Refugee or asylum seeker? Both terms are often taken to mean the same thing, but in reality, there is a crucial difference between refugees and asylum seekers, as these terms actually refer to people at different stages in the process of seeking protection from persecution.


What is the difference between refugees and asylum seekers?

An asylum seeker is a person who faces persecution in their home country and subsequently asks a safe country for protection from that persecution.

Once an asylum seeker has registered their claim for asylum, they are allowed to remain in the UK while their application for asylum is processed.

A refugee is an asylum seeker whose claim for asylum has been successful.


Refugee rights

With the status of refugee, they now have permission to live and work in the UK for 5 years. A refugee may also access healthcare, pensions and other social benefits.

A refugee may apply for their dependants (partner and children under 18 years old) who are outside the UK to join them, where:

  • the dependants were not included in the refugee’s asylum application, and
  • the relationship and family were in existence prior to the asylum application.

Any children who are brought to the UK by this method must live with the refugee and their partner, be supported solely by the family with no need for the use of state benefits, be single, and not employed on a full-time basis.

Any dependants who join a refugee in the UK will be granted the same status, refugee, with the same corresponding rights.

Once a refugee has lived in the UK for 5 years, they may apply to settle here on the basis of ‘indefinite leave to remain’. This means that they may live and work in the UK with no immigration restrictions.


Do asylum seekers have rights?

Their first right is the ability to seek asylum when faced with persecution in their home country, in accordance with Article 14(1) of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Once they apply for asylum in the UK, they have the following rights:

  • to be treated fairly and lawfully without discrimination
  • to have their application for asylum processed fairly and in an accurate way
  • to practice their religion
  • to be provided with support and accommodation, if needed
  • access to free healthcare
  • access to legal representation

Eligibility for asylum is based on the inability to live safely in one’s home country due to persecution and where the authorities or government offer no protection. Persecution must be on the grounds of one of the following:

  • Race
  • Religion or belief system
  • Nationality
  • Political opinion
  • Any other factor which leads to discrimination or harm, such as sexual or gender orientation

An asylum seeker is expected to make a truthful application for asylum, not withholding any relevant information. They must maintain contact with the assigned caseworker and attend all arranged appointments. They must respect and obey UK laws. They must care for their children, including arranging education for them.

If their application is unsuccessful, an asylum seeker must return to their home country.


How to register a claim for asylum on entry to the UK

As soon as an asylum seeker enters the UK, they should make themselves known to a border official and inform the official of their claim for asylum.

They should have their passport or travel document ready to provide, along with supporting documents including police registration certificate, identity documents (e.g. birth certificate) and any evidence of the persecution faced.

The asylum seeker will face an initial interview with an immigration officer. This is called a screening. Their biometric information (photograph and fingerprints) will be taken and they will be asked about their reasons for claiming asylum in the UK, to confirm their identity, details of medical history and any medication they are taking, and to provide details of any dependants (partner and children under 18 years old).

Where required, an asylum seeker may ask for an interpreter to be present at the screening.


How to register a claim for asylum when already staying in the UK

If an asylum seeker is already present in the UK when the need for asylum becomes apparent, they must register their claim for asylum with the asylum screening unit.

There will be an initial telephone call back from the asylum screening unit. During this call basic questions will be asked about the asylum seeker and any dependants, housing needs, and whether it is necessary for an interpreter to be present at the screening. Reasons for claiming asylum won’t be discussed during this call.

The asylum seeker should take their passport and supporting documents to the screening appointment. They must be accompanied by any dependants. Biometric information will be taken, and they will be asked why they wish to claim for asylum in the UK.


What happens after the screening?

The interviewer will explain what the asylum seeker should do while waiting for a decision.

A caseworker will be assigned as a point of contact and to process the application.


Asylum registration card (ARC)

Whether screening takes place at the border or at the asylum screening unit, an ARC will be sent to the asylum seeker’s address in the UK after the screening has taken place.

The ARC shows identity and whether permission to work in the UK has been granted. It can also be used to access healthcare and education.



There is a possibility that asylum seekers will be detained at an immigration removal centre until a decision has been reached.

Generally, detention is not an option for:

  • children
  • the elderly
  • families with children
  • pregnant women
  • trafficking victims
  • torture victim
  • individuals with physical or mental health conditions that cannot be sufficiently managed in detention, or who could pose a threat to other detained individuals


Asylum interview

The next stage in the claim for asylum is to attend an asylum interview meeting.

The asylum seeker has the opportunity to submit their claim in writing to their caseworker before the interview if they feel that would be helpful.

Family members will not be allowed to attend the interview with the asylum seeker, however, it is permitted for a legal representative and an interpreter to be present.

It is important that the asylum seeker take their passport, ARC and supporting documents with them.

The purpose of the interview is to provide the asylum seeker with an opportunity to explain the persecution they face in their home country, and why it would be dangerous for them to return there.

The caseworker will make a record of the interview, a copy of which will be provided for the asylum seeker.

The asylum seeker may remain in the UK until a decision has been reached. This will not be given immediately after the interview and may take up to 6 months.


Possible outcomes

The first possible outcome is that the application for asylum will be successful. In this case, the asylum seeker is given the status of refugee and allowed to remain in the UK.

Where the application is unsuccessful, the asylum seeker may be allowed to appeal, as long as this happens within 14 days of the decision. Alternatively, where the application is unsuccessful but it would be dangerous for the asylum seeker to return to their home country, they may be allowed to remain in the UK for humanitarian reasons.

Finally, if the application is unsuccessful and there is no other reason that an asylum seeker may remain in the UK, they must return to their home country.


Legal disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.


As editor of, Gill is passionate about helping individuals and organisations overseas explore and pursue opportunities in the UK. She is a content specialist in the fields of immigration, law and business.