Every week, there are headlines about illegal immigrants, sneaking under lorries and even hiding behind car seats – all so they can claim asylum in ‘soft-touch Britain’. Why don’t we send them back to their countries? Are they taking us for a ride?

To answer that, we really need to understand the law and process around asylum – and so does much of the media.

MythBuster illegals

Why are there so many ‘illegal’ asylum seekers?

Well, the thing is…

There’s no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker.


It’s completely legal to claim asylum.

The UN drew up some international laws on this after the Second World War (1951). They’re in a big document called the Refugee Convention, which protects people fleeing persecution and trauma.

The European Union (EU) also follows some extra guidance that can relate to asylum, such as the Human Rights Act.

There’s a general principle in the EU about claiming asylum in the first safe country you reach – but this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule (nor a legal requirement), for various reasons.

So what exactly is an asylum seeker?

An economic migrant moves to improve their lot. They may fancy a change of scene or they may live in terrible poverty, with little chance of finding a job.

An asylum seeker is asking for protection from persecution – and everyone has the right to do this.

The newspapers sometimes mix up these terms or keep things vague. But if you spot any confusion, it should sound off alarm bells.

Who’s hiding in lorries to get here, then?

It’s impossible to say without knowing more. They could be asylum seekers, economic migrants, or a mix of the two. (A person’s home country might shed some clues, but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.)

If an economic migrant hides from authorities or overstays their visa, they break UK law.

But an asylum seeker has the right to stay in the UK while we process their claim.

Why do they get off so lightly?

Asylum seekers flee unimaginable horrors.

They can only claim asylum in another country once they get there, but the journey itself can be extremely dangerous. Around 4,000 people die every year (with many more unrecorded) – so you have to be leaving something awful to take the risk.

Bear in mind that some asylum seekers can’t officially leave their country or afford a plane ticket. They have to get out any way that they can. Their lives could depend on it.

In fact, article 31 of the Refugee Convention says countries should not penalise refugees who “show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.”

This includes:

  • clinging under a vehicle for four hours in the Eurotunnel
  • fleeing suddenly, in absolute fear, so not taking a passport or other ID
  • giving their life-savings to a people-smuggler, to take them somewhere – anywhere – so they can feel safe again.

However you get here, if you’re looking for safety, you’re not breaking the law.

So the country isn’t overrun with “bogus refugees”?

We’ve all seen that phrase in the papers, but it doesn’t actually make any sense.

An asylum seeker can legally stay here while waiting for a decision on their case.

If the government agrees they need protection, then they get refugee status and can breathe a sigh of relief. They’re safe. Now they can stay here long-term or permanently. And they have nearly all the same legal rights as any UK citizen.

What about the ones we turn down?

If the government decides an asylum seeker can’t stay, they will send them back as a ‘refused asylum seeker’. (But this doesn’t make them a ‘criminal’, either.)

Some can appeal the decision, as they have fresh evidence to support their case.

Others have no choice but to go home or stay here on a short-term basis, as they cannot yet go back. Perhaps they are too sick or their country is just too dangerous right now.

And no, coming from a dangerous country doesn’t always mean you’ll get refugee status – even if you’ve left a raging volcano or war-torn country. You have to show that you, specifically, are at risk of persecution.

The asylum system in the UK is actually pretty tough – with tight criteria that you must prove you meet.

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