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Is the UK Still a Sanctuary for Refugees?

By: Louise Smith, barrister - Updated: 26 Jan 2013 | comments*Discuss
Uk Refugee Asylum-seeker Sanctuary

Sanctuary is commonly known as asylum: the protection given by a country to a refugee fleeing persecution in their own country.

The UK provides such protection under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This UN Convention states that genuine refugees should not be penalised for entering, or being in, a country illegally - provided that they present themselves without delay to the authorities. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to seek asylum. This right is not conditional on being lawfully in a country or on having the correct documents.

For these purposes, the term “refugee” includes asylum-seekers awaiting determination of their immigration status. According to the UK Border Agency (UKBA), to be recognised as a refugee an individual must have left their country and be unable to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution.

The UK also adheres to the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits sending someone (back) to a country where there is a “real risk” they will be tortured or subjected to “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. However, there are various ‘opt-out’ clauses in the EU legislation. Many countries in Europe have a deterrent motive in mind when setting out their domestic policy on asylum seekers. Some analysts darkly refer to European asylum policy as the ‘Pontius Pilate effect’ – or, wash your hands and pass the problem on to the next country.

Why People Seek Sanctuary in the UK

Statistics suggest that about 25-30% of all applicants are offered sanctuary in the UK either as refugees or for humanitarian reasons. Under immigration rules refugees should claim asylum in the first European country they arrive in. However, firsthand information from refugees reveals why they do not always follow this rule.

Many countries set their policies on asylum-seekers with little regard for the international treaties they have signed. According to campaigners for refugees it is extremely difficult to file an asylum claim in Turkey and Greece. Germany and France are viewed as only marginally better. Italy is said to send Libyan asylum-seekers straight back to Libya. UK taxpayers have given France millions of pounds to increase border security in an attempt to prevent refugees camped at Calais from trying to cross the Channel.

The British Approach to Refugees

Feeling about immigrants in general and asylum-seekers in particular remain mixed in the UK - as well as the rest of Europe. The burdens of the recession, the coalition’s austerity budget and soaring unemployment will only add to feelings of resentment amongst some people. The popular perception of asylum-seekers coming to the UK for an easy life on state benefits persists and is perpetuated by some sectors of the media.

A refugee who stands out because of the colour of his skin or the way he dresses can easily become the target of more generalised anger felt by the population as a whole. In addition the UK’s coalition has made cracking down on “unchecked” immigration one of its headline policies. Britain has a long, honourable history of providing sanctuary to refugees from all over the world but this role may be difficult to maintain when budget cuts bite and anger grows.

The UK’s “City of Sanctuary” Programme

City of Sanctuary (CoS) is a registered charity which aims to promote “a culture of hospitality” for refugees in the UK. An official City of Sanctuary is one which has taken steps to show that it prides itself in the welcome it offers those fleeing persecution and danger.

In September 2007 Sheffield became the UK’s first official ‘City of Sanctuary’. The charity is promoting the development of similar initiatives throughout the UK. Swansea became the UK’s second official City of Sanctuary in May 2010. Other Cities of Sanctuary are Bristol and Bradford, with many others around the country actively working to achieve that status. As well as offering a warm welcome and a safe haven for refugees, the City of Sanctuary movement also promotes the better integration of refugees into the local community. To be recognised as an official City of Sanctuary the move will have to be supported by the City Council and community organisations in the city.

Comparing official – and unofficial – policies towards asylum-seekers amongst Britain’s neighbours in the EU may explain why the UK is still considered by many to be a sanctuary for (genuine) refugees. And why many British people are still proud of that fact.

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