Asylum seekers and refugees

One way to understand the impact of inequalities is to look at how social exclusion impacts on a specific group.


Who are they?

Asylum issues are frequently confused with the broader debate about immigration, a situation compounded by the media (Article 19 2003; ICAR 2004; Migration Observatory 2012). For an informed and balanced debate about asylum to take place the precise, legal definitions of terms such as asylum seeker, refugee and immigrant must be understood and used consistently (MediaWise 2008).

According to the Migration Observatory, asylum applicants or “asylum seekers” are individuals who come to the UK and apply for protection as refugees. A refugee is "someone who has fled his or her own country, and cannot return for well-founded fear of persecution there" (Migration Observatory 2013, p.2). The Observatory also points out that as well as the tendency for the terms ‘asylum seeker’ and  ‘migrant’ to be used interchangeably, especially in the media, the definition of ‘migrant’ itself varies according to context (Migration observatory (2012). An immigrant is anyone who leaves their native land and goes to another country as a permanent resident (BBC News 2004).

Independent research commissioned by the Refugee Council on decisions made by asylum seekers who come to the UK has shown that more than two-thirds did not specifically choose to come to the UK to claim asylum and that the decision over destination was often made by the agents who facilitated the journey and access to travel documents (Crawley 2010).

How are they affected by social exclusion?

Asylum seekers and refugees are not a homogeneous group and may have very different experiences and expectations of health and of health care. Research by Crawley (2010)  indicates that many asylum seekers arriving in the UK have very limited knowledge of the UK healthcare and welfare systems. Asylum seekers are forced to take risks in transit as there is no legal way to travel to the UK for the purposes of asylum (Burnett and Peel 2001a; Refugee Council 2008). On arrival in the UK they face 'the effects of poverty, dependence, and lack of cohesive social support. All these factors undermine both physical and mental health. Additionally, racial discrimination can result in inequalities in health and have an impact on opportunities in and quality of life' (Burnett and Peel 2001b, p.544).
The basic health needs of asylum seekers may not be that different from the host nation (Burnett and Peel 2001c). But asylum seekers face a restrictive, complex and overloaded asylum system in an alien society and psychological distress is widespread (Burnett and Peel 2001b). Estimates vary as to how many asylum seekers have been tortured or faced organised violence - between five per cent and 30 per cent according to Burnett and Peel (2001c). Housing support and benefits are precarious (Refugee Action 2006;Centre for Social Justice 2008).

A Children’s Society analysis has revealed that around 10,000 children live far below the poverty level because asylum support levels for children and families can be as little as half of that received through the mainstream benefit levels (Children’s Society 2012; Ramesh 2012). The seriousness of the situation is further underlined by a report from the cross-party parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people, supported by the Children’s Society. In addition to poverty the report also highlights the effects of racial abuse and disregard for basic human dignity and their impact – “frequent moves and failures on continuity of care, disruption to children’s friendships, education and family support networks" can be "a profoundly negative influence on children’s well-being” (Children’s Society 2013, p.iii).

An investigation into the health impact of dispersal and relocation on pregnant women seeking asylum and new mothers has indicated the levels of distress that this can cause. This includes the impact on physical and mental health resulting from frequent moves and being dispersed away from area where these women had strong social networks, financial impact, and the difficulties around re-schooling children (Maternity Action and Refugee Council 2013).

What is being done?

A consensus has been growing around the priority issues affecting this group and how to meet them (Social Perspectives Network 2006, Perry and El-Hassan 2008). The consistent principle is that the person is treated as an individual as 'the terms refugee and asylum seeker denote a situation rather than an identity' (Burnett 2002, p.8).

A call has been made to the government to improve the situations of asylum seekers in the UK and “restore dignified treatment and humane support levels” (Children’s Society 2013, p. 24). 


The items in this reference list are available online. They were last accessed on 22 March 2013. Some of them are in PDF format - see how to access PDF files.

Article 19 (2003) What’s the story? Results from research into media coverage of refugees and asylum seekers (PDF 1.86MB), London: Article 19.

BBC News (2004) Migration glossary, BBC website.

Burnett A, Peel M (2001a) Asylum seekers and refugees in Britain: What brings asylum seekers to the United Kingdom? BMJ, 322(7284) 24 February, pp.485-88.

Burnett A, Peel M (2001b) Asylum seekers and refugees in Britain: health needs of asylum seekers and refugees, BMJ, 322 (7285) 3 March, pp.544-47.

Burnett A, Peel M (2001c). Asylum seekers and refugees in Britain: the health of survivors of torture and organised violence, BMJ 322 (7286) 10 March, pp.606-9.

Burnett A (2002) Meeting the health needs of refugee and asylum seekers in the UK. An information and  resource pack for health workers, London: Department of Health.

Centre for Social Justice (2008) Asylum matters: restoring trust in the UK asylum system. A report by the Asylum and Destitution Working Group, London: The Centre for Social Justice

Children's Society (2012) UK asylum system forces thousand of children to live in severe poverty, Children's Society website.

Children’s Society (2013) Report of the Parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people, London: Children’s Society.

Crawley H (2010) Chance or choice? Understanding why asylum seekers come to the UK (PDF 362.2KB), London: The Refugee Council.

Ramesh R (2012) 'Young migrants living 'far below poverty line', The Guardian website.

ICAR (Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees in the UK) (2004) Media Image, community impact. Assessing the impact of media and political images of refugees and asylum seekers on community relations in London Report of a pilot research study (PDF 805.07KB), London: ICAR.

Maternity Action and Refugee Council (2013) When maternity doesn’t matter: dispersing pregnant women seeking asylum, London: Refugee Council.
MediaWise (2008) Reporting asylum and refugee issues (PDF 360.9KB), Bristol: MediaWise.

Migration Observatory (2012) Who counts as a migrant? Definitions and their consequences, Oxford: The Migration Observatory.

Migration Observatory (2013) Migration to the UK: Asylum, Oxford: The Migration Observatory.

Perry J, El-Hassan A (2008) More responsive public services? A guide to commissioning migrant and refugee community organisations, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Refugee Action (2006) The destitution trap: researching into destitution among refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, London: Refugee Action.

Refugee Council (2008) Remote Controls: how UK border controls are endangering the lives of refugees (PDF 700.9KB), London: Refugee Council.