Six things you need to know about refugees and asylum seekers
Busting myths about those who flee persecution and violence
1. The terms ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ mean very different things.
Often you hear in conversation, or in the media, the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ used interchangeably. But they’re not the same thing.
A migrant deliberately leaves a country. It was a choice. There might be lots of reasons why: love, work, or just a change of scene. This can work both ways: you may know someone who’s hotfooted it to Australia or Spain in search of that elusive thing known as the sun.
But an asylum seeker has left their country suddenly, faced with persecution and lacking any protection. Which brings us nicely onto…
2. It’s completely legal to claim asylum.
The UN drew up international laws on this after the Second World War.
The 1951 Refugee Convention protects people fleeing persecution and trauma. It describes an asylum seeker as someone who is outside the country of their nationality “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” and “is unable to, or owing to such fear is unwilling to, avail himself of the protection of that country”.
So it’s completely legal, under these circumstances, to escape and find safety elsewhere.
Once you’ve claimed asylum in another country, you will need to wait while the government looks at your case. Those who have successfully claimed asylum are known as refugees.
3. A tiny proportion of the UK population are refugees.
The number of refugees and asylum seekers goes up and down, depending on what’s happening in the world. The conflict in Syria has swelled recent figures, for example.
However, the UK has not been ‘flooded’ by those looking for safety. In fact, only 0.26 per cent of the population are refugees or asylum seekers.
The vast majority of asylum seekers flee over their nearest border, where they’re likely to live in camps.
You can see this clearly in the case of Syria. Of the 6.7 million Syrian refugees globally, a staggering 4.6 million are being hosted by its neighbours –Turkey and Lebanon.
4. Life in the asylum system is harrowing.
An asylum seeker has left everything behind: friends, family, photographs, job, home, clothes, sentimental gifts… the list goes on.
To do something so drastic, you have to be desperate.
But ‘coming over here’ isn’t easy, either. The streets aren’t paved with gold and you’re not exactly welcomed with open arms.
The Red Cross supports people who were lawyers, doctors and teachers in their home countries: all keen to lend their skills here.
Yet many of the asylum seekers we see are penniless and struggling to feed themselves. While they wait for a decision on their asylum claim (which can take years), they live in limbo: unable to work and living off a tiny amount from the government.
We see many people who, without access to public funds, housing and legal employment, are often exposed to homelessness, abuse and exploitation.
5. Refugees have often fled unimaginable horrors.
A total of 1,885 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea in 2019. The real figure is likely to be far higher because so many people disappear without trace.
The way the system is set up means they can only claim asylum in another country once they get there. But the journey itself can be extremely dangerous.
Bear in mind that some asylum seekers can’t officially leave their country or afford a plane ticket. They have to get out any way that they can. Their lives could depend on it.
The UN Refugee Convention makes it clear that there will often be justified reasons why refugees are unable to enter a country legally, and that refugees should not be penalised for doing so.
The small number of people attempting to reach the UK do so for a variety of reasons. Some may have family here, or speak English.
6. The British Red Cross is the largest independent provider of support to refugees in the UK.
We believe that people should have access to safe and legal means to claim asylum and should be treated with dignity and respect throughout the process.
We provide a wide range of services for refugees in 58 towns and cities across the country. These include English language classes, welcome and orientation groups, young refugee projects and mother and baby groups.
We also work with refugees and asylum seekers who are left destitute by bureaucratic delays with their claims.
We provide food parcels, clothing and small amounts of emergency cash to help find housing, individual casework and nappies and maternity packs for new mothers.
We know that these services are also not only a lifeline, but often a valued weekly routine where people can have a hot drink or a meal and socialise with others.
Every refugee matters to us
We work with refugees and people seeking asylum to help them feel safe, live with dignity and build a new life. If, like us, you believe that every refugee matters, get involved by donating below.Donate