will then say that Stoke is your local council, and therefore Manchester has no duty to support you with housing etc. Many of Manchester’s ridiculously high amount of homeless people are refugees who moved from smaller cities and towns that their NASS support was located in. 

You may have encountered many people who might be referred to and even refer to themselves as refugees’ but if you ever saw their Biometric Residence Permit it would say they had ‘HP’ rather than ‘Refugee Leave to Remain’. Humanitarian Protection’ is granted to asylum seekers whom the Home Office don’t believe fit the definition of a refugee (usually because they don’t believe you face any real persecution in your country of birth) but who they accept would “face a real risk of suffering serious harm” if they were to return to their country of birth. It’s usually awarded to people from war torn countries where it’s accepted that no civilian is safe. The status is pretty much exactly the same as Refugee Leave to remain, with one big exception. 

Because the Home Office doesn’t consider people with HP as having really availed themselves of the protection of their country, they don’t see why they can’t just travel on that country’s passportIt’s for this reason that people with HP are not eligible for Travel Documents. If they don’t have a passport and want to travel to other countries, they can instead apply for a ‘Certificate of Travel’. This is sometimes called a ‘Black Travel Document’. We like to call it a ‘Rubbish Travel Document’.  It costs about four times as much as Refugee Travel Document, isn’t accepted by 90% of countries, and even to apply for one you need a letter from your birth country’s embassy to prove that they issue you a passport. We usually gently advise against people with HP making these applications, as Black/Rubbish Travel Documents cost a lot of money and are accepted by so few countries (there is no reliable list of which countries do, as it changes all the time). However, there are sometimes people with HP who know of the restrictions but nevertheless know of one country that accepts the Rubbish Travel Document (usually Tunisia) and have arranged to meet family or friends there, so are willing to pay the price as it might be the only option open to them. 

If you have HP, you can also apply to settle after five years. 

You occasionally encounter people with Discretionary Leave (DL). This is rarer than the previous two immigration status, and basically means that an asylum seeker doesn’t qualify for either refugee status or HP, but there are ‘exceptional and compassionate circumstances’ or ‘other compelling reasons’ to grant them leave to remain outside the rules. With DL, you normally have the right to work, study and claim benefits, but because every DL case is different and it is by nature ‘discretionary’, the right to claim benefits is occasionally not allowed.  

The biggest issue and main negative aspect of DL is that it is only granted for 30 months (again, this isn’t the same for all discretionary circumstances). After that leave is up, you will have to apply for an extension, and unlike if you have refugee and HP status, the application is not free, and costs more than £1000. Because you can’t settle for ten years (ILR being another application that you have to pay for) people with DL often have to pay many thousands of pounds just to stay in the country. They are able to apply for a fee waiver if they can prove they are destitute, or would become destitute if they paid the fee. 

As a further blow, people with DL are also unable to apply for Travel Documents, so if they don’t have a passport from their country of nationality and want to travel, they are also forced to apply for a Certificate of Travel/Rubbish Travel Document. 

You might also come across ‘refugees’ with different forms of status: 

Another essential and much needed application that MRSN isn’t currently qualified to help with! Refugee Family Reunion is a wonderful part of the Refugee Convention that allows anyone who is granted refugee status to bring over their spouse and children from the country they fled from, so that their family life can continue in their new home country. All you need to prove is that you were married and had the children before you fled your country (or that they are your ‘pre-flight’ family), there are no financial requirements and the application is free. It sounds deceptively simple, but for many reasons it’s a very complicated and extensive application to make. The BRPs of people sponsored to come over on Family Reunion might simply say ‘leave to enter’ or ‘leave to remain’. They have the same rights as refugees and can apply for Travel Documents (as long as they state that they were sponsored to come over by their family member). 

Perhaps a refugee has been a refugee for the required amount of time to no longer be a refugee. There are many ways in which a refugee could apply to naturalise as a British citizen. If they have the money of course- all applications are more than £1000 and there is no way to apply for a fee waiver! Here are some VERY SIMPLIFIED examples: 

  • If a refugee has had ILR for at least a year, has passed the ‘Life in the UK’ and English language test, and can prove they’ve been in the country for five years, they can apply for citizenship (as long as their criminal and immigration record is clean) 
  • If a child is born in the UK, then one of their parents gets ILR, they can apply to be registered as British citizen (if they are born in the UK after a parent gets ILR, they ae already automatically British) 
  • If a child is born in the UK, then spends the first ten years of their life in the country, they can apply to register as British whatever their parents’ status. 
  • There is no easy route for refugee children born outside the UK, but they can often successfully appeal to the Home Office’s discretion for naturalisation if they have been in the country for a long time and/or other family members are applying for naturalisation.

Don’t offer any advice based on these very basic overviews, there are other things to consider that we don’t have time to talk about.