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Let's imagine you wanted to seek asylum in the UK

Writing: Phoebe McGowan

Illustration: Polly Burnay

CW: This article includes discussion of deportation and briefly mentions suicide.

What sort of person is going to be seeking asylum? We first need to clarify exactly what an asylum seeker is; they are someone hoping to gain refugee status in the country that they are in. A refugee, as defined by the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, is a person 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 ‘unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’. Put a bit more simply, a refugee is someone who is fleeing harm in their own country. Their home country is unable to protect them, so they are coming somewhere that they believe to be safer.

So, if someone is seeking asylum in the UK, they’re not just moving to the country for the sake of it. It is dangerous for them to go home. We can probably also state with some confidence that they not lived an easy life; they are likely to have fled from traumatic experiences. Many flee from war.

You arrive; by car, by plane, by train, by boat. I don’t think there is much I can say here that has not already been said about the heartbreaking manner in which people risk their lives to travel to the UK. Let us focus instead on what happens when they actually get here.

You must present yourself to the authorities immediately, or, if you’re in the UK and suddenly find yourself unable to return to your home country, you must inform the authorities as soon as you realise you are in a dangerous situation. If you do not do this, you can be arrested for being in the UK illegally and then forcibly deported. Whilst you can appeal this decision, if you lose your appeal you are unable to return to the UK for 10 years.

If you manage to present yourself to the authorities within the correct time frame, then you are given a place to stay and some money to live off. If you’re a single person, then you are given £5.39 a day to live off. If you’re lucky, then you will be allocated to one of the 24% of properties which are actually compliant with Home Office standards. If you’re unlucky, then you will be part of the 43% properties deemed ‘unfit for purpose’ or in ‘urgent’ need of repair. One property had a hole in the kitchen ceiling where water would ‘cascade’. As well as this, local authorities always have a key to your home and can enter at any point. The UK isn’t your home yet anyway; you are still waiting for a decision to be made. There is not a time limit on how long this can take, and the amount of people waiting in these conditions for over 6 months skyrocketed last year, so you’ll likely be living in poverty for some time.

This is the support that the government gives asylum seekers because whilst you are waiting for the government to decide whether your situation is perilous enough for you to stay, you are not allowed to work. However, if you’re lucky enough to be one of the 28% (in 2017) of asylum seekers that were granted the right to stay, then when that happy decision is made, you have 28 days before this support is removed, and you have to move out. If you manage to stay afloat after all that, you have 5 years of relative stability before you have to apply for leave to remain again.

However, this is all if you manage to avoid being detained, which can happen at any point in the procedure, usually because the government is going to try and deport you. However, it can also happen if you are arrested (which you can be for having a job), during a check in with immigration officials, or even as soon as you arrive. At any one point, there are between 2500 and 3000 people detained in the UK, one of the largest numbers in the EU. Roughly half of these people are asylum seekers. Whilst detaining someone is technically an administrative process and not a criminal one, many centres are run by G4S, a company which also oversees the running of prisons. You can also be detained in an actual fucking prison, one might say like a criminal. There’s no limit on how long you can be held in detention centres for either, although the government is trying to speed up the process. Not very successfully however; the first Fast Track system was ruled illegal by the High Court in 2015, as it automatically put people arriving from certain (read: predominantly non-white) countries straight into detention and did not grant them the right to appeal their case if denied refugee status. In 2017, 4 people took their own lives in detention.

In case this is not clear already, it is a legal right to seek asylum. And it’s not illegal to be refused asylum - literally all it means is that you weren’t able to meet the arbitrary criteria to prove you are a refugee.

Why, you might then ask, are we treating vulnerable people who are fleeing dangerous situations like criminals? Well, under the coalition government, a hostile environment policy was laid out by our current Prime Minister where the UK actively tries to make settling here as hard as possible. This was due to the lies which were told, implying that the UK was experiencing some sort of influx of settlers. This is not the case - even in 2015 where there was a relative surge of asylum seekers, reaching 39,000, this is nothing compared to the 103,000 claims that were received in 2002.

This policy targets people of colour, encouraging authorities to single them out and perceive them as different. It also targets women, who often are unable to talk openly about the sexual violence they have encountered. When you vote for reduced immigration, this is what you are voting for.

Global patterns show that the numbers of displaced people are rising - from 1 in 160 people a decade ago to 1 in 113 today. Our current climate crisis means that the amount of displaced people is going to drastically rise - and people displaced by climate change are not currently even counted as refugees. It is obvious that our approach denies global patterns and attempts to criminalise a legal right. To suggest anything otherwise denies victims of their humanity.

It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of a system which needs such total reform, but there are some people who you can support to make a change. Refugee Action are campaigning to lift the ban on asylum seekers being able to work, and the Unity Centre and Bail for Immigration Detainees both do important work representing and helping people in detention centres. There are links to these organisations below.

Refugee Action - (

Unity Centre - (

Bail for Immigration Detainees (

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