Terms | Facts | Careful Awareness

This section will outline advice and guidelines for realistic, needed and careful refugee support – provided by the Red Cross, Refugee Action and our own experience of working with refugees and asylum seekers.

We know it’s hard to put yourself in the place of a person who has had to flee their country. Reasons like, war, ethic cleansing, political persecution, rape or torture are just some of the reasons why people are forced to leave their homes, their jobs, people they love, everything they know.

And in order to leave such dangerous situations they may entrust themselves (and their money) to people smugglers and very often have little say about their final destination.

If you were that person, uprooting your entire life, wouldn’t you try and find the safest place to go to? Somewhere that you may think you might fit in more easily, where you wouldn’t be faced with the same set of problems. It’s not a crime to try and find things, it’s a basic human instinct for survival.


There are key differences between the terms refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants and illegal migrants.

    • Flee their home
    • Arrive in another country whichever way they can
    • Make themselves known to the authorities
    • Submit an asylum application
    • Exercise their legal right to apply for sanctuary
    • Are not allowed to work/earn money, but are able to volunteer
    • An asylum-seeker in ordinary language is a person who has sought the protection available to refugees under the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. However, for some purposes in UK law (e.g. asylum support), it also includes a person who claims that his or her removal from the UK would place him or her at risk of torture or some other serious harm (whether or not he or she is a refugee)”. (Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) 2008)
    • Upon arriving in the UK, people seeking asylum are
      • Photographed
      • Fingerprinted (even if they are a little kid)
      • Security checked
      • Issued with ID cars
      • And maybe even electronically tagged
      • They must report at a regular intervals to police stations or immigration centres
    • They can be locked up at any point during their asylum application (including kids and pregnant ladies)
    • The internationally established definition of a refugee is someone who is at serious risk of harm in his or her home country and cannot rely upon the protection of his or her home State. Reasons for fleeing include race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group (e.g. depending on the circumstances in the individual’s home country – may include women, homosexuals.) See full text of 1951 Refugee Convention
    • A refugee, here in the UK, is defined as someone who:
      • Has proven to the authorities that they would face persecution back home
      • Has had their claim for asylum accepted by the government
      • Has now acquired confirmed ‘refugee status’ and can now stay here either long-term or indefinitely, living with the same citizen rights as everyone else in the UK (right to work etc.)
    • Has moved to another country to work
    • Often brings capacity to strengthen the workforce
    • Could be illegal or legally resident, depending on how they entered the country
    • Might have a legal work permit or may be working illegally
    • Has arrived in a new country
    • Has either not made themselves known to the authorities OR has stayed in the country longer than they were authorized to
    • Has no legal permission to be there
    • Is going to get big trouble when they’re found out


    • People come from different part of the world to claim asylum in the UK, yet the majority come from the Middle East and Africa. Checkout the diagram below (source UNHCR 2016)
    • In 2014 the UK received 31,400 asylum applications. This was less than, for example, Germany (166,800), Sweden (81,300), France (63,100) and Italy (56,300).
    • Just 41 percent of people applying for an initial decision in the UK were granted asylum and allowed to stay. Many are initially refused because it is difficult to provide the evidence needed to meet the strict criteria of a refugee and the application process (often in another language) is daunting & complex to get right first time round. Source: Home Office immigration statistics, October to December 2014
    • Many people refused on first application appeal the decision and reapply, next time more informed about the correct procedures to follow. They are meanwhile homeless and bereft of any support until the next application goes in.
    • It is common for asylum seekers to wait between 6 months – 20 years in extreme cases – until they get a final decision from the Home Office concerning their application. During that time, they are not allowed to work or earn money, and unless they have friends or family members who support them they often live under extremely difficult conditions, with sparse or at times no accommodation or any other resources. They are provided with assigned (not chosen) minimal accommodation (often provided via corporate landlords) – often live in extremely bleak conditions, granted just £35 a week to live on. If they try to earn money they risk immediate cancellation of their application. Checkout Saif Ali’s (founder of Integr8 UK) TEDx below where he talks in details about this particular challenge from his own experience while seeking asylum for 18 years.
    • Checkout this article by The Guardian Asylum offices ‘in a constant state of crisis

    • The majority of asylum seekers who arrive to the UK are educated, skilled and qualified (they refuse to rely on any of the government’s benefit system). Research has shown clearly that the majority come, out of their need to flee, with hope and intent to gain civil status, work, be independent and contribute to UK society – with no aim of relying on the UK benefit system.
    • When they arrive, the really unlucky ones are sent straight to detention centres or are refused any form of support by the Home Office.
    • The more fortunate ones are given government housing (they don’t get to choose where) and get moved about all over the country during the asylum process
    • Often they find themselves living with strangers in crowded, grubby accommodation in a part of town no-one else fancies. It’s not what anyone would really want to call home. Checkout this article by The Guardian ‘UK asylum seekers living in ‘squalid, unsafe slum conditions’
    • If eventually an asylum seeker proves their case and is given permission to stay here as a refugee, then they have to leave this temporary housing and either find and pay for their own housing, or queue up on the council housing waiting list just like UK citizens
    • People seeking asylum are usually not allowed to work in Britain until they are granted refugee status. But with thousands of refugee and asylum seekers being health professionals, engineers and teachers across the UK, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to.
    • Remember that although they may now be highly dependent on others, they have an identity outside of this. People who are asylum seekers may also be doctors, pharmacists, teachers, electricians, mechanics, IT specialists, farmers, shopkeepers, taxi drivers… and have lots of skills and ideas to contribute! Department of Work and Pensions research has found that there is in fact a higher proportion of qualifications and skills among asylum seekers and refugees than among UK population.
    • Although this doesn’t get declared to people, but asylum seekers have the permission to volunteer in the UK. Checkout this document issued by the Home Office regarding this matter
    • Because asylum seekers aren’t usually allowed to work they’re given basic financial support to live o A British single person aged 25 or over and on income support is entitled to get £65.45 a week. But if you’re a newly arrived asylum seeker of the same age in Britain you get about 45% less than that. You get £35.52 a week, which will probably be spent on life essentials like, say, food rather than blowing it all on a nice leather jacket. And remember, this could last for years and years.
    • A recent Home Office report concluded that there was absolutely no evidence to suggest that asylum seekers had a detailed knowledge of UK policies or welfare benefits. So it’s highly doubtful that they’re rubbing their hands together at the thought of potential income support cheques and six-monthly dental check-ups. Fear of being tortured, for instance, would be a bigger reason to leave.The report concluded that the main reasons why some people seek asylum here are their countries’ historic links with good old colonial Britain, the presence of family and friends and the fact that English is a global language.


Given that the majority of asylum seekers who arrive to the UK come from Africa and the Middle East, where cultural norms and traditions are often different from here, it is important to remember to mind the following:

  • English language may not be their mother tongue. It is better not to assume everyone can read and write. Some will be highly literate, others will not! Find out how much English is spoken and understood!
  • People coming from African countries in particular, often are fluent in 3 or more languages. So if an interpreter is needed, there may be someone right there who can help!
  • Choose simple terms and use clear pronunciation can create a more interesting conversation and saves you an unfortunate misunderstanding
  • Cross-cultural differences can cause misunderstandings. Yet no one is expected to know all about intercultural communication. Below is a short video to help you understand some of the differences across cultures.


Asylum seekers and refugees may carry experiences of loss, grief, violence, traumas that can be triggered if we insensitively address certain issues related to their asylum journey or their situation back at home. With that in mind, below are a few guidelines on how to interact safely with refugees and asylum seekers.

  • It is always better not to ‘assume’ that it is okay to do or ask about something. Asking permission will give people a choice to answer or not
  • Be ready to listen and pick up clues, to draw back if you sense discomfort. Go carefully with questions, thinking twice about what the impact of your question might be before you speak
  • Err on the safe side, by being careful and attentive.
  • Body language can communicate reticence – on both sides. Acknowledge mistakes, clumsiness and be ready to let go of topics to see if they are taken up again (rather than pursuing the issue just from your own interest).
  • Be ready to respect cut-offs.
  • You may find yourself in a place where you feel vulnerable while hearing some of people’s stories. Be prepared for that and look after yourself is that happens. If things became unbearable for you, try to change the subject sensitively and take some deep breaths.
  • Physical touch can have different connotations or traditions: permission maybe needed when it comes to physical contact, including handshake when it comes to opposite genders.
  • Sensitivity is cruicial around following topics
    • Issues like sex, gender, alcohol, drugs & addictions can carry many cultural and religious connotations, which may involve strict views or attitudes and assumptions different from norms in UK culture
    • War, violence & abuse related topics
    • Family issues (loss, missing home may be hard)
    • Their asylum journey and story back home unless they volunteer some information
    • Anything too personal
    • Cultural differences; religion issues & religious sectors and race
  • Safe/okay conversations
    • Interests/ Hobbies
    • Food
    • Sport
    • Work & background
    • Cultural difference; Tradition, celebration and all the “good things” about their own country