Asylum Seekers and Refugees

What is an asylum seeker or a refugee?

We hear a lot about ‘Asylum Seekers’, ‘Refugees’ and ‘Economic Migrants’ especially in the UK; one problem is that terms like these are often used wrongly, because people do not know what they mean or can mean in different contexts.

Most of the legal basis for the protection of refugees comes from the "the refugee convention"; this is also called the 1951 Geneva Convention where a refugee is defined as a person who…

…owing to 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; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence … is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.


Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), The sea route to Europe: The Mediterranean passage in the age of refugees , 1 July 2015

All of the top countries above are suffering from war.

Asylum seeker means a person who has applied for asylum under the Geneva Convention above.

Refugee in this context means an asylum seeker whose application has been successful. In a broader context it can also mean a person running away from something like a civil war or natural disaster but not necessarily fearing persecution as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Economic migrant means a person who has left his or her own country and seeks to find employment in another country.

What are the international laws about asylum and refugees; especially in Europe?

Hungary receives a lot of migrants as it is one the first EU countries that migrants reach if they choose an overland route from the Middle East or Africa.

In June 2015 Hungary suspended European Union asylum rules. A Hungarian government spokesman said "Hungary's asylum system is overburdened, the most overburdened among EU member states affected by illegal immigration".


Photo by Mstyslav Chernov used under CC BY

The asylum rules in the E.U. are known as the Dublin Regulations; they require people seeking refuge to do so in the FIRST European country where they first set foot.

In the firsts six months of 2015, more than 60,000 immigrants had crossed into Hungary illegally according to the Hungarian Government. "Hungary has used up the capacities at its disposal," the government statement said. "The situation requires fast action; in this escalated situation Hungary needs to take a move ahead of EU decisions."

Hungary also started to build a fence along its southern border with Serbia to stem the flow of illegal migrants who enter Europe from the Middle East and Africa. Most move through Hungary on to wealthier western Europe.


Photo by Délmagyarország/Schmidt Andrea used under CC BY

Suspending the Dublin Regulations particularly affects countries neighbouring Hungary, such as Austria. Austria itself has stopped processing asylum requests in an effort to pressure other EU countries to do more to help absorb large numbers of refugees entering the continent.

It had 21,000 asylum requests in the first five months of 2015 compared to 17,000 requests in all of 2013.


Once a migrant arrives in a country they have a ‘reasonable’ amount of time to ask for asylum. In the UK this is three days unless there is a good reason not to do so. This helps a country decide if someone is ‘genuine’ in their belief that they need asylum.

A good reason could be if someone were held captive by people smugglers – sometimes called human traffickers.

We will discuss human traffickers further in the linked article and their importance in understanding increasing migrant numbers.

Asylum Seekers from South Sudan Registering at a UNHCR camp in neighbouring Sudan.


Photo by Robert Stansfield/Department for International Development used under CC BY

This camp is largely funded by the UK Government

There are two very important things to understand in terms of the International law and Asylum Seekers/Refugees:

  • Safe Country’ or the safe country list - these are countries deemed to be safe; these countries would not go against the idea of non-refoulement below.
  • Non-refoulement is the central obligation of the  Refugee Convention requiring a state not to ‘expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where their  life or freedom would be threatened …’

When an asylum seeker reaches a safe country they should request asylum. They should then be issued with a Convention Travel Document, which is given to people with refugee status to use as a valid travel document.

Many genuine asylum seekers do not register in the first ‘safe country’ they decide to try and reach developed countries by ‘non-legal’ means.

As a result many do not request asylum as their plan is to travel on to different countries such as Germany. These are the main illegal routes into the EU.


Source: European Parliamentary Research Service, Irregular Immigration In The EU: Facts And Figures

In many parts of the EU there are no internal borders; the Schengen agreement in the EU created rules that there would no internal borders between member countries. Only the UK and the Republic of Ireland opted out. So once a migrant reaches any mainland EU country there is nothing to stop them moving from country to country.

By far the most dangerous routes for migrants are across the Mediterranean Sea.During the first four months of 2015, those dying at sea reached new high levels. Between January and March, 479 refugees migrants drowned or went missing compared to 15 in the same period of 2014. In April the situation became even worse as 1,308 refugees and migrants drowned or went missing in a single month.


Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), The sea route to Europe: The Mediterranean passage in the age of refugees , 1 July 2015

Despite being a member of the Schengen group of EU countries Greece has no easy or straight (migrants need to go in the wrong direction towards Bulgaria and Romania) physical border with the rest of the EU. As a result migrants will have to leave the EU (Greece) to continue on their journeys to reach countries such as Germany. This may be by sea to Italy or overland crossing through Macedonia and Serbia to reach Hungary. In August 2015 there were violent clashes along the border between Macedonia and Greece.


Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), The sea route to Europe: The Mediterranean passage in the age of refugees , 1 July 2015

What Can The EU Do To Stop Migrants?


The Asylum, Migration & Integration Fund is a 3.14 billion Euro pot of money to fund efficient management of migration flows within inside the EU. So far 2.392 billion Euros have been allocated to different countries.

AMIF money graph in millions of Euros


Compare the figures from AMIF funding to the main article numbers of asylum seekers – look carefully at the UK.

Surely we need to stop migration!

Probably Not!

This is the EU without migration by 2060.


Source: Eurostat, IMMIGRATION IN THE EU, 10/6/2015

The current EU has an ageing population and not enough children are being born. Now check this out:

EU Population in Millions


Source: Eurostat, IMMIGRATION IN THE EU, 10/6/2015

As older people die and with less people being born we need migration to maintain population levels. It might be hard to hear when our country and most of the EU is still in an economic slump and too many people are unemployed and cannot find work but we also need to plan for the next ten, twenty, thirty years into the future.

Without migration how many workers will there be for each person needing a pension (YOU) in 2060.

Melilla and Cueto in North Africa are officially part of Spain. Spain can use these locations to process asylum applications.

Pupil Activity

Discuss these three questions with a small group and prepare a 30 second ‘micro-presentation’ to share your answers with your class. A micro-presentation is just words, no images, posters or PowerPoints are to be used.

Other articles you may find of interest, Mexico to USA migration and Migration in the UK.


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