Refugees have fled to virtually every country in the world. They are often in the headlines, yet the realities of their lives are regularly misunderstood. So what are the facts behind the headlines?
In October 2003 UNHCR welcomed the publication by the Press Complaints Commission of guidance on the reporting of asylum and refugee issues, but expressed its grave concern that the tabloid press will continue to publish inaccurate and misleading stories which are a danger to good community relations (click here to read full text of press release).
To see some examples click on the 'fact?' behind these headlines to find out the real story…
'Britain Tops the Asylum League' - fact?
'UK confirmed as asylum capital' - fact?
'Fly illegal immigrants back where they came from' - fact?
'Our town's too nice for refugees' - fact?
'Asylum seekers have no respect for our way of life' - fact?
'Asylum cheats are a threat to our future' - fact?
'Refugees will join criminals in country communities' - fact?
'Most have deserted their families for money' - fact?
"Britain Tops the Asylum League" Daily Express, 1/3/02
In 2001 the total number of people who applied for asylum was 88,300.
This compares to 98,900 in 2000 and represents an 11% decrease.
Of the industrialised countries Germany, with 88,363 applications in 2001 is the top destination for asylum seekers, followed by the UK and USA (86,394).
Per capita, the UK, received far few asylum applications in 2001 than most other western European countries.
The UK ranked tenth after Austria, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands and Luxembourg.
The number of asylum seekers the UK accepted is only 0.5% of its population
ASYLUM APPLICATIONS AND TOTAL POPULATION IN WESTERN EUROPE,
2000 AND 2001
Total Population ('000) (*)
Asylum applications per 1,000 inhabitants
Although the Home Office statistics for the first half of 2002 showed a slight increase in asylum applications in comparison to the same period for 2001, this small increase can be explained by world events:
In the first quarter of 2002 the number of applications from Zimbabweans almost doubled reaching the highest ever number of applications (1,495) and the number of applications from Iraq nationals increased by 55 per cent.
Looking at the wider picture, in the 1990s Germany received the highest number of asylum applications within the European Union (EU): Just under two million applied for asylum in Germany between 1990-2000 - almost half of the EU total. The UK was second but with only 25 per cent of Germany's total (454,445 asylum applications between 1990 - 2000).
Britain tends to receive asylum seekers from countries which have traditional links to the UK: In 2001 the UK received 5,465 applications from Sri Lanka - 3,500 more than any other country in Western Europe. Similarly, nearly three times as many Algerians applied for asylum in France as in the UK.
The chance of being accepted as a refugee also varies hugely across host countries with some nationalities more likely to be accepted in one country than another. For example, in 1996, 82% of Tamils from Sri Lanka claiming asylum in Canada were admitted; the corresponding figure for the UK was only 0.2%.
"UK confirmed as asylum capital" Daily Mail, 28/2/02
Although they lack the wealth and stability that the UK enjoys, it is developing countries, such as Pakistan (3,347,717 refugees and asylum seekers, which continue to host the majority of the world's refugees.
In Africa alone, there are 8 million refugees and many millions more who are displaced within their own countries. Guinea, a country with a population of 7 million, is currently home to 3 million Sierra Leonean and 150,000 Liberian refugees.
Monthly asylum figures in countries such as Tanzania and Pakistan are comparable to the annual asylum application statistics of some European countries.
The UK hosts just over 3 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants and its average GDP per capita is £22,550. Kenya hosts over 7 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants and has an average GDP per capita of £595.
NUMBER OF REFUGEES PER CAPITA OF TOTAL NATIONAL POPULATIONS
Ratio of Refugee Population to Total National Population (2001)
"I really wonder how governments can justify spending millions on reinforcing borders, on all kinds of deterrence measures, on custody and detention centres, on all these costly domestic approaches, yet they refuse to invest in tackling the problem at source, where solutions should begin."
Ruud Lubbers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees
"At last someone's had a concrete idea on what to do about illegal immigrants. Fly them back where they came from in RAF transport planes."
The Sun Editorial, 24/5/02
IN FACT… 'Asylum seeker' does not equal 'illegal immigrant'!
Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum. This is a fundamental human right enshrined in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Article 31 of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states that countries should not impose penalties on individuals coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened on account of their illegal entry.
Often governments refuse to issue passports to known political dissidents, or imprison them if they apply. Refugees may not be able to obtain the necessary papers when trying to escape persecution, and have no choice but to resort to illegal means of escape.
For many, a false document is the only means of escape. The fact that a claimant uses a false travel document tells us nothing about whether the person is a refugee or not.
Governments are imposing stronger measures such as visa requirements and carriers liability, which are fines imposed on any form of transport refugees use, to stop people travelling to their territory. The more obstacles placed on entry to the UK, the more likely a refugee will have to resort to using false documents or enlisting the help of human smugglers.
IN FACT… Most want nothing more than to go home - if only it was safe
In our experience refugees want to go back to their country once the reasons which forced them to flee no longer exist. For example, most South Africans and Chileans who fled to Britain in the 70s repatriated when it was safe for them to do so. The vast majority of Kosovo Albanians have also returned, despite the still fragile situation in Kosovo and spontaneous returns to Afghanistan have exceeded all expectations.
Decision on an asylum claim can take months if not years and backlogs are significant. This prolonged waiting period can create the impression that people want to stay.
But most importantly, no one should be sent back to face persecution or torture.
"Our town's too nice for refugees…they will try to escape, rapists and thieves will terrorise us" Daily Express, 23/3/02
There is no established connection between asylum and increased crime rates. Asylum seekers are less likely to commit major crimes than UK citizens are because it would affect their asylum application.
On the other hand, there has been an increase in racist attacks as a result of the hostile publicity around the UK.
A report published by the Association of Chief Police Officers confirms that there is no evidence that refugees and asylum seekers have a higher rate of criminality.
Asylum seekers are violently attacked with worrying frequency, such as the murder of Firsat Yildiz, a Kurdish asylum seeker in August 2001. Unfortunately, such incidents are not confined to the UK. Such sad incidents also occur in many host countries as refugees and asylum seekers are often the most vulnerable an marginalised within society and therefore easily targeted.
It is fairly obvious that such violence is implicitly encouraged when asylum seekers are vilified on political platforms and by sections of the media.
Reception of asylum seekers in local communities can work and does work in many towns and cities in the UK and Europe. Where well planned and well resourced, the arrival of asylum seekers in a local community can be beneficial to both groups, providing sanctuary for the former and an economic, social and cultural boon for the later.
When reported crime in Kent fell over a three-year period in which the number of asylum seekers rose, the press failed to cover it.
"Asylum seekers have no respect for 'our way of life and openly show it'." The Sun, Letters, 18/2/02
A Home Office survey of 263 people with refugee status or exceptional leave to remain in the UK, showed that a high proportion were successful individuals with post secondary school qualifications and therefore could enrich British culture.
Refugees have a vested interest in learning English. Rather than exhibiting a reluctance to learn English, there is often a lack of services to meet the demand.
Research shows that over 90% of refugees interviewed spoke at least one other language in addition to their first language and 65% spoke at least two other languages.
The Society for the Protection of Science and Learning lists 17 Nobel Laureates, 71 Fellows or Foreign Members of the Royal Society, and 50 Fellows or corresponding Fellows of the British Academy as refugees.
Yet more examples of famous refugees and the positive contribution refugees have made in the UK…
Fish and chips, that great British tradition, was brought to the UK by 17th-century Jews expelled from Portugal.
Alec Issigonis who fled the war between Turkey and Greece, was the brain behind the Mini and the Morris Minor.
Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud were refugees and Sir John Hoblon, the first Governor of the Bank of England, was the grandson of an asylum seeker from France.
Architect Eva Jiricna CBE fled to the UK from Prague in 1968 and went on to be named one of Britain's most influential women.
The late impresario and life peer Lew Grade fled the Ukraine to become one of the giants in British television. He became the head of Associated Television and was behind hits such as The Saint, The Muppet Show and Thunderbirds.
Other famous refugees to Britain include: King Michael Hohenzollern of Romania; Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Arthur Koestler, author and journalist from Hungary; Camille Pissarro, painter from France; Victor Hugo, writer from France; Karl Marx, political revolutionary from Germany, Wole Soyinka, writer and Nobel Prize winner from Nigeria; and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, political revolutionary from Russia.
"Asylum cheats are a threat to our future" The Mail on Sunday, 4/3/01
IN FACT… Refugees make a positive contribution
Many countries have produced reports proving that refugees contribute positively to economic growth. Canadian and Australian studies show that once refugees settle, they actually increase government revenue, and create a net tax benefit.
Home Office's own research confirms that refugees' entrepreneur talents are under-utilised in Britain. Many asylum seekers come to the UK with substantial work and educational qualifications. The countries that people are coming from are not the poorest ones; they are countries where there is persecution.
Some of Britain's wealthiest entrepreneurs are refugees - Paul Hamlyn, Publisher of Reed International Books, and Rolf Schild of Huntleigh Engineering. Many others have made significant contributions. Michael Marks, founder of Marks and Spencer; Joseph Rotblat, Physicist; Sir Georg Solti, conductor; Alan Yentob, BBC Programmes Director and Yasmin Alibhai Brown, journalist and editor; Robert Berki, political theorist; Sir Alexander Korda, Film director; Sir Karl Popper, Philosopher; Sousa Jamba, writer, to name but a few.
Home Office research shows that overall in 1999/2000 migrants contributed ,31.2 billion in taxes while consuming ,28.8 billion in benefits and services. Therefore migrants contributed around ,2.5 billion to the Exchequer.
"The lesson of history is that immigrants and refugees can bring significant benefits, economic and cultural. While public debate on this issue is yet again dominated by proposed legislation to impose ever tighter restrictions, it is a lesson that appears to have been lost."
Sarah Spencer, Director of Citizenship and Governance at the Institute of Public Policy Research
"Refugees Will Join The Rising Number Of Criminals and Drug Addicts Living in Country Communities"
DAILY MAIL 15/7/00
The implicit connection between refugees and criminals and drug addicts is both damaging and unfounded.
This article was in response to the Government's dispersal policy following the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act, under which newly arrived asylum seekers are dispersed across the UK.
Some have been sent into areas that have not hosted asylum seekers or refugees before, and where there may be little, if any, community support available to them.
One of the main purposes of government arrangements was to provide a statutory basis for dispersing asylum seekers away from hard pressed local authorities in London and the South East.
Asylum seekers are increasingly finding themselves cut adrift in areas ill-equipped to deal with them. In the face of this, many are leaving dispersal areas and forfeiting their rights to benefits.
The number of arrivals resulting from dispersal is very small compared with the total size of both national and local populations accommodating them. The total number of arrivals across the UK up until 31 January 2001 represents just 0.02% of the national population.
Although the Home Office hopes to start a trial of accommodation centres, the majority of asylum seekers will continue to be subject to dispersal. Therefore it is imperative to get the system right.
"Most Immigrants are not genuine asylum seekers. They are young single men who have deserted their families for money" Lord Rooker quoted on the Daily Express front page, 15/5/02
Refugees are not migrants. Refugees have been forced to leave their countries because they are persecuted. Migrants on the other hand, make a conscious choice to leave their country.
Invalid asylum claims undermine the tolerance of the British for those who genuinely need protection. It is important not to destroy the principle of asylum for those fleeing persecution, in a crude attempt to prevent economic migration.
Many refugees are professionals who lost a great deal when they fled their country. They may have left successful jobs and a decent standard of living. To assume that they are all here for a better standard of living is inaccurate.