The photo shows three men smiling in a cafe, they are all refugees who have made a success of their new business in the UK

What’s the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?


Priti Patel is bringing in new immigration rules which make it harder for people to claim asylum if they arrive in the UK illegally. That’s a simple sentence isn’t it? On the face of it you might see some sense in it and it’s probably all because of one very clever word – illegally. It’s a potent word. It’s one we want you to remember.  It’s one no-one likes to be associated with or described by because it means we have done wrong and are bad.

It is an international law based on Human Rights laws that everyone has the right, when faced with certain types of persecution to seek asylum in another country.  It is enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and supported by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. People could be fleeing from war, they could be being persecuted because of their sexuality or they could be seeking political asylum as they have spoken out against a particular regime, the reasons for seeking refuge are wide ranging. We often hear phrases like ‘why come here?’.  Well perhaps they have a grasp of the language, perhaps they have friends or family here, perhaps they quite simply see the UK as the welcoming and multicultural country we describe ourselves as.

The vast majority of refugees – 4 out of 5 – stay in their region of displacement, and consequently are hosted by developing countries. Turkey now hosts the highest number of refugees with 3.6 million, followed by Pakistan with 1.4 million. According to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) statistics, in the UK, at the end of 2019 there were 133,094  refugees, 61,968 pending asylum cases and 161stateless persons.

There are many misconceptions around refugees, asylum seekers* and immigrants, and the word “illegal” is used poisonously in relation to these views. Here we lay out some facts.

*We prefer the term ‘people seeking asylum’ but for the early part of this article will use the current terminology of ‘Asylum Seeker’ as this dehumanising language is relevant in the context of how it is used against people seeking asylum.

What’s the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?

You’d be forgiven for not understanding, in fact you’d be forgiven for thinking they are all one and the same thing because the terms are used interchangeably by our government and press depending on what they want you to hear. In fact an ‘Asylum Seeker’ is someone in the process of applying to the UK for sanctuary. If the Home Office decide to grant sanctuary they are given Refugee Status which usually allows them to live and work  in the UK for five years after which they can apply for settlement, known as Leave to Remain and they can work, study and claim benefits. So essentially  are in transition to becoming a Refugee.

There is no visa for coming to the UK to claim asylum. There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. Asylum is not something that can be applied for in advance. In fact people can only claim asylum once they are physically in the UK and because there is no formal visa or application to claim asylum from outside the UK, people have to get to the UK how they can. Some people enter the UK legally i.e. with paperwork that allows them to enter, such as; using their passport, or maybe a visa for entry to the UK for some other purpose (work, student or family visa). They then claim asylum once they are here. But most people seeking asylum  are not able to do this, and have to enter the country by unauthorised means, ‘illegally’. Perhaps they do not have a passport and to ask for one would put them in danger. Or if they do have a passport, it might put them in danger if they were to try to use it. The Refugee Convention says that people seeking asylum are protected from prosecution for unauthorised ‘illegal’ crossing of an international border and acknowledges that there can be a good reason for using false documents/passport and that in itself does not invalidate your asylum claim.

On rare occassions people arrive already holding full Refugee Status. This is because they have entered under what is now called the UK’s Resettlement Scheme which replaces earlier schemes. An example would be the 20,000 Syrian refugees who the UK agreed to grant immediate Refugee Status to through the now closed Vulnerable Persons and Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Schemes (VPRS). This means they were given the relevant documentation BEFORE they arrived and did not have to seek asylum but instead were granted Refugee Status and supported through the resettlement programme. 20,000 sounds like a huge number doesn’t it? We’re often told that  our country is ‘overrun’. But as we showed earlier the UK welcomes a tiny number in comparison to places such as Turkey and countries like Germany have welcomed a million Syrian refugees. From 2020, once the 20,000 VPRS refugees have been resettled, the UK has announced plans to resettle around 5,000 of the world’s most vulnerable refugees under the new resettlement scheme, the UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS). This new scheme will consolidate VPRS, VCRS and the Gateway Protection Programme into one global scheme. (Source:  Immigration statistics, year ending June 2020)

Let’s bring it back to what Priti is proposing, she wants ‘to make it harder for people to claim asylum if they arrive in the UK illegally.’  There’s that magic word again. But as we’ve just shown…

It is almost impossible for someone who is fleeing their country and seeking sanctuary to enter the UK legally.

In fact every turn is ‘illegality’ and it’s this word that is so cleverly bandied around time after time. There is nothing illegal in claiming asylum, or being granted Refugee Status. The Government’s proposed new Borders Bill on asylum and refugees conflates seeking asylum with being an ‘illegal immigrant’. This leads to racism and hate crime against both refugees and people seeking asylum, trying to transition to refugee status.

Here in Cumbria refugees have received a warm welcome into our communities, over many decades and most recently we have welcomed Syrians escaping the war to come and live in Cumbria. Sadly though, some have experienced hate crime and racial abuse.

Why would anyone want to behave this way towards them?

It would be easy to write the perpetrator off simply as racist and end the conversation there. Just a ‘bad apple’. But actually we think it’s more important to understand why someone would feel so strongly in the first place. Where has that racism come from and where is it going? There will be many things at play of course but the racist rhetoric of ‘coming over here and stealing our jobs/houses’ is generally a symptom rather than a cause.  Over the years, politicians have increasingly turned to race and identity politics simply because it works. When things aren’t going brilliantly under your government you need to find ways of staying in power and deflecting blame. As far back as 1964, Smethwick’s Tory MP Peter Griffiths won his seat using the slogan “If you want a N****r for a neighbour, vote Labour”. The Smethwick seat bucked the national voting trends at that time,  Labour got into power for the first time in 13 years with a national swing from the Tories of 3.5%; except in Smethwick where the swing went in the opposite direction.

Today, who better to blame than immigrants, particularly ‘non-EU’ immigrants to win over votes. It’s easier to answer questions on arbitrary immigration numbers than…

– Why do we in 2021 UK, need more than two thousand Food Banks?


– why do the richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth and the poorest 50%, just 9%?

It’s not because more people are richer overall, because although the median income has been rising by 2.2% on average for the last five years, most of this is accounted for by the rise for the richest fifth, which has increased by 4.7%. The poorest fifth, on the other hand, have seen a fall in income by 1.6%.

The stark truth is that the rich poor divide in the UK is one of the worst in the developed world, but it’s much easier to get those suffering the most from this inequality to blame immigration than address inequality. In fact it’s smart to, because by encouraging division and blaming immigration for the country’s problems you can in fact then gain voters who will choose to keep you in power because you’ll ‘fix’ the immigration problem. Blame immigration for poor people’s problems. Offer to fix immigration. Get poor people’s votes. In the meantime let the rich get richer.

So what does it matter to power if people use terms like “illegal immigration”, “asylum seekers” and “refugees” interchangeably? It doesn’t. It works brilliantly for encouraging the racism that fuels votes, and it is compounding racism, have no doubt about that. Oxford University’s Migration Observatory tracks feeling and sentiment towards migration and whilst only 10% of people surveyed said that no Australians should be allowed to come and live in Britain, 37% said that no Nigerians should be allowed. Pakistan and Romania fared similarly to Nigeria, whereas Poland was ‘middling’ and France similar to Australia. Such patterns have sometimes been described as an ‘ethnic hierarchy’ (Ford, 2011). We call it racism. In fact it’s a sad indictment of anti-Black sentiment and racism if ever you needed one. At the preferred end of the scale are those who are White, English-speaking, Europeans and Christian countries while at the least preferred are non-whites, non-Europeans and Muslim countries. Romania is an interesting anomaly. Despite being a European and Christian country, opposition to immigration from Romania is at similar levels to opposition to immigration from Pakistan. This may reflect an association with Roma/Gypsy Roma people. Behind all this talk of immigration and illegal immigration is a deeply worrying political plan, to continue to fuel racism. Don’t let it fuel you. Don’t let it fool you.

The 14 – 21 June is Refugee Week. We ask you to write to your MP to denounce Priti Patel’s new laws that threaten people fleeing persecutionto seek refuge here. We ask you to educate yourself on immigration. We ask you to support the #TogetherWithRefugees campaign that is taking place throughout 2021.