The UK has a long history of providing sanctuary and safety to people fleeing war and persecution. The root of the word ‘refugee’ comes from France in the late 17th century from the verb ‘refugier’, which meant ‘to take shelter’ or ‘to protect’. The root of the French verb comes from the Latin ‘refugium’, ‘a place to flee back to’, from ‘fugere’ ‘to flee’ (closely related to the verb ‘fugare’ – to drive away).
In the 17th century, ‘refugee’ therefore came to mean ‘one seeking shelter or protection’. It was first applied to describe Huguenots who fled Catholic France in the late 17th century due to religious persecution based on their Protestant beliefs. This explains why the first appearance of the term ‘refugee’ in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1671 states: “a Protestant who has fled France to seek refuge elsewhere”.
Over the course of the 18th century, the English meaning of the term was gradually broadened in common usage to include people fleeing war, violence and persecution; largely in line with the common understanding today. The organisers of Refugee Week have put together an informative timeline of when refugees have settled in the UK throughout history, which you can download from their website.
During the first half of the 20th century, millions of people were displaced from their homes. Many were fleeing persecution because of their religion, ethnicity, political beliefs or sexuality. During the Holocaust, millions of people were imprisoned and murdered, including Jews, communists, homosexuals, Roma and people with mental or physical disabilities. An estimated 60m people fled their homes and sought safety elsewhere. These events led to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which set out legal rights for refugees and placed obligations on contracting States to uphold them. The Refugee Convention was drafted in the wake of the Second World War and was designed to deal with the problems facing Europe at that time. It is however silent on many of the main causes of refugee movement today. The number of people forced from their homes is now higher than ever before. In 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that 1 in every 113 people globally is an asylum seeker, internally displaced within their own country, or a legally recognised refugee. [SOURCE: UNHCR (2016) Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015]
People become refugees when they are forced to flee a country because they face persecution or because their lives are at risk. They may also become a refugee if they have already left a country and cannot return.
There are many different reasons that lead to someone becoming a refugee. They may be compelled to leave their home because of war, conflict, natural disasters or famine. Many people also flee because they face violence and ill-treatment due to their political or religious beliefs, ethnicity or nationality. Frequently, governments may be directly involved in the persecution of certain groups, or may have no power to stop it from happening.
However, the above reasons do not necessarily entitle someone to refugee protection under international law. The legal definition of a refugee is strict. Although most people would consider those who flee their country because their lives are in danger to be refugees, they would not necessarily be granted refugee status by another State.
Violence is a daily reality for millions of people across the world living in conflict zones. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, the world is becoming increasingly less peaceful. Women and children in particular are at risk in war zones and make up an estimated 80% of the world’s refugees. [SOURCE: Women’s Refugee Commission (2009) Refugee Girls: the invisible faces of war]
Sonia Khoury was born in Syria. In October 2011, she arrived in the UK to begin a PhD in Health Sciences. Whilst studying towards her PhD, the Syrian Civil War broke out, forcing her to claim asylum. According to the UNHCR, there are almost 5m Syrian refugees, mostly living in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Many of the 6.6m people still living in Syria have been displaced from their homes. [SOURCE: UNHCR (2016) Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015]
Sonia is now settled in Wales with her young daughter. Through her work with the Black Association of Women Step Out, she acts as a spokesperson for other refugee women, helping migrant women, particularly those fleeing domestic abuse, to establish a new life in the UK. She is currently undertaking an MPhil on reproductive care provision for refugees and asylum seekers. In recognition of her work, she was named Woman of the Year 2015 Women on the Move Awards.
Many people around the world face severe hostility, oppression and ill-treatment, often involving violence, due to their beliefs or identity.
Cynthia Masiyiwa was born and grew up in Zimbabwe, where opposition to the ruling political party, ZANU-PF, has led to targeted violence and intimidation by the State authorities and aligned groups. For example, following elections on March 29, 2008 and the presidential runoff of June 27, supporters of the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), were targeted in government-sponsored attacks by supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party and government-backed youth militia. Thousands of victims were beaten and tortured.
Fearing for Cynthia’s safety due to the family’s political affiliations, her mother sent her to London when she was 15 years old. Since then, Cynthia has become an organiser and leader working with Citizens UK and Active Horizons, where she helped to employ 60 young people during the 2012 London Olympics. Her community work was recognised in the 2013 Women on the Move Awards, where she was named Young Woman of the Year.
Religious minorities are often targeted due to their beliefs or affiliations. Some of the earliest refugees to the UK were victims of religious persecution. For example, between 1560 and 1575 Dutch Protestants fled religious persecution in the Catholic Netherlands and settled in London and the east of England. The UK's proud tradition of providing safety to religious minorities continues to this day.
Farasat Ahmed was born in 1994 in a small town in Pakistan. His family faced severe discrimination because they were Ahmadiyya Muslims. Despite being a minority sect who identify themselves as Muslims, in 1974 Ahmadiyyas were declared "non-Muslim" under Pakistani law. Since then, their freedom to practice their religion has been restricted by successive governments, and they have been subjected to imprisonment and sustained violence at the hands of extremists.
In 2012, Farasat’s father was imprisoned on trumped-up charges which carried a life sentence and the death penalty. He was forced to leave his job and renounce his finances and property. When he was granted bail, the family fled to London, where they were granted refugee status.
Farasat is now a university student and works as an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust, inspiring other young people to rebuild their lives after finding themselves excluded from work or education.
Around the world, individuals face systematic violence and discrimination because they belong to (or they are perceived to belong to) a particular ethnicity or ethnic group.
Journalist and author, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, was born into the Ugandan Asian community in Kampala in 1949. Her mother was born in East Africa and her father had moved there from British India in the 1920s.
In 1972, Yasmin arrived in Britain to study at Oxford University. On 4 August that year, the President of Uganda, Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of the country's Asian minority, giving them 90 days to leave. Yasmin could not return and became an exile. Almost 60,000 Ugandan Asians were forced to leave the country. Around 27,000 held British passports and were resettled in the UK, with most settling in London and Leicester.
Yasmin has since won numerous awards for her journalism, including the EMMA Media Personality of the Year in 2000, the George Orwell Prize for Political Journalism in 2002 and the EMMA Award for Journalism in 2004. She has also written a number of books, and currently contributes to the Independent and the Evening Standard.
In many countries, people suffer because they belong to a persecuted social group, such as LGBTI communities or women. They may face violence, intimidation and inequality because of who they love, how they look or act, who they are, or because they are seen not to conform to accepted social norms.
Poet, educator and LGBTI human rights activist and advocate, PJ Samuels, was born in Jamaica. She fled the country to escape homophobic violence and intimidation as a lesbian and outspoken member of the LGBTI community. LGBTI Jamaicans are vulnerable to both physical and sexual violence and many live in constant fear.
Upon arriving in the UK, PJ first settled in Wolverhampton before moving to London. She has been an outspoken social activist for LGBTI rights, as well as a written and spoken-word poet. She facilitates Weather the Storm, a peer support programme for LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers in the United Kingdom, described as “an open and liberating space where hugs and laughter are as plentiful as the cups of tea and biscuits.” Her poetry has been included in ‘Black and Gay in the UK’, an anthology published in 2014.
Lots of different words are used to describe people who move from one place to another. This can be very confusing. Some of these terms are legal (such as ‘asylum seeker’). Others relate to the particular circumstances people find themselves in as a result of moving from one country to another, or their motives for doing so. Often, the words used say more about the ideological position of the speaker than the people they refer to.
It is important to recognise the inherent difficulty of categorising humans. People may have a variety of motivations for moving from one place to another, as well as varied individual experiences. The terms used to describe people who move are also inexact and there are no clear lines between them - a migrant may also be an asylum seeker; a refugee may also be a British citizen.
We encourage everyone to question the words that are used, and how they are used (for example by politicians and the media). Words are incredibly powerful, and can often be dehumanising. We advocate an approach that is open-minded, accurate and humane. Below we provide some definitions for different words that are often used when talking about migrants and refugees.
Broadly speaking, the word ‘migrant’ is used to describe a person who moves from one place to another. It is a generic term. ‘Immigrant’ is used to describe a person who moves to a different country, while ‘emigrant’ describes someone who leaves their country and settles in a new country.
However, there is no single definition of a 'migrant'.
In different contexts, migrants may be defined by:
Because there is no agreed term, it is important to question what words are used, and why. Sometimes, someone may be a migrant (because they have moved from one country to another), but another term may be more accurate due to their specific circumstances, such as ‘refugee’. A person’s circumstances may also change upon arrival in another country. For example, a migrant may become a refugee as they are unable to return.
Sudanese Poet, Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, lived in Omdurman, Khartoum, where he worked as cultural editor of an influential daily newspaper, until he was forced into exile in 2012. In July 2012, during the uprising against the dictatorship of Omar Al-Bashir, he was sacked along with a number of colleagues, who were also imprisoned. Saddiq escaped imprisonment because he was in the UK at a poetry event when the arrests took place. He was granted refugee status and is now living in London.
Saddiq’s poetry is both famous in his native country, as well as across the Arabic-speaking world. He has been a published poet since the age of 15, winning his first poetry prize at age 17. A number of his works have been translated into English by the Poetry Translation Centre.
The term ‘economic migrant’ is often used to describe someone who has chosen to migrate for work or study, rather than to flee persecution. However, these distinctions are often false. Economic hardship may be exacerbated by ethnic or religious persecution, disaster, or conflict, spurring people to leave their homes and seek better opportunities abroad. In many cases, refugees may take up an opportunity to live or work in another country in order to escape, whilst also bettering their lives.
Scientist and professor, Edith Bülbring (1903-1990) was born in Bonn to a Jewish mother and a Protestant father. She graduated in medicine from the University of Bonn in 1928 and went on to work in several medical roles before researching infectious diseases at a hospital in Berlin. Due to the anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jewish population, Edith was dismissed from the hospital in 1933. Through her links in the scientific world, Edith managed to flee to the UK, where she was offered a job at the Pharmaceutical Society.
Her 40 year contribution to science, particularly in the field of smooth-muscle physiology, has been recognised as of huge importance. Edith was one of the first women to be granted a fellowship to the Royal Society in 1958. In 1960, she was given a professorship at the University of Oxford. After retiring from the university in 1971, she continued to actively research up till her death in 1990.
Refugees are people who cross borders because their lives are at risk or because they face persecution. Throughout history, people have been forced to flee their homes in the face of an oncoming army, civil unrest, genocide, political oppression and other grave threats to their life, liberty or safety.
The term ‘refugee’ has a legal definition, as well as a broader meaning in common understanding. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a refugee as:
“A person who has been forced to leave his or her home and seek refuge elsewhere, esp. in a foreign country, from war, religious persecution, political troubles, the effects of a natural disaster, etc.; a displaced person.”
Refugees did not have legal rights to protection until after the Second World War. Throughout the 20th century, in response to the mass displacement of millions of people, the international community developed laws and guidance which aimed to protect and safeguard the rights of refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees outline the United Nations international legal definition of the term ‘refugee’ and the rights of displaced people, as well as the legal obligations of contracting States to protect them.
The 1951 Refugee Convention set out legal rights for refugees and placed obligations on contracting States to uphold them. According to the 1951 Convention, a refugee is someone 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 outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”
Instances of persecution based on nationality, ethnicity, or political or religious beliefs are often easier to understand. People may also be targeted because they belong to a distinct social group and this understanding has evolved over time. For example:
The 1951 Convention’s definition of a refugee is strict. A person is only classified as a refugee when they meet all of the following 4 criteria:
Where the above conditions are not met, a person may not be entitled to refugee status, even though their life may be at risk. For example, it is only since relatively recently that women facing gender-based violence have been regarded by the UK legal system as members of a social group.
The 1951 Convention also places certain obligations on refugees. For example, people may not be recognised as refugees if they have committed serious crimes, such as a war crime.
Other legal definitions of refugees also exist. The African Union (formerly the Organization of African Unity) has an additional regional legal instrument governing refugee protection in Africa: the ‘1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa’. Article 1.2 of the 1969 Convention states: “The term ‘refugee’ shall also apply to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality”. This definition goes further than the UN 1951 Refugee Convention outlined above. Both definitions are employed by UNHCR in its operations in Africa.
The Cartagena Declaration on Refugees is a non-binding agreement which was adopted by the Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Latin America, Mexico and Panama. The declaration enlarges the definition of who is understood to be a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention to include "...persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order". While the Cartagena Declaration is not a treaty, its provisions are respected across Central America and have been incorporated in some national laws.
The terms ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ are often used interchangeably. However, they have different and specific meanings. Asylum seeker describes someone who is going through the process of ‘seeking’ or ‘claiming’ asylum in order to be legally recognised as a refugee in another State.
National asylum systems are in place to determine who qualifies for international protection. However, during mass movements of refugees, usually as a result of conflict or violence, it is not always possible or necessary to conduct individual interviews with every asylum seeker who crosses a border. These groups are often called ‘prima facie’ refugees.
Everyone has the right to claim asylum. The rights of refugees and obligations placed on states are outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Asylum seekers also have certain rights which must be upheld by the country they are seeking asylum in. Asylum seekers may be waiting for the government to make a decision on their application for refugee status, or appealing a decision to refuse their asylum claim. These people are entitled to stay in the country while their application is being considered. They also have a right to a fair hearing of that application and to an appeal.
Because everybody has the right to seek asylum in another country, there is no such thing as a ‘bogus asylum seeker’ or an ‘illegal asylum seeker’. People who do not meet the legal definition of a refugee will not receive refugee status and may be required to leave the country. They may also be granted a different form of legal status - such as humanitarian protection, or discretionary leave. This may recognise that they do need a form of protection and cannot return to their home country, despite not qualifying for refugee status. For example a person might prove they are at risk of being killed or tortured on their return, but unable to prove their membership of a particular social group to meet the 1951 Refugee Convention definition of a refugee.
By end of 2015, there were 3.2m asylum seekers and 2m asylum applications pending. The countries with the highest number of asylum applications were:
Refugees can come from any country. There are numerous ongoing conflicts and places of civil and political unrest where violence puts people’s lives at risk. Certain countries are unsafe for people due to persecution because of their political or religious beliefs, or because of their sexual orientation, gender or ethnicity. Natural disasters and famine cause thousands of people to flee their homes in pursuit of safety.
Sometimes, the situation in the country a refugee has fled from may change. Many refugees intend to return when it is safe for them to do so. However, often it is not possible for a refugee to return and they settle in the host country and start a new life. Many refugees to the UK have gone on to become British citizens.
There are refugees living in most countries around the world. In the first half of 2015, refugees lived in 169 different countries and territories.
Where a refugee moves may depend on a number of different factors, such as family and cultural ties, geographical proximity, or the opportunity to live there. 86% of refugees worldwide are hosted in developing regions. [Source: UNHCR (2016) Global Trends: Forced displacement in 2015]
Refugees will make every attempt to seek safety in a country where they believe that they will be safe and their rights will be upheld.
Top Refugee Hosting Countries at the end of 2015:
Most people who have been displaced due to conflict or persecution do not leave the country. They are known as Internally Displaced People. In 2015, there were 40.8m internally displaced people around the world, a record high.
The vast majority of those who flee outside of their country’s borders remain in neighbouring countries. This is reflected in the countries with the highest populations of refugees (see 'Where do Refugees Live' above), which border areas of conflict and persecution and places where human rights abuses are prevalent.
The number of refugees seeking sanctuary in European countries has risen in recent years, with refugees fleeing to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea or over land from Turkey. The UNHCR have estimated that over 1m people entered Europe clandestinely by sea in 2015. Europe currently hosts just below 4.4m refugees. This is an increase of 1.3m (41%) from 2014.
According to the UNHCR, 84% of those arriving in Europe by sea originate from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Iraq – all major refugee-sending countries experiencing conflict, widespread violence and insecurity, or highly repressive governments.
The UK received 32,414 asylum applications in 2015. This is the ninth highest number of applications in the European Union’s 28 Member States.
11,419 people were granted asylum or another form of humanitarian protection after their initial application 2015. This does not include the number granted status after an appeal. In addition, a total of 1,864 people were resettled in the UK, including 1,194 granted Humanitarian Protection through the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme. The UK Government has pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrians through this scheme by 2020.
UNHCR figures show that in 2015 there were a total of 117,234 refugees living in the UK and 37,829 pending asylum cases. Altogether, this represents 0.3% of the population, or 3 in every 1,000 of the population.
The United Kingdom is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and must therefore uphold the rights and obligations it contains in relation to refugees and those seeking protection. The UK is also bound by the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU directives governing protection of refugees.
The core principle of refugee protection is non-refoulement. This asserts that no one should be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This is now considered a rule of customary international law.
Other rights contained in the 1951 Convention include:
However, the Refugee Council has highlighted the difficulties faced by many refugees in accessing their rights once they have been granted asylum in the UK.
Because the UK does not resettle large numbers of refugees who are outside the UK, people who want to claim asylum must find a way to enter the country first. Images of refugees travelling across the Mediterranean, often at the mercy of human traffickers, are harrowing and dominate the news. This is alongside reports of the terrible conditions in camps in Calais and Dunkirk and the desperate attempts migrants make to cross the English Channel at significant danger to themselves. There are poor estimates of the number of refugees who enter the UK clandestinely, as the very nature of such entry is to evade border control and detection.
Politics and International Relations student, Gulwali Passarlay, was born in 1994 in a village in eastern Afghanistan. When he was seven years old, the 2001 war in Afghanistan broke out. The area he lived in was a Taliban stronghold.
Fearing for the safety of her young sons, Gulwali’s mother arranged for people smugglers to bring them, alone, to Europe. Gulwali was 12 years old. What followed was a long and gruelling journey through ten countries, during which he was separated from his brother. After hearing word that his brother was in the UK, Gulwali followed, arriving in 2007 after stowing away in a truck from Calais.
As an unaccompanied minor, Gulwali was subsequently placed with a foster family in Bolton. He excelled in school, gaining ten GCSE’s within just two years of secondary education. He became involved with a number of organisations and forums representing the views of young people, including asylum seekers and children in care. In 2012, he was selected to carry the Olympic torch in Burnley.
In 2013, Gulwali began a degree in Politics and International relations at the University of Manchester, where he was described as “the UK’s most remarkable student”. In 2014, he was granted political asylum by the Home Office, after a long battle to prove his age and nationality.
Gulwali published an autobiography, The Lightless Sky, in 2016. The book describes his harrowing journey to the UK. He continues to be an outspoken advocate on refugee and youth issues.
Most refugees in the UK enter on a valid visa, such as a tourist or student visa. When their visa runs out and if they are unable to renew it, they claim asylum because their life is at risk if they return to the country they came from. In other cases, circumstances in their home country may change once they are in the UK. For example, a war may break out, or the situation for a particular social group may deteriorate due to political developments.
Award-winning author Nadifa Mohamed, was born in Hargeisa, Somalia. In 1986 she moved to London with her family in what they thought was to be a temporary stay. However, the family was unable to return following the outbreak of the Somali Civil War (1980s-present).
Nadifa went on to study History and Politics at Oxford University. In 2009, she published her first novel, Black Mamba Boy, a semi-biographical account of her father's life in Yemen in the 1930s and 1940s. The book won the 2010 Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for numerous awards, including the 2010 Guardian First Book Award, the 2010 Dylan Thomas Prize, and the 2010 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.
In 2013, Nadifa published her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, set in Somalia on the eve of the Somali Civil War, which won the Somerset Maugham prize. She lives in London and is currently working on her third novel.
Historically, many refugees have been brought to the UK and granted protection. The Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) in 1938-49, coordinated by charities in the UK and Germany, brought 10,000 Jewish children to the UK to save them from persecution at the hands of the Nazis. Many went on to lead distinguished careers, such as Karen Gershon, Dame Stephanie Shirley and Lord Alf Dubs.
The Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement (VPR) Programme was established in early 2014 to provide a route for selected Syrian refugees to come to the UK. The scheme was extended in September 2015 with plans to resettle up to 20,000 refugees from the Syrian region over the next five years. The scheme is only open to Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and not those who had already travelled to Europe. A total of 2,441 refugees were resettled in the UK in the year ending March 2016.
Earlier this year, a high-profile campaign led by Lord Alf Dubs and Save the Children called for the UK government to resettle 3,000 unaccompanied children currently in Europe. The government announced their intention to extend the resettlement scheme to allow an additional 3,000 children considered ‘at risk’ by the UNHCR in Middle East and North Africa region to be resettled in the UK over the course of the next parliament. The government also agreed to consult with local authorities with a view to allowing an unspecified number of unaccompanied refugee children in Europe to come to the UK.
The UNHCR estimates that over 60m people have been forced from their homes due to war, natural disasters or persecution. This translates to around 1 in every 122 people, or 0.8% of the global population. 19.5m are recognised as refugees, while 38m are internally displaced within their own country.
In the UK 11,419 people were granted asylum or another form of humanitarian protection in 2015. This does not include the number granted status after an appeal.
UNHCR figures show that in 2015 there were a total of 117,234 refugees living in the UK and 37,829 pending asylum cases. Altogether, this represents 0.3% of the population, or 3 in every 1,000 of the population.