Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate Asylum seekers and refugees in Britain

What brings asylum seekers to the United Kingdom?

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 24 February 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:485
  1. Angela Burnett, senior medical examiner (,
  2. Michael Peel, senior medical examiner
  1. Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, London NW5 3EJ
  1. Correspondence to: A Burnett

    This is the first in a series of three articles

    Asylum seekers and refugees have been the subject of much media and political attention over recent months, but they are often misrepresented. In the first paper in this series we discuss the reasons that cause people to go into exile and the situation in which they find themselves as refugees in the United Kingdom. In subsequent papers we will examine the health needs of refugees, appropriate care and responses, the specific health effects of torture and organised violence, the needs of health workers, and the structural organisation of health services.

    The term refugee is used to include people at all stages of the asylum process. The various definitions of refugee status are given in the box below.

    Definitions of refugee status

    Asylum seeker—asylum claim submitted, awaiting Home Office decision

    Refugee status (accepted as a refugee under the Geneva Convention)—given leave to remain in the UK for four years, and can then apply for settled status (Indefinite leave to remain, see below). Eligible for family reunion for one spouse and all children under 18 years

    Indefinite leave to remain (ILR)—given permanent residence in Britain indefinitely. Eligible for family reunion only if able to support family without recourse to public funding

    Exceptional leave to remain (ELR)—the Home Office accepts there are strong reasons why the person should not return to the country of origin and grants the right to stay in Britain for four years. Expected to return if the home country situation improves. Ineligible for family reunion

    Refusal—the person has a right of appeal, within strict time limits

    Britain, as a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention, and for many years before this, has offered asylum to those fleeing from persecution and violence. Under the terms of the Convention, a refugee is defined as any person …

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