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Want the real facts about asylum?

Here are the answers to some of the most common questions Refugee Action gets asked about the UK asylum system, and the people who come to the UK seeking safety.

Please note: there have been many changes and updates related to the UK asylum system recently. We update this page frequently, but the best way to get the latest information about changes to the asylum system is to sign up to our mailing list. 


What is an asylum seeker?

The definition of an asylum seeker is someone who has arrived in a country and asked for asylum. Asylum is when a government accepts that your home country is unable or unwilling to ensure your protection and allows you to remain in their country in order to stay safe. Once someone is determined as needing protection, they become known as a refugee. 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. If your claim for asylum is rejected, it also doesn’t mean you have done anything illegal – it just means you haven’t been able to meet the very strict criteria to prove your need for protection as a refugee. For example, you may have fled your country because you were genuinely persecuted by militia or at risk of gender based violence, but your asylum claim may be rejected because it was determined your home country should be able to provide adequate protection against these dangers.

We use the term ‘person seeking asylum’ rather than ‘asylum seeker’, because it focuses on a person’s humanity, not their status.

What countries do people seeking asylum come from?

Amongst adults, Iran was the top nationality claiming asylum in the UK in the year ending September 2020.

The top five countries of nationality for asylum applications in the same period (from main applicants) were: Iran  (4,318), Albania (2,820), Iraq (2,618) and Eritrea (2,241).

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

No. Neither the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor EU law requires 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.

The Dublin Regulations is a system which allows one EU country to require another to accept responsibility for a person who has claimed asylum when specific conditions apply, including that the person is shown to have previously made a claim of asylum in another EU country. The intention is that asylum claims are then shared more evenly between EU countries.

The Dublin system only operates within the EU and it will almost certainly cease to apply to the UK following Brexit.

How many people seeking asylum are there in the UK?

Asylum applications to the UK are relatively low – 31,752 in the year to December 2020. This is significantly lower than the peak of 84,000 applications back in 2002.

Extensive news coverage has given a misleading idea of the number of people seeking asylum in the UK, especially compared to the significantly higher numbers in nearby European countries. In the year to March 2020, 129,480 people made applications in France, 155,295 people made applications in Germany, 128,520 people made applications in Spain and 81,465 people made applications in Greece.

62% 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
One in three people are granted refugee status on appeal

What benefits are people seeking asylum entitled to?

People seeking asylum are not allowed to claim mainstream welfare benefits in the UK. In most cases, they are also banned from working. They can access support in the form of housing and basic living expenses while in the UK through the Home Office. This is usually known as ‘asylum support’, but you may also hear people refer to ‘section 95 support’, or ‘section 4 support’, which are different types of support available depending on people’s circumstances and the status of their asylum claim.

This means that the majority of people seeking asylum in the UK end up living on £5.66 per day to cover almost all their needs, including food, clothing, transport and medicine. This places them more than 70% below the poverty line. Many are forced to make impossible decisions between feeding themselves or buying medicine for their families.

Housing is provided, but people have no choice in where it is, and are often housed in ‘hard to let’ properties. People we have worked with often report problems with damp, infestations of rats, bed bugs or other vermin, and generally unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Recently, people have also been housed in disused army barracks and other remote shared accommodation facilities. This has presented a host of problems such as unsanitary conditions and a lack of running water, as well as crowded conditions making social distancing impossible.

When can people seeking asylum work?

The majority of people seeking asylum are effectively banned from working. After a year of waiting for a decision on their asylum claim, people seeking asylum are allowed to apply for permission to work but only if they can undertake jobs on the Government’s ‘Shortage Occupation List’. However, this is an absurdly niche list that includes roles such as hydro-geologist or classical ballet dancer.

45% of people seeking asylum would be considered critical workers during the coronavirus pandemic, but despite being so desperately needed, they are not allowed to work.

In countries such as France, Australia, Spain, Denmark, Germany, Canada, the USA, Greece and many more, people seeking asylum have the right to work after six months.

Which countries in Europe have the most people seeking asylum?

In the year to March 2020, Germany received the highest number of asylum applications (155,295), and France the second most (129,480).

Why do people seeking asylum come to the UK?

There are many different reasons a person may decide to claim asylum in the UK. Some people wish to come to the UK because they have family or other personal connections. We cannot underestimate the importance of these links, given the trauma and danger people are trying to escape.

For others, they may wish to come to the UK because they speak English, and believe that will help them to integrate, including making it easier to find work, or to navigate complex legal systems.

For many people, their options are limited, and their choices may be influenced by the people who they engage to help them with their journeys – some will make the desperate decision to board a boat, or climb into the back of a lorry, with little or no information about where they will be taken.

Most people have little to no information about welfare or benefits that are available to people seeking asylum in the UK.

Think about where you would want to seek safety if, for whatever reason, it became unsafe for you to stay in the UK. It may not be our nearest neighbours but somewhere else that speaks English and has a similar culture, such as the United States or Australia.

How do people seeking asylum get to the UK?

People seeking asylum reach the UK in many different ways. There is very little clear reporting on the exact routes people take to reach safety. It’s often the case that people will move between many different locations, often with little control over where they go, when and with whom.

In 2020, the number and proportion of people arriving in the UK by small boats that had travelled across the English Channel increased from the previous year. The coronavirus pandemic meant that other routes that people had taken in previous years were less accessible.

What is clear is that no person takes the decision to take an unsafe route to the UK lightly. People are often left in desperate situations for years, with no hope and no answers, separated from family, friends and support networks. The choice to attempt to reach the UK in a rubber dinghy or the back of a lorry is a last resort, and an act born of complete desperation.

How is the asylum system changing?

There has been a lot of talk recently from the Government, and the Home Office in particular, about changing the asylum system. This has largely been prompted by the intense media coverage and national conversation about the comparatively small number of people who have reached the UK via small boats travelling across the English Channel.

At present, we don’t have many clear answers on what practical changes the Home Office wishes to make to the asylum system. Various things have been discussed, such as ‘offshoring’ asylum claims – meaning that people will be removed from the UK to have their claim processed elsewhere. One location suggested for this was Ascension Island, a British overseas territory more than 4,000 miles from Great Britain.

While there has been much discussion about ‘stopping the boats’, conversations around ensuring people have safe and legal routes to safety have stalled. Between March and December 2020 not a single refugee was resettled in the UK.

There are likely to be more significant changes to the asylum system made or attempted over the coming months. We send regular updates about these changes, and about the impact they may have on people seeking safety, as they happen. To stay up to date, you can sign up to our mailing list here.

Isn’t the UK safe? Why do people still need help here?

A common misconception is that when people reach the UK, their journey to safety is over. For many people, this is not the case. 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.


With asylum support set at just £5.66 per day, people are forced to live below the poverty line


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


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


Banned from working, people are unable to integrate into their community


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 those 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.

Small but powerful

As a small charity committed to helping one of the most marginalised communities in the UK, every gift we recieve is truly appreciated – and makes a genuine difference to the lives of people who come here seeking sanctuary.

In 2019/20, Refugee Action:

Helped 875 refugees to rebuild their lives in the UK

Mobilised over 150,000 people to take campaign actions

Supported over 3,000 people to access housing and support

Provided training and support to over 90 organisations

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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