Why Refugees Want to Come to the UK

A couple of weeks ago, I sat with family and friends of theirs over dinner. The typical motions of conversation were brought up. Catching up on the local gossip, who was getting married, the current political climate etc. That’s when one of them asked this: “Why do refugees choose to come all the way to the UK? Why not just stop in France or Germany?”

Rishi Sunak Stop The Boats
Source: The Guardian

It’s been a topic of heated debate in Britain that the media have religiously covered. Prime minister Rishi Sunak stood behind a lectern with the provocative sign “stop the boats.” The recent plans for the UK government to ship off “illegals” to detention centres In Rwanda. Politicians from either side of the spectrum argue for and against it. Instead of adding to the debate, I instead would like to illustrate why refugees “choose” to come to the UK.

But first, what is a refugee?

Asylum seekers
Source: Impakter

Before discussing the topic, it’s important first to define the terminology. Refugees and asylum seekers are words which are often used interchangeably. However, they don’t quite mean the same thing. According to Article 1 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is defined as someone who is “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 to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

According to the UK-based charity, Refugee Action, an asylum seeker can be defined as “someone who has arrived in a country and asked for asylum. Until they receive a decision as to whether or not they are a refugee, they are known as an asylum seeker. In the UK, this means they do not have the same rights as a refugee or a British citizen would. For example, people seeking asylum aren’t allowed to work.”

To simplify, asylum seekers are those who have fled their home country due to war or persecution etc. Refugees are those who have successfully had their asylum seeker claim accepted by their host country.

The UNHCR states that “There is no such thing as a bogus asylum-seeker or an illegal asylum-seeker. As an asylum-seeker, a person has entered into a legal process of refugee status determination. Everybody has a right to seek asylum in another country. People who don’t qualify for protection as refugees will not receive refugee status and may be deported, but just because someone doesn’t receive refugee status doesn’t mean they are a bogus asylum-seeker.”

How many asylum seekers/refugees are there globally?

Doctors Without Borders
Source: Doctors Without Borders

The global refugee crisis has more than doubled in the past ten years. Much of this is due to conflicts or disasters, including but not limited to conflict in Ukraine and Syria. As of mid-2022, the UNHCR estimates that there are currently 103 million people who have been forcibly displaced. This accounts for roughly 1.3% of the total global population. Just over half of them are internally displaced within their home countries. Out of the 89.3 million people forcibly displaced in 2021, 36.5 million of them were children below the age of 18. As of mid-2022, 32.5 million people are recognised as refugees. The top five refugees under the UNHCR’s global mandate in 2022 came from these countries:

Syria – 6.8 million
Venezuela – 5.6 million
Ukraine – 5.4 million
Afghanistan – 2.8 million
South Sudan – 2.4 million

(However, the UNHCR does not account for every person seeking asylum. Palestinians, for example, fall under the jurisdiction of a separate agency: the UN Relief and Works agency.)

How many asylum seekers come to the UK?

Syrian Family in Northern Ireland
Source: UNHCR

From a general perspective, the UK isn’t a particularly desirable destination for asylum seekers or refugees. According to the UNHCR, the countries that hold the largest number of refugees are:

Turkey – 3.7 million
Colombia – 2.5 million
Germany – 2.2 million
Pakistan – 1.5 million
Uganda – 1.5 million

The UK has a comparatively low number. As of June 2022, the number of UK-based refugees is 230 thousand. 39% of this number are Ukrainian. In 2022, the annual number of asylum applications in the UK was 74,751. However, despite being a minority compared to other European countries, it is still important to address these refugees. Especially as the number of asylum seekers using small boats to cross the English channel has been increasing in recent years. So why do asylum seekers see the UK as a desirable place to be?

They want to join family already in the UK

Refugee Family Reunification
Source: UNHCR

According to the British Red Cross, about 50% of asylum seekers make the pilgrimage to reunite with loved ones. It is difficult for anyone to start a new life in a different country. It’s another matter entirely to flee your home country for your life and the safety of your family. Wouldn’t we want to see someone we know and love after having our life uprooted in the most horrible of circumstances?

The UK does allow entry into the country for refugee families. However, a report made by the Families Together programme details some of the issues this current legislation has. Some issues include what constitutes family while ignoring the norms of other cultures. Most notable is the fact that unaccompanied refugee children cannot vouch for their families seeking asylum in the same way an adult can.

They know the language/ there are historical ties

Refugee Camp
Source: Amnesty International

As of 2022, there are 1.5 billion people who speak English either natively or as a second language. The next most common European language is Spanish, with 500 million. This is followed by French, with 274 million. Statistically, it is more likely to find someone who is familiar with English than any other language. Therefore, why not go to the country that is most likely to have English-speaking people?

Though many countries host a variety of different ethnicities and nationalities, there are also signs that Britain’s history as a colonial power has an element to play. Take, for example, France, another country with an imperial past Africa has the largest number of French speakers of any continent in the world, at an estimated 120 million. It’s also estimated that 3 million French nationals of sub-Saharan African origin live in France.

The same can be said for Britain. According to a 2021 census, approximately 59.6 million people live in England and Wales alone. Of that number, 9.3% were of Asian ethnicity, and 2.5% were of African ethnicity. There is also the previously mentioned statistic about knowledge of the English language. These historical ties that allowed for multicultural development might make the UK more desirable than other countries.


Source: DeZeen

When Britain left the EU in 2020, a lot of things were subject to change. This includes laws surrounding immigration. According to the UK home office, cases of asylum-seeking have gone up by a quarter in the two years after Brexit was formalised. One EU law, the Dublin procedure, establishes that only one country at a time can process applications for asylum. When the UK left the EU, they were no longer a part of the Dublin procedure. By applying for asylum in the UK, seekers increase their chances of a successful application if they have already applied for one in the EU.

Asylum seekers who have been previously rejected by EU countries may believe they may have a chance in a country separated from the union. However, another reason is the reality that Brexit has only intensified border control. Additional customs, administrative and health checks to get into the UK have caused further delays in the asylum-seeking process. Something which is further frustrating for people looking for a safe place to start a new life.

Genuinely Believe the UK to be better

Source: Douglas & Gordon

There is also the view that some of these asylum seekers may have towards Britain. The UK is known as a first-world democratic country. Some of these migrants may have a second-hand perspective of what Britain is like. As previously mentioned, colonial ties may have an element to play. There is also the myth that the welfare system will be better in the UK.

However, compared to other countries, the UK underperforms in this regard as well. Asylum seekers in Germany receive up to €354 a month through their Asylum Seekers Benefits Act. The UK only allows £45 a week for each person in a household for food, hygiene products and clothing. Pregnant mothers and young children get £3-5 extra money on top of this payment. This is roughly less than half of what Germany provides financially.

They don’t feel safe in the EU/ They have nowhere else to go

Calais Refugee Camp
Source: IFRI

“But what about France? Why come all the way here when they could stay in France?” It’s a common question that is brought up in the debate about asylum seekers coming to the UK. Asylum seekers are searching for a safe place to look after themselves and their families. They have no legal requirement to seek asylum in any particular country.  As a member of the United Nations, France is supposed to follow the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, there have been reported incidents of mistreatment towards asylum seekers in France. Reasons include harassment from police, forced evictions without prior notice, and restrictions on food and water. This isn’t solely the case in France though. The UN has also reported refugees being the victims of violence and human rights violations in other European states. Many of these are families and unaccompanied children. From the mindset of someone who has left a war-torn country only to suffer abuse in another one, perhaps things would be better elsewhere.

The UK has much more unfavourable legislation compared to other countries in Europe. In the EU, asylum seekers must be allowed to work if their status is undecided within 9 months. Some countries in Europe permit this with less time. However, in the UK, 12 months need to have passed if the claim is still undecided before they can be allowed to work. Along with only getting £6.50 a day per head from the benefits system, these are hardly ideal conditions for someone wanting to support their family.

Human Smugglers Choose for Them

Migrants found in police raid
Source: Bianet

When fleeing a war-torn country, circumstances aren’t always as simple as packing bags and walking in the direction of a safe neighbouring country. The journey that many asylum seekers take will force them through the country they are trying to flee. Even when they reach the border, sometimes bureaucracy and legalities prevent or delay their safety. This can cause them to turn to human smugglers. Criminals who will get them across the border quicker, bypassing legal structures.

However, this is far from an ideal situation. Human smugglers are a far cry from humanitarians who want to see these people have a new and safe life. To them, the refugee crisis is an easy way to make money fast. Some accounts involve people being packed into trailers, crossing deserts, and by sea. While the concern of British politicians and media may be the people crossing from Calais in boats, human smugglers are also likely to use shipping containers from lorries and ferries to transport their human cargo.

Asylum seekers are also likely to be victims of human trafficking. At best, some might be given fraudulent but passable documentation to work legally in the UK. At worst, human traffickers can use the predicament these individuals find themselves in for cheap or slave labour, typically illegal in nature.

An Individual Decision

Refugee Lesvos
Source: The New Yorker

There are a myriad of different reasons why someone seeking asylum might want to come to the UK. As previously mentioned, abuses in Europe may lead them to believe that the grass is greener on the other side. Perhaps some asylum seekers have decided that they want to get as far away from their home country as possible. For example, the UK is one of the furthest European countries from Syria. Or maybe they have a romanticized view of what Britain will be like.


Refugees Always Welcome
Source: The Guardian

Though the UK may no longer be a part of the EU, it is still a member of the UN. Like France and other European states, it follows the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 1 states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article 3 also states “everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.”

At the end of the day, with the exception of the people who propagate this kind of suffering and pain upon their fellow man, most humans are worthy of love and respect. They deserve to seek a better life for themselves and their families, away from conflict and horror. It may be easy for me, the son of a middle-class family with a stable support network, to comment on. But not everyone is so lucky.

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