Asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants- Spot the difference!

Are asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants really ‘all the same’? Or are we just becoming less tolerant towards ‘Bloody foreigners?’

A photo of a xenophobic daily mail headline
Xenophobic headline by the Daily Mail: “HOW MANY MORE CAN WE TAKE?” Courtesy of Gideon (Malias) on Flickr


It is the blurring of the terms asylum seeker, refugee and immigrant that can account for much of the unpleasant attitudes that many have towards the people included in the groups. Asylum seekers are those that flee their countries of origin for their life, and who travel to another country, and make themselves known to the authorities through an application, in hope that the foreign government will allow them to stay there. What then is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker? An asylum seeker is someone whose application to live in the UK is being considered, while a refugee is someone whose application has been successful. There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker or an illegal refugee.  Natural disasters, wars and fear of persecution are the main reasons why people seek asylum.

There is a direct link between the occurrence of crises in a country and the number of people who apply as asylum seekers to seek refuge. The current crisis in Syria has seen a rise in the number of Syrian asylum seekers in the UK, which has doubled since the beginning of the crisis in 2011. The top 5 countries of origin are Pakistan, Iran, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Syria. The emergence of terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria has seen thousands of persecuted Christians fleeing the country for fear of no less than their lives. The displacement of millions caused by famine and other natural disasters in Pakistan explains the high number of people seeking refuge in another country. Government killings and tortures amongst other human rights violations in Iran makes sense of it being one of the highest countries of origin that asylum seekers come from. The aftermath of the civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives in Sri Lanka and the millions of displaced starving children and civilian massacres in Syria, are all self-sufficient accounts for the number of people fleeing these nations.

The misconception of all refugees as job thieves and benefit scoundrels is far from reality as refugees actually have no right to work in the UK despite the fact that a significant majority are highly qualified professionals .  This means that they have little choice but to be dependent on state support which is currently under £6 a day almost half of the minimum wage. Ana is a single-mother and an asylum seeker fleeing North Africa where there are people determined to make her daughter an orphan. She speaks of the foul living conditions that she and her toddling daughter were subject to, upon arriving in Glasgow during the process of her application. She mentions feeling like they were “animals in the bush.” Due to the less-than-basic pay and the ban on work, pursuing her case proves nearly impossible as she has no money for transport or to top-up her phone to gather evidence that would support her application for asylum.

Statistics show that there are not millions flooding into the UK to take advantage of our apparently overly generous benefit system. In fact, despite these crises, in 2011, there were just under 20,000 applications made to the UK. For those like Ana who are fleeing their country for their lives, the UK does not actually welcome these people with open arms. 16-year-old Daniel, for example, who was fleeing West Africa as the child of a political member of the opposition party was being chased down by the government of his country who burnt down his house with him, his brother and his mother outside, before they were all captured and arrested. His uncle arranged for him to leave the country and make his way to the UK. When he did, he was abandoned by an agent who put him in a taxi to the Scottish Refugee Council.

Fearful and speaking no English, the young boy was not provided with a lovely house and generous benefits, but felt lost, alone and clueless. Despite this traumatic experience, it is true that after almost a year of waiting for his application to be approved, his grant to live in the UK was fortunate, as this is not the average result for most asylum seekers. The majority of applications are unsuccessful- 60% to be precise.

What happens then? It becomes the responsibility of the applicant to return to their country within a given time period. If a person is unwilling or unable to return due to funds, the UK Border Agency arranges for them to return to their country of origin. The refusal of their application makes them an illegal immigrant in the UK, hence they are no longer provided with state-funded accommodation or a daily allowance, both of which expire on the date that they were given to have left the country by. For many people like Ana they prefer to “die here than there” and end up living on the streets and it is not rare for people to turn to prostitution and drug-dealing to make a living.

The mainstream media’s portrayal of asylum seekers as thieves with false claims who flood in the millions to take advantage of the benefit system which gives them priority housing at the expense of British people and their jobs stands in contrast to the harsh reality of jobless, traumatised people coming to flee for their lives only to feel jobless, helpless and living on basically nothing. Of course the latter description cannot account for all refugees, but it is closer to the reality of Britain’s refugees than the first one.

However, this does not mean that asylum seekers should be perceived through the lens of pity, as this would only be another angle of negativity defining their identity. Rather, their contributions to and impact on British culture and society should be celebrated.

So, next time someone lists “We Will Rock You” as one of Britain’s top anthems, remember that Freddie Mercury- the legend himself- was a refugee from war-torn Zanzibar. Hopefully, that should put a perspective on things next time you’re engaged in a discussion about asylum seekers.

By Zoe Onifade


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