More about the need
Asylum is protection given by a country to someone fleeing from persecution in their own country. According to Article 1 of the 1951 United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who:
"… owing to 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 to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country".
Like all other signatories to the Convention (almost 150 nations), Britain has not just a moral but an international legal obligation to offer asylum to people who can show they fit this description.
Broadly speaking, the term 'asylum seeker' is used to describe someone who arrives in this country and claims asylum for these reasons, while 'refugee' status indicates that they have had their claim accepted and been given leave to remain. The term 'migrant' is often used as a catch-all for anyone who moves between countries, including eg students and those with jobs to go to.
Seeking asylum - the big picture
UNHCR statistics (https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html) for the end of 2019 put the number of people worldwide who have been displaced from their homes at 79.5 million, 1% of the world's population and a figure that has doubled in a decade. Of these, 45.7 million are 'internally' displaced (ie they have remained within their own country, by fleeing to another region of it). Of the remaining 33.8m, 73% are hosted by neighbouring countries, with Turkey having by far the largest number (3.6m). 85% are hosted in countries classified as 'developing' including Pakistan and Uganda.
The world's biggest single source of refugees and asylum seekers is Syria, where 60% of the population has been displaced. At least 5.6m people have left the country (https://www.unhcr.org/uk/syria-emergency.html - other sources put the figure a million higher, as some do not make the UNHCR 'official' count) and 6.6m are displaced internally within it. 90% of those who have fled are in five countries: Turkey (3.4m), Lebanon (at least 1m), Jordan (660k), Iraq, and Egypt. To put that in perspective, Lebanon's normal population is just 6m. Around 1m Syrians have reached Europe (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/29/where-displaced-syrians-have-resettled/) of whom around half are in Germany. The UK Government made a special commitment to "resettle" 20,000 Syrians in the UK over the period 2015-2020, and in five years to 2019 6,300 asylum applications were made by Syrians who had reached the UK unaided. Including dependents, then, the total number who have come to the UK over recent years must be in the order of 40,000 - less than 1% of those who have fled Syria.
The top six countries from which people sought asylum in the UK in 2019 were (in descending order) Iran, Albania, Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea and Afghanistan, with Syria in 11th place, although this excludes the special resettlement of 20,000 people over 5 years. Albania is something of an oddity and the great majority of asylum claims by Albanians are rejected. A superb chart of long-term trends in arrivals into the UK can be found at https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/content/uploads/2019/03/grants-by-nationality.png.
In the year to March 2020, a total of 35,099 asylum claims were made in the UK (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/asylum-and-resettlement-datasets). In the same period, 20,600 'initial decisions' were made on asylum claims, of which 54% (11,090 claims, covering 15,400 people) were successful. 8,400 appeals were determined, of which fewer than 3,800 were successful. In round numbers, then, and even including the Syrian resettlement programme and family reunion visas, the UK provides a home each year for around 30-35,000 asylum-seekers and refugees, a tiny part both of worldwide displacements and of total migration to the UK. The language so often used by parts of our media, speaking of a "flood" of people (or even a "tidal wave") coming to the UK, is quite simply wrong.
And if you're still asking "why do they all want to come to the UK?", perhaps this video will help you understand the true picture: https://www.facebook.com/care4calais/videos/644163896121021.
The asylum support system in the UK
People seeking asylum in the UK are excluded from mainstream benefits and barred from working. While their claims are considered, they should receive benefits known as asylum support (specifically, 'Section 95' support), usually comprising accommodation at the bottom end of the housing market and £37.75 per week to live on. If their claim is rejected, they may be eligible for 'Section 4' support while they appeal. As at March 2020, just under 51,000 people were on any form of asylum support in the UK while their claims were considered.
In practice, many others fall through the cracks and become destitute. Some groups, for example women who are abandoned by their husbands on whom they were reliant for their resident status in the UK, are classified "NRPF" - No Recourse to Public Funds. In that case, they can receive no help at all from either the Government or Local Authorities. When an asylum application is successful and the applicant receives the right to remain in the UK as a refugee, they have just 28 days before losing the accommodation they were in and their asylum support payments. The good news is that they can now work or apply for mainstream benefits, but delays (such as failure to give them an NI number immediately), or their lack of understanding of the system, can leave them homeless and penniless just at the moment that things should be improving for them. At the other end of the scale, an applicant who has had their claim and subsequent appeal(s) rejected becomes "appeal exhausted", loses all benefits in 21 days and is expected to leave the UK. Those who do not may be detained and deported, in the meantime they receive no support.
The hostile environment, and many errors by the Home Office, have made destitution all too real a risk for the most vulnerable people. Government policy is to house those receiving asylum support away from London but many asylum seekers and refugees come to the capital because they have friends or family here. The capital is a magnet but also a place of danger to vulnerable and destitute people with no means of supporting themselves legally.
This summary by no means covers all the complexities of a system that causes much pain and anguish to thousands of people each year.
Lift the Ban
Many asylum seekers say that they don't want to live on benefits, they want to work. Unfortunately, the law says otherwise.
While making a claim, asylum seekers are forbidden from working (in this respect, as in others, breaking the rules can lead to deportation). That might not be too bad if claims were processed in a month or two, or even within the six months that is the supposed policy. But, for so many applicants, claims can take many months or even years to go through the system. Government data shows that just under 52,000 asylum claims were awaiting initial decision at March 2020, of which over 31,000 had been backlogged for more than six months. Some seem to disappear into administrative limbo. Meanwhile, the applicant is 'stuck' on meagre asylum benefits, unable to work, move on mentally or (often) rejoin other members of their family or community.
What makes this worse is that many of those coming to the UK have skills that the country badly needs. This came to the fore in the Coronavirus pandemic: a significant number of doctors and other health workers who arrived here from Syria and elsewhere, often with experience of dealing with severe emergency situations, were barred from contributing to the Covid response. These and many other migrants are both willing and able to make a real contribution to the UK, its public services and its economy. It is nothing short of a tragedy that they are made to waste years of their lives while waiting for the system to function.
The current policy of the UK Government is that asylum seekers who have been waiting more than 12 months for their claim to be determined can apply to work, but only in roles that appear on a very limited 'shortage occupation' list. The Lift the Ban campaign, which we support, calls for 'the right to work for people seeking asylum, and their adult dependants, unconstrained by the Shortage Occupation list, after six months of having lodged an asylum claim or further submission'.
It should be noted that for some roles, such as doctors, there are also strict and appropriate rules about the qualifications and English language skills that applicants need to show. For many refugees, this may require a period of further study and requalification in the UK - but this is a journey that many are willing to undertake, despite the cost, in order to be able to use their professional skills.
But aren't they all 'illegal' immigrants?
Many people do not realise that it is impossible to apply for asylum in the UK from outside the country. The only way of claiming asylum here is first to enter the country ('illegally' if necessary) and then immediately to make your claim to Immigration officials.
This leads to the bizarre spectre of people seeking 'illegally' to enter the UK by stowing away on trucks or risking hazardous boats, and of officials doing everything they can to stop or deter such movements taking place, but then of those same people being treated (rightly) as legitimate applicants for asylum if they manage to put foot on these shores. Many groups have campaigned for 'humanitarian corridors' that would allow those needing asylum to apply from elsewhere and then enter the UK in a normal manner, but this has never been accepted by the Government. The only exception are the arrivals under 'resettlement' programmes such as the VPRS which has brought some 20,000 Syrian refugees to this country, from camps in Lebanon and elsewhere, with refugee status already granted.
Noone knows how many people may have remained in the UK after losing their asylum case and exhausting all appeals. An estimate of 500,000 was given by the Red Cross in 2010 but there is no way of counting such people. What we do know is that they are at extreme risk. They cannot receive benefits, work, or access the NHS or other health services. Such existence as they have must be lived 'underground', any employment is on the black market, they are at risk of being forced into modern slavery or prostitution.
'They become reliant on the good will of friends and support from faith groups and charities. In many cases they experience exploitation, overcrowded living conditions, street homelessness, physical and mental illnesses and malnourishment’
‘Not gone but forgotten’ British Red Cross June 2010
The plight of children trying to make a hazardous journey to the UK unaccompanied has been rightly highlighted by many groups and campaigners such as Lord Dubs. Those who have made it here, to rejoin family members, still face huge disadvantages and dangers.
'In the UK many asylum-seeking and migrant children are living in extreme poverty for sustained periods of time. Children and families are unable to afford essentials such as food, clothing and medicines or even a place to live. During periods of destitution children and young people are exposed to danger, violence and abuse'.
ECRE bulletin 2012, presenting the Children's Society report 'I don't feel human'
Be informed, get involved
There are many sources of information out there, and many campaigning organisations that you may wish to support.
Some good starting places are the websites of the following organisations, where you will find much more information:
https://helprefugees.org - especially for the situation around Calais
https://detentionforum.org.uk - for information about immigration detention
or any of the national and local charities that we support through our grants programme - see the grants page for details.