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Tell It Like It Is: The Truth About Asylum
A Pocket Guide for the General Election

With a General Election looming, the campaigning on asylum has already started. And as election day gets closer, the arguments are likely to get ever more feverish. The Refugee Council recognises that asylum will be an election issue. But we think it is important that politicians should campaign in a calm and sensitive way, using facts and figures, not myths and scare stories.

Tell it like it is: The Truth About Asylum is a pocket guide for anyone who wants to have the facts about asylum at their fingertips during the election campaign. It has been produced by the Refugee Council in partnership with Refugee Action, Scottish Refugee Council, Welsh Refugee Action and STAR - Student Action for Refugees. We hope that the guide will be carried around by parliamentary candidates, party workers and anyone else taking part in the campaign, so that when the asylum issue comes up on the doorstep or in meetings they will have reliable information available in a handy format to counter the myths that are so widespread.

Get a PDF version of the Pocket Guide in English or Welsh. You will need Acrobat Reader for this, which you can get free from the Adobe website.

Nailing press myths about refugees

"Anyone reading the British press might assume that the UK is in the front-line of dealing with migrants and refugees. This is wrong".
Tony Baldry MP, Conservative Chair of the International Development Committee

According to opinion polls, asylum is the third most important issue for the British public (MORI 2003). It is rarely out of the newspapers and is the subject of intense political and public debate.

Reporting and commentary about asylum seekers and refugees is often hostile, unbalanced and factually incorrect. This briefing aims to dispel some of the more pervasive of these myths.

The Claim

"Illegal refugees targeted on tube"
The Observer, 11 July 2004

The facts
A refugee is someone who has applied for asylum and has by law been granted refugee status. 'Illegal refugees' do not exist, neither do 'illegal asylum seekers', another variation of this commonly-used mistake.

In October 2003, the Press Complaints Commission published guidance on the coverage of issues relating to refugees and asylum seekers, reminding newspaper editors that 'there can be no such thing in law as an "illegal asylum seeker" '. The UK is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and incorporated the Convention into domestic law in 1993. This means that by law anyone has the right to apply for asylum in the UK and remain until a final decision on their application has been made.

The fact that an asylum seeker may have entered the country illegally does not mean their case lacks credibility: the reverse is often true. It is virtually impossible for people fleeing persecution to reach Britain without resorting to the use of false documents. In recognition of this fact, Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits governments from penalising refugees who use false documents.

The Claim

"The most cautious estimate is 50,000 bogus asylum seekers and illegals a year slipping into Britain"
The Sun, 29 September 2003

The Facts

Even though the standard of proof needed to get refugee status is very high, in 2002 more than one in three asylum seekers were found to be in need of protection or were allowed stay on humanitarian grounds. One in four appeals were successful. In 2003, 23% of initial decisions resulted in asylum seekers being given permission to stay in the UK and one in five appeals were successful.

The press often suggests that asylum seekers are coming to Britain for economic reasons, failing to recognise refugee movements as a distinct form of international migration. A report published in June 2004 showed that three out of four asylum seekers were fleeing countries in conflict. Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia have been in the top five refugee-producing countries for the past three years. War, human rights abuses and the repression of ethnic minorities are common to all these countries.

In 2003, there were 1,396,000 overseas workers in the UK, compared with 49,370 asylum applications.

The Claim

"…so-called asylum seekers who, in reality, seek no more than access to our welfare system"
Leader comment, Sunday Express, 2 May 2004

The Facts
Research commissioned by the Home Office found that for those asylum seekers who can choose a destination, previous knowledge of welfare provision does not strongly influence their choice.

Asylum seekers cannot claim mainstream welfare benefits. If destitute, they can apply to the National Asylum Support Service (NASS), the Government department responsible for destitute asylum applicants, for basic food and shelter. A single adult is eligible for £38.96 a week, equivalent to 70% of basic income support.

In December 2003, around 80,000 asylum seekers were receiving Home Office support, compared with 15.5 million Britons on benefits (excluding retirement pensions), meaning that 0.5% of those claiming government support were asylum seekers.

From January 2003 to June 2004, government policy denied even this basic support (under Section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002) to thousands of asylum seekers. The Government was forced to reinstate support, after an appeal court judge found the policy in breach of asylum seekers' human rights. The Home Secretary is likely to appeal against the Court's decision.

A joint study by Oxfam and the Refugee Council (2002) showed how the asylum system institutionalises poverty. The report revealed that 85% experience hunger, 95% cannot afford to buy clothes or shoes and 80% are not able to maintain good health. Many asylum seekers do not receive the basic support they may be entitled to, because the system is badly designed, extremely bureaucratic and poorly run.

The Claim

"Al Qaeda terror strike at Man Utd match is foiled…. around 400 officers swooped before dawn yesterday to arrest ten people six of whom are understood to be Iraqi Kurd asylum seekers"
Daily Mail, April 2004

The Facts

Asylum seekers are too often presented as criminals, whereas in reality they are more likely to be victims of crime. Both the Association of Chief Police Officers and research recently commissioned by the London Mayor have pointed to links between negative media reporting, increased community tensions, and hostility and violence aimed at asylum seekers.

Very small numbers of asylum applicants have been arrested under anti-terrorism legislation. In the Manchester United case, the asylum seekers were released without charge. The UK has some of the toughest anti-terrorism legislation in Europe, which enables the Government to detain foreign nationals indefinitely without charge.

Over 88 million people passed through UK borders during 2001, only 71,025 UK of whom were asylum seekers. The rest were tourists, workers, visitors and employees. Individuals intent on carrying out terrorist activities are unlikely to stay in the UK by virtue of making an asylum application. Whereas terrorists need to conceal their identity and evade official authorities, asylum applicants are closely monitored by the immigration authorities and are subject to fingerprinting and security checks, screening and intensive interview procedures.

The UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the basis for domestic refugee law, specifically excludes people who have committed particularly serious crimes, whilst ensuring that those in genuine need, who have been the victims of terror in their own countries, are offered sanctuary.

The Claim

"And they will stop bogus asylum seekers from getting NHS care, saving £1 billion of taxpayers' cash"
The Sun, 31 July 2003

The Facts

A Home Office report shows that people born outside the UK, including asylum seekers, contribute 10% more to the economy in taxes and national insurance than they consume in benefits and public services - equivalent to a boost to the economy of £2.6 billion in 1998/99.

Refugees bring with them a wealth of skills and experience. According to a recent research commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions, 53% of refugees have academic qualifications, 23-33% of parents of asylum-seeking and refugee children have a first or postgraduate degree and most possess the relevant work experience to pursue careers in their field.

A report published by the Medical Practitioners' Union this year criticised health services for asylum seekers, the role of the media and the difficulty that qualified refugee doctors and nurses have in getting jobs. It costs approximately £250,000 to train a doctor, where non-governmental organisations have succeeded in re-qualifying refugee doctors to work in the NHS for £5,000. There are around 90,000 vacancies in the UK health and social care sectors, when there could be thousands of refugees with the appropriate skills without permission to work, or facing numerous other barriers to work. The NHS already relies heavily on foreign labour: according to the Greater London Authority, 23% of doctors and 47% of nurses working within the NHS were born outside the UK.

There are also numerous barriers preventing asylum seekers accessing NHS services, including a recent change to Government policy which means that unsuccessful asylum applicants are no longer entitled to most free NHS services, apart from emergency care.

Since July 2002, asylum seekers have been barred from working until they receive a positive decision on their claim. Whilst demonised for draining UK public services, asylum seekers are forced to depend on government support, cannot contribute to the UK taxation system and are barred from using the wealth of skills and experience they bring to the UK.

The Claim

"One in five flock here; asylum: we're too damn soft"
Daily Star, 23 January 2004

The Facts

At the end of 2003, Britain hosted around 270,000 refugees*, about 2.8% of the world's 9.7 million and 0.4% of the British population.

Whilst Britain, the world's fourth largest economy, ranked 9th in Europe in 2003 in terms of asylum applications per capita, the world's poorest countries both produce and bear responsibility for most refugees. Most refugees cannot afford to leave their regions of origin; two thirds of the world's refugees live in developing countries and more than a third live in the world's poorest countries, many of them in squalid refugee camps.

For example, conflict in Sudan has forced four million people from their homes. Over half a million have fled the country, mainly to neighbouring countries, tens of thousands living in camps in Chad. Only a fraction of this total - around 930 Sudanese people - applied for asylum in the UK last year.

Misinformation in the media leads to public misunderstanding: respondents to a 2003 MORI poll estimated that 23% of the world's refugee population come to the UK: ten times the actual amount.

* source: UNHCR 2003 Global Refugee Trends, 15 June 2004

The Claim

"Just one in five bogus asylum seekers is ever booted out of the country"
The Express, 26 January 2004

The Facts

The Government has put significant resources into increasing removals. 12,490 unsuccessful asylum applicants were removed or returned in 2003.

As the Government does not record UK departures and there is no official record of how many people whose permission to stay in the UK has expired leave the country, there may be thousands more who leave the country. Some may stay illegally; they are not entitled to work or to claim support from the Government.

When an asylum applicant has been unsuccessful, there may be clear reasons why the Home Office cannot remove them, which the Government accepts. Whilst the person may be fully compliant with the system, there may be difficulties such as ill health or pregnancy, difficulties with transport, or the country of origin being deemed too dangerous or refusing to take the person back. Whilst these people are confusingly referred to as failed asylum seekers, they are not in the country illegally and do not have removal directions against them from the Government.

That unsuccessful asylum seekers are returned in safety and dignity is a fundamental principle. The Government has recently come under fire from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for returning Somalia and Iraqi asylum seekers to extremely unsafe areas.

Find out more about the Refugee Council's principles for removals

Further information

Get the Refugee Council's information about writing to the press and find out about the Press Complaints Commission guidelines on reporting refugee and asylum issues

If you would like to get involved in our campaigning work, please e-mail us at:

If you have general information enquiries about refugees and asylum issues in the UK, you can contact the Refugee Council Information Desk on 020 7820 3085 (open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, 10am to 1pm) or email us at:

Note on statistics: UK statistics are sourced from the Home Office, Global asylum and refugee statistics are sourced from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),

Get a PDF version of Press Myths. You will need Acrobat Reader for this, which you can get free from the Adobe website.

Useful links

Article 19's report on media representation of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK, What's the Story, 2003

Presswise Trust, an independent media ethics charity

Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees in the UK (ICAR) paper Media Image, Community Impact (July 2004) explores the links between media and political coverage of asylum issues, hostility to asylum seekers and refugees, increased community tensions, and patterns of racial incidents.

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