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Public massively overestimate numbers seeking refuge in UK, British Red Cross survey reveals

Monday 8 June

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Mark South
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A massive 95% of the British public do not know how many people apply for asylum in the UK each year, with the vast majority hugely overestimating numbers, a British Red Cross survey reveals today.

Shockingly, almost a quarter of the British public think more than 100,000 people apply for asylum in the UK each year, around four times the actual number of applications in 2008.

Only 5% of those surveyed in the nationally representative ICM poll of over 1000 people correctly identified that between 20,000 and 30,000 people apply for asylum in the UK each year.

The average figure given by those taking the survey, commissioned as part of the British Red Cross Look Beyond the Label campaign ( in the run up to Refugee Week (June 15-21), was 58,000, more than twice the actual 2008 figure (25,670).

 “The survey results are fascinating,” said Nick Scott-Flynn, head of British Red Cross refugee services. “There is a clear gap between perception and reality. The number of refugees coming to the UK is far lower than the vast majority of people think.”


The survey also examined attitudes, with people asked to select positive and negative words they associate with refugees and also what kind of jobs they thought refugees had in their home countries before coming to the UK.

While a vast majority, 92%, of people gave one or more positive associations, 49% gave at least one negative association. The survey also found that most people think refugees are largely low-skilled workers in their country of origin rather than professionals, when in fact the opposite is true.

Surprisingly perhaps, 18 to 24 year olds, the lowest age group, were more likely than others to have negative associations with refugees, particularly in rating refugees as uneducated.

The 18 to 24 year old group were also the most likely to assume refugees came from a low-skilled background.

“It’s great that the overwhelming majority of people have positive associations with refugees and recognise and appreciate the qualities people bring to life in the UK – that is what Refugee Week is all about celebrating, “ said Scott-Flynn

“But it is also about education and tackling misconceptions, and there is clearly still work to be done to get those messages across.

“From the work the British Red Cross does with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, we know that people are skilled and want to contribute to society. We work with teachers, lawyers, doctors and business people who have all been forced to seek sanctuary here.”

Dougray Scott

Desperate Housewives star Dougray Scott teamed up with the Red Cross to produce an online film highlighting the contribution of refugees and asking people to change their online status in solidarity to include, the site where the film is hosted.

He said: “As an actor I’m aware of the importance of identity, something which refugees are denied.

“We must look beyond this label to the individuals - doctors, teachers, parents and friends.”

When it came to saying what proportion of the world’s asylum seekers live in the UK, people were again wide of the mark, with 97% unable to give an accurate figure.

More than 85% couldn’t give a figure or said the UK is home to more than the actual 3% of the world’s asylum seekers.

On average people think the UK hosts a whopping 24%, almost a quarter, of the world’s asylum seekers – eight times the actual figure.  

“We provide sanctuary to far fewer people than many developing countries which are less obviously able to cope such as Chad, Tanzania, Pakistan,” said Scott-Flynn.

“But the real point is that we need to look beyond the numbers and concentrate on the individuals involved. We should be proud of the UK’s role offering refuge to people in desperate need of safety, and celebrate the skills, talents and contributions that people who seek sanctuary in the UK bring.”

People were also asked to say which one item they would take with them if they suddenly had to flee their homes in Britain.

Photographs were a virtual tie alongside wallets and ID for the top item people would take with them, suggesting people see their emotional needs - and the need to hold on to memories of their loved ones - as being as important as practical considerations.

Amongst women, the top choice was photographs, ahead of money and then ID, while the strongest preference shown amongst any group for a single item was amongst 18-24 year olds, where almost a quarter decided they could not leave home without their mobile phones.

Headline figures

  • British adults think on average that 58,000 people apply for asylum in the UK per year.
  • 1 in 4 adults (23%) think that over 100,000 people apply for asylum each year.
  • Only 5% of people identified that between 20,000 and 30,000 people apply for asylum per year – around 95% of people could not say how many people apply for asylum in the UK each year to within 5,000.
  • Most people think refugees were blue-collar workers in their country of origin rather than professionals – in fact studies suggest the opposite is true.
  • 92% of people gave at least one positive association – Hardworking, Intelligent, Brave, Friendly  - compared to 48% of people who gave one or more negative associations – Uneducated, Hostile, Lazy, Cowardly.
  • The top pick was Hardworking, selected by 78% of those surveyed.
  • 29% of people said Uneducated, rising to 61% amongst respondents aged 18-24.
  • Overall if people in Britain had to evacuate their home and didn’t know when they would be back they would take money or their wallet with them.
  • Tied in joint second place, just 1% behind, were photographs and passport or ID.
  • Amongst women, photographs were the top pick while in the 18-24 age group mobile phones were the clear winner with 25%.

Case Studies

(Featured at Extended quotes available for all)
Aldijana Becirevic, 27, from Bosnia, now living in Nottingham, working as a solicitor.
“How would I define myself? Well, I’m not going to say refugee because I think that’s a small part of who a person is. Professionally I’m going to say solicitor but I’m also a daughter, a sister, a partner, a friend.”

Eric Nkundumubano, 28, from Rwanda, now living in Leicester, working fulltime for the British Red Cross.
“From my experience and the experience of many refugees I’ve spoken to, refugees are trying to catch up, they’re trying to rebuild their lives.”

Titcha Kanjanda, 38, from Zimbabwe, now living in Portsmouth, studying for a degree in social care, volunteering for the Red Cross and working as a care assistant at a nursing home for the elderly.
“You need to be proud of what you are. I didn’t want to leave but circumstances forced me to. I’m not a liability, I want to be an asset, I want people to realise ‘she’s a refugee, but she’s working towards the development of this country’.”

Notes to Editors

For interviews or more information contact Mark South on 07982017868
The survey was commissioned by the British Red Cross and conducted by ICM as part of the Look Beyond the Label campaign to coincide with Refugee Week.
Refugee Week will take place from 15 to 21 June. The week is a UK-wide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrates the contribution of refugees in the UK, and encourages a better understanding between communities. The British Red Cross is one of ten partner agencies involved. For more information visit or

During Refugee Week, the Red Cross is asking people to pledge their support to refugees by collectively 'changing their online status' across all social networks, instant messenger and email to include the web address.

The British Red Cross helps people in crisis, whoever and wherever they are. We are part of a global voluntary network, responding to conflicts, natural disasters and individual emergencies.

We enable vulnerable people in the UK and abroad to prepare for and withstand emergencies in their own communities. And when the crisis is over, we help them to recover and move on with their lives.

Each year the British Red Cross supports thousands of refugees in a wide number of ways, from providing emergency provisions for those facing severe hardship to giving orientation support and friendly advice to the most vulnerable. Our services include: orientation, destitution, support for young people and women, and family reunion and resettlement.