Insight

What is an ‘Asylum Seeker’?

An ‘asylum seeker’ is a person who requests refugee status in another state, usually on the grounds that he or she has a well founded fear of persecution in their home country or that they feel their life or liberty is threatened by armed conflict or violence.

Since the 1980s more than five million people have submitted such requests for refugee status in Western Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia.

With the era of open immigration in the post World War II years now a distant memory, inevitably, such large numbers of refugee movements has caused a backlash amongst traditional receiving states and continents.

Background to Asylum

The concept of asylum is not new. It has been in existence for almost 3,500 years and can be found in different interpretations in many ancient societies. A Hittite King in the second millennium BC declared “Concerning a refugee, I affirm an oath the following: when a refugee comes from your land into mine he will not be returned to you. To return a refugee from the land of the Hittites is not right.”

In more modern times, the member nations of the European Union, especially those with colonial backgrounds have traditionally welcomed immigrants. The UK, France and the Netherlands have all received significant numbers of people from the Commonwealth, Algeria and the Dutch Antilles respectively. Today, the UK remains proud of its record on immigration, referring to its laissez faire attitude as far back as the Eighteenth century, when London already enjoyed a cosmopolitan populace.

The Geneva Convention

The cornerstone of international refugee protection is the 1951 Geneva Convention  ( http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49da0e466.html ) and the 1967 Protocol. The Geneva Convention was designed as a response to the mass migration flows Europe witnessed in the immediate aftermath of World War II. With European displacement firmly in its mind, the Geneva Convention originally contained a geographical and historical clause, which automatically banned people from certain countries from claiming asylum. The 1967 Protocol removed these restrictions and allowed people from any country to claim asylum. The Convention provides protection to those who have:

“a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…”

It is important to recognise that the Convention does not make the claim of asylum a right of the individual. The granting of asylum has always been (and remains) the right of a state. However the universal recognition of asylum by states can be viewed as an implicit right of an individual to claim asylum.

The 1951 Geneva Convention has a far wider social impact than merely defining a refugee. The convention also covers the social and economic circumstances of refugees in countries of exile. Whilst stating that all refugees should adhere to the laws and regulations of their host country, the convention also states that refugees should receive benefit of equal measure to other ‘aliens’ residing in the country. These benefits extend to personal status, artistic rights and industrial property, right of association and access to courts. Additionally, non-discrimination and a minimum standard of religious freedom are also to be allowed. With reference to employment status- the convention stipulates that refugees should be given the same rights as other foreigners in the country. In terms of welfare rights- the convention states that refugees should be allowed equal access to rationing, elementary education, public relief and assistance and social security.

Asylum Policy in the UK

Apart from the UK signing the 1951 Geneva Convention, there was little if no mention of asylum in UK legislation until the 1980s. In response to the growing number of applications, the UK government in 1987 signed the Carriers Liability Act in 1987. This imposed heavy fines on all carriers who were found to have transported people without the correct documentation into the UK. Visa restrictions were also introduced for certain nationals.

From the 1990s began an unprecedented legislative action on asylum and immigration with three statutes in a decade. Here is a brief breakdown of the acts:

Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993

Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1996

Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1999

Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act 2002

Asylum and Immigaration (Treatment of Claiments etc) Act 2004 

Imigration Asylum and Nationality Act 2006

Your Questions Answered

Is Britain really being swamped by refugees and asylum seekers?

Most of the people who come here are economic migrants attracted to our benefits system?

Why do they travel so far? Surely they should seek asylum in the nearest safe country.

They are all young men. Why don’t they stay and defend their country?

Aren’t they all just being sold a dream by criminal gangs in their own country?