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Want the real facts about refugees?

Here are the answers to some of the most common questions Refugee Action gets asked about refugees and people seeking asylum, and what they experience here in the UK.

What is a refugee?

According to the UN Refugee Convention, the definition of a refugee is someone 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’ (Article 1, 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees).

What is an asylum seeker?

The definition of an asylum seeker is someone who has arrived in a country and asked for asylum. Until they receive a decision as to whether or not they are a refugee, they are known as an asylum seeker. In the UK, this means they do not have the same rights as a refugee or a British citizen would. For example, people seeking asylum aren’t allowed to work.

The right to seek asylum is a legal right we all share. It isn’t illegal to seek asylum, because seeking asylum is a legal process. It also isn’t illegal to be refused asylum – it just means you haven’t been able to meet the very strict criteria to prove your need for protection as a refugee.

Do people have to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach?

No. The 1951 Refugee Convention does not require a person to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. People trying to cross the Channel can legitimately claim asylum in the UK if they reach it.

Channel crossings and the right to claim asylum

Stories of desperate people crossing the English Channel to reach the UK often dominate news and social media. Of course we do not know the experiences, backgrounds and personal stories of every person trying to arrive in this way. But it is clear that many of them intend to claim asylum here.

Before all of the debate about borders, safe countries, security and economics begins, we must start from a place of humanity. The people who are the subject of these debates are desperate, they have been through hell, and seeking asylum is a fundamental human right.

68% of all people seeking asylum wait longer than six months for a decision
Banned from working, vulnerable families struggle to survive on just £5.84 a day
Over half of people are granted refugee status on appeal

What do you actually know about refugees?

Politicians and the media have a considerable amount to say about refugees and those seeking asylum in the UK.

You’ve probably heard from different sources about people fleeing political violence, crossing the Channel in small boats or even being deported to Rwanda.

But what do you actually know? Take this quiz to find out.

Are there many refugees and asylum seekers in the UK?

No. According to UNHCR statistics, as of November 2022 there were 231,597 refugees, 127,421 pending asylum cases and 5,483  stateless persons  in the UK including recent Ukrainians refugees.

That’s only half a per cent (0.54%) of the UK’s total population.

Is the number of people seeking asylum in the UK increasing?

The number of asylum applications to the UK peaked in 2002 at 84,132. After that the number fell sharply to reach a twenty-year low of 17,916 in 2010, before rising slowly to reach 32,733 in 2015.

The number fell, then rose again and then dipped during the first year of the pandemic (2020). In 2022, it rose to 74,751 applications, the highest level since 2002. 

Which countries help the most refugees?

The vast majority of refugees globally – four out of every five – stay in their region of displacement, and consequently are hosted by developing countries. Turkey now hosts the highest number of refugees with 3.7 million, followed by Colombia with 1.7 million.  

Worldwide, roughly 85%  of all refugees live in developing regions , not in wealthy industrialised countries, and 73% of refugees displaced abroad live in countries neighbouring their countries of origin. 

Does the UK resettle a large number of refugees through its settlement schemes?

No, Resettlement is down. In the year ending September 2022, 15,987 were granted asylum, humanitarian protection or other forms of leave, only 1,391 were resettled through various resettlement schemes.

That means only 8.7% came through resettlement.

Which countries in Europe have the most people seeking asylum?

In the year ending September 2021, Germany received the highest number of asylum applicants (127,730) in the EU+, followed by France (96,510) 

Can people seeking asylum work in the UK or claim benefits?

People seeking asylum are not allowed to claim benefits or work in the UK. If they are destitute and have no other means of supporting themselves, they can apply to receive asylum support. This is set at around £5.84 per day. Refugee Action has been actively campaigning to lift the ban on work for people seeking asylum since 2018.

The right to work would allow people seeking asylum to support themselves, to use their talents and experience, and help them to feel part of their community. 

What happens to someone when they get refugee status?

When a person is given refugee status, they have just 28 days to find accommodation and apply for mainstream benefits before they are evicted from asylum accommodation. Many refugees become homeless at this stage. This is a huge upheaval and causes many complex ongoing issues – especially as so many have been in the asylum system for months or even years.

Why do people still need help after coming to the UK?

It’s easy to think that once people arrive in the UK, their journey to safety is over. However, regardless of how they arrive, people who come to the UK seeking safety face a number of issues here which threaten their dignity, their safety, and in some cases, their lives.


Banned from working, people seeking asylum are forced to live below the poverty line


People are often left to wait for months or years for a decision on their claim


We work with people who suffer horrific violence, attacks and racist abuse


Lack of access to English language lessons leaves many unable to integrate


Many people seeking safety are forced into housing that is crowded, damp and unsafe

How does Refugee Action help?

We give expert advice and guidance to people struggling to navigate the failing and unfair asylum system. We help those with refugee status to settle into their new homes and communities – everything from helping children into schools, to support booking doctors appointments, and ensuring they get a hot meal when they arrive.

We support people who suffer violent attacks or other hate crimes, to ensure they know their rights and get the help they need. We campaign for change, collaborating with those who have direct experience of the systems we are working to improve.

We want every person who comes to the UK seeking safety to have a chance at a new life – no challenge is too big or too small for us to take on.

Since 1981, we’ve been fighting to make sure that the UK shows refugees and people seeking asylum the best of humanity.
We support survivors of violence, disaster and persecution to uphold their human rights and live free from poverty. But we can’t do it alone.

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