The definition of a refugee
A refugee is someone who has fled their country, and who would not be safe if he or she was to return. Whilst the broad term migrant is often applied this is not strictly accurate in that the broader term migrant encompasses someone who leaves their country for varying reasons, including for economic reasons.
The 1951 UN Refugee Convention, applies to those who have fled their country due to a fear of persecution. This fear of persecution may be for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Only someone who meets this definition, which does not cover economic migration, can be considered a refugee.
Refugee or asylum seeker
Someone fleeing persecution in their home country is often referred to as an asylum seeker. This term only relates to someone who has a potential claim to be a refugee but has not been formally recognised as a refugee.
An asylum seeker should claim asylum as soon as a safe country is reached. A delay in claiming asylum can affect the prospects of the claim being accepted.
The asylum process in the UK
Once an individual or family arrives in the UK, their claim is assessed by the UK Home Office. Whilst the claim is being processed, the individual or family are known as asylum seekers. A partner and children can be included as dependants on the main applicant's asylum claim.
After claiming asylum, there is a screening interview. At the screening interview, an immigration officer will ask brief details about the claim. An asylum interview is then scheduled, to allow a case worker to ask lengthy questions about the claim. An individual's country of origin will be taken into account and country guidance will be available to the case worker.
Legal assistance is permitted throughout the process and an interpreter is often required. Any supporting documents can be submitted at the interview stage. Whilst the process is ongoing limited asylum support is provided, in the form of temporary accommodation and food vouchers for living costs.
The asylum process can be a long process, depending on the number of cases being decided at any one time. If the outcome is a positive decision, refugee status is granted to the individual or family. This results in permission to stay in the UK as a refugee for 5 years, also known as leave to remain.
If the claim is refused, there is a right of appeal. During the appeal process the claim is assessed by an Immigration Judge at the First Tier Tribunal. If an error in law is made there may be a further right of appeal to the Upper Tribunal and higher courts. If the appeal is unsuccessful, an individual or family will be asked to leave the UK, and can be removed from the UK by the UK Home Office.
The question of whether someone is a refugee often depends on whether or not the Home Office, and an Immigration Judge, accept their reasons for coming to the UK are genuine. There is no guarantee of success and many people seeking to remain in the UK as refugees are refused, and are therefore not granted refugee status.
As the political debate about immigration continues it is important that a clear distinction is drawn between refugees and other migrants and that the correct terms are used.