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Asylum in the UK

A front line
for racial justice

Asylum in the UK is a racial justice issue.

Racism plays a powerful role in who receives safety and protection, how you apply for it and how the right to a dignified life is afforded to some and denied to others.

The story of racism in the UK asylum system can be told in seconds, through the unfairness and abuse faced by people treated as outsiders. But look deeper, and there’s a longer story that unfolds from Britain’s imperial past.

It’s a story told in Refugee Action’s new briefing, by researchers with lived experience of seeking safety in the UK. However we tell this story, we need to talk about racism in the asylum system.

This web page gives an overview of the briefing, which you can read in full below.

WATCH: Why we need to talk about racism

Soushian and Jonathan explain why racism in the asylum system must be recognised, called out and eradicated.

Read the full briefing

Read our detailed research establishing asylum as a racial justice issue. This briefing is just the beginning, the start of a conversation about always remembering refugees when we reject racism.


What do we mean by racial justice? What do we mean by structural racism? In this briefing, we used definitions from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Racial justice:

“the systematic fair treatment of people of all races that results in equitable opportunities and outcomes for everyone.”

Structural racism:

“the racial bias across institutions and society. It describes the cumulative and compounding effects of an array of factors that systematically privilege White people and disadvantage people of Colour.”

Researchers who’ve lived it themselves

With support from Refugee Action, three refugees and one person seeking asylum were trained by the University of Birmingham to become peer researchers in 2023. They were women in their 30s and 40s from Zimbabwe, Trinidad and Tobago, Mauritius and El Salvador.

The interviews they conducted with 18 people seeking asylum and refugees gave new insight into how racism in the asylum system manifests and what it’s like to experience.

WATCH: The role of the past

Soushian and Jonathan explain why you need to consider the history of colonialism to understand racism in the here and now.

Countries don’t randomly emit refugees.

Almost 70 per cent of asylum applications since 2001 were made by people from countries that experienced colonial rule, violence or resource extraction at the hands of Britain.

The volatility and repression that people escape are often the long-term consequences of Britain’s actions in the past.

Facing everyday racism, facing racism every day

Our peer researchers found dozens of examples of everyday racism directed at people in the asylum system, ranging from microaggressions and harassment to spectacles and outright violence. People were made to feel small, out of place, without value, and under attack.

Rubbish was emptied into yards, skin colour was disparaged in shops, and objects were thrown at them from moving vehicles.

Hope and resistance

Refugees have a resilience most people can never imagine.

As important as it is to emphasise the fact that racism is a defining feature of the abuse that the asylum system delivers, it’s equally important to emphasise that people seeking asylum and refugees resist this racism every day.

Defiance can be armour when necessary. So can pride. There’s one thing our interviewees made perfectly clear. At the end of the day, they still believe in themselves.

This hope and resistance in the face of systemic racism is the driving force that makes racial justice possible.

WATCH: Racial justice means justice for refugees

The movements for racial justice and for refugee rights are really one and the same. As Jonathan says, ‘there’s plenty of work to do, let’s do it together.’

What we’re demanding

These are our recommendations to address racism in the UK asylum system.

To the next government:

  1. Commission an independent review of structural racism in asylum policy and practice within the Home Office and its private contractors.
  2. Fund reparative justice programmes led by people seeking asylum. These should support groups and individuals to create networks of repair, and to build the capacity and skills necessary to seek redress for racial and intersectional injustices. They should be rolled out in community, political and media spaces such as schools, workplaces, universities, housing, health, media organisations and local and national Government.
  3. Roll back Hostile Environment policies and repeal anti-refugee and anti-migrant legislation.
  4. Fund local authorities, housing associations and NGOs to run integrated housing, support and legal advice.
  5. Ensure standards in housing, health, and access to work, welfare support and education are at minimum compatible with Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Prohibition of discrimination) and the Equalities Act 2010.

To the refugee rights and racial justice movements:

  1. Encourage activists within both refugee rights and racial justice spaces to see the fight for asylum as fundamentally a racial justice issue.
  2. Centre racial justice in all campaigns concerning refugees, the right to asylum and the rights of people seeking asylum.

How to talk about racial justice and refugees

We’ve put together this messaging guide for everyone interested in talking about racism in a refugee-inclusive way.

Inside you’ll find the simplest ways to explain why asylum is a racial justice issue, and the principles that underpin this kind of communication; being bold, putting racism in context and always leaving room for hope.


Experts by Experience, the podcast

This episode of our Experts by Experience podcast delves into issues of race and inequality with Aamna Mohdin, a celebrated journalist, author, and Community Affairs Correspondent for the Guardian.

Refugee Action’s Azadeh Hosseini talks with Aamna about her compelling new book, Scattered: The Making and Unmaking of a Refugee.

In 2015, Aamna travelled to Calais to report from the heart of the refugee crisis. Upon returning to London, a casual conversation with her parents reminded her that Aamna had once been a refugee.