Asylum Seekers

Asylum seekers protesting on the roof of the Villawood immigration detention centre in Sydney, Australia, Adam.J.W.C., CC 2.5

Asylum seekers protesting on the roof of the Villawood immigration detention centre in Sydney, Australia, Adam.J.W.C., CC 2.5

Asylum Seekers

In this article, we shall discuss asylum seekers in international relations. Namely, we shall define what is term asylum seeker, how it relates to international affairs and human rights, discussions of the reasons that asylum seekers want asylum, state response to asylum seekers, as well as discussions of international law on the subject.

What is the definition of Asylum Seekers?

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated” (UNHCR, 2014). The UNHCR also defines asylum seekers as “…persons applying for refugee status pursuant to the definition of a “refugee” in the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (“1951 Convention”) or any regional refugee instrument, as well as other persons seeking complementary, subsidiary or temporary forms of protection” (UNHCR, 2012b: 10). Leaving a country (to another country) for asylum is one type of international migration.

In contrast to asylum seekers, “[t]he term ‘refugee’ is usually adopted for those who, having applied for asylum, have been given recognised refugee status. In addition, it also usually encompasses those who have received ‘exceptional leave to remain’ or ‘indefinite leave to remain’ (now included in the term ‘humanitarian protection’)” (Aspinall & Watters, 2010: v).

Another reason why it is important to make this distinction is because of the benefits that the law provides one that is a refugee compared to an asylum seeker. For example, in Britain, since the British government has signed onto the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, they provide various supports for these individuals. For example, “[s]ince August 2005, people granted refugee status and those granted humanitarian protection are given leave to stay in the UK for five years, at the end of which their protection needs are reviewed and their status could be revoked” (Patel & Kelley, 2006: 2).

Asylum seekers, on the other hand, face a different level of support. For example, they “are excluded from many mainstream services and benefits. If they are destitute, they can apply to the National Asylum Support Service, which provides accommodation and limited cash support set at 70% of the Income Support level” (Patel & Kelley, 2006). However, because these accommodations can be anywhere through the UK–which “can lead to extreme isolation,” a number of people go with the subsistence-only option (Patel & kelley, 2006: 3). Furthermore, when they don’t know their status, or are living in temporary housing, many have expressed the concern and “uncertainty about their future and finding secure accommodation” (Patel & Kelley, 2006: 6). Thus, legal definitions are much more than that, as they have a great effect on individuals looking for status, and looking for support as they live in a new state.

Who Decides the Cases of Asylum Seekers?

When an individual is looking for asylum, the case goes to the national asylum seeking system. It is here that the system will state whether the asylum seeker will be eligible to receive asylum status (UNHCR, 2014). Here the government will often examine whether the asylum seeker (or asylum seekers) have a legitimate need for asylum. They will look to see if there has been any sort of discrimination against the person(s), and if they indeed need asylum. If officials deem that the asylum seekers in fact do need protections, then they will begin transitioning their status. However, if they feel that the asylum seekers do not qualify for such protections, then the state can revert them back to their state of origin (UNHCR, 2014). And while the process for interviewing asylum seekers can be done on a one-on-one basis, there are many cases where this does not take place. For example, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2014) explains, “During mass movements of refugees (usually as a result of conflicts or generalized violence as opposed to individual persecution), there is not – and never will be – a capacity to conduct individual asylum interviews for everyone who has crossed the border. Nor is it usually necessary, since in such circumstances it is generally evident why they have fled. As a result, such groups are often declared “prima facie” refugees.”

It is important for the system to be effective. When asylum seekers are facing dangerous risk in their home state, a careful and fair system is crucial in order for them to receive the protections that they so desperately need. If the system is not willing to grant refugee status to asylum seekers who need protections, then this has the potential to put significant strain on their lives. In addition, if the system has a great job in being able to expedite genuine cases of need for asylum seekers, this will not only help individuals in their plights due to unrest, civil conflict, home discrimination, etc…, but it will also prevent those not in need from attempting to apply for refugee status (UNHCR, 2014).

What is the Legal Status of Asylum Seekers in Domestic Law, and International Law?

UNHCR has continued to stress that asylum seekers have rights in international law. And thus, individuals who face persecution in their home state should not be seen as “illegal”, but rather, as a refugee, (Phillips, 2011). There are times where individuals do acquire illegal documentation in order to leave because of persecution, and, as Phillips (2011) explains, because this might be the only way that they can safely flee their country. In addition, Phillips (2011) explains that “[t]he confusion about legal status arises from those arriving by boat doing so without a valid visa or any other appropriate authorisation, whereas most, though not all, who arrive by air and then seek asylum, usually enter on a valid visa” (3).

Issues Facing Asylum Seekers

Cases of the Detention of Asylum Seekers

In 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees made statements about the treatment of asylum seekers with regards to detention centers. Countries have been using detention centers to hold asylum seekers while their cases were under review for refugee status. However, the UNHCR has been quite critical of this practice. Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson from UNHCR, was quoted as saying that “[a]s a principle, UNHCR opposes detention of people seeking international protection. The new guidelines make clear that seeking asylum is not a criminal act, and that indefinite and mandatory forms of detention are prohibited under international law” (UNHCR, 2012a).

Some states have been holding asylum seekers in these detention centers for long periods of time. This centers have negative effects on the mental state of asylum seekers (UNHCR, 2012a), many of which have already faced great hardships, along with post-traumatic stress disorder from events in their home country. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2012b) explains that “[d]etention can and has been shown to aggravate and even cause the aforementioned illnesses and symptoms. This can be the case even if individuals present no symptoms at the time of detention.101 Because of the serious consequences of detention, initial and periodic assessments of detainees’ physical and mental state are required, carried out by qualified medical practitioners. Appropriate treatment needs to be provided to such persons, and medical reports presented at periodic reviews of their detention” (33).

As a response, the UNHCR has published guidelines for how to treat asylum seekers. In the detention guidelines, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states that detentions for asylum seekers must be used only if absolutely necessary, and should be avoided, if at all possible. This could include public health concerns, along with protecting public order. However, states should not use detention centers for asylum seekers because they entered into the country without legal documentation, or because they want to use it as a deterrent to keep asylum seekers from staying (UNHCR, 2012b). Furthermore, one cannot detain an asylum seeker on “grounds of expulsion” when due process has not yet been fully carried out (UNHCR, 2012b).

The UNHCR (2012b) has suggested alternatives to detentions for asylum seekers that will be in accord with human rights standards, states that “[a]lternatives to detention may take various forms, depending on the particular circumstances of the individual, including registration and/or deposit/surrender of documents, bond/bail/sureties, reporting conditions, community release and supervision, designated residence, electronic monitoring, or home curfew” (24).

Poverty Among Many Asylum Seekers

Many individuals who are seeking asylum often have difficult economic conditions; many of them are living in poverty. Much of this has to do with the difficulties of leaving a country, often with vary little, and resettling in a new state. And where one does not know the language, it can be a challenge to find work that pays a living wage. In fact, many asylum seekers interviewed in the UK did report hunger, the lack of ability to buy clothing, and inadequacy in the health services available to them (Penrose, 2002, in Patel & Kelley, 2006: 6). In addition, have limited resources makes it difficult to even reach out for support, or they don’t have money to access the bus or subway, which would get them to their appointments (Patel & Kelley, 2006).

Discrimination Towards Asylum Seekers

Asylum seekers also face various forms of discrimination in the country in which they have settled. For example, in Australia, “[i]n recent years, a series of emails have been widely circulated throughout Australia claiming to describe higher social security entitlements for refugees, compared with those of other Australian residents. A common claim in these emails is that refugees in Australia receive higher social security benefits than age pensioners” (10). This is unfortunate, since these statements are false (Phillips, 2011). Yet, asylum seekers and refugees have to hear such comments, which may lead to individuals being upset with asylum seekers or refugees, despite the fact that they did nothing wrong.

Health Issues Facing Asylum Seekers

As mentioned above, asylum seekers face a number of health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. There are many mental health challenges facing refugees and asylum seekers. As mentioned, a number of them have trauma that needs to be addressed. In addition, there are also other mental health issues that asylum seekers also suffer from; many asylum seekers also suffer from diseases such as depression and anxiety (Aspinall & Watters, 2010). Some have reported stress from their experience in leaving the country. This may have involved dangerous risk-taking to flee persecution, and individuals may have also incurred financial debt to leave. Some may have also faced various forms of abuse while traveling. Lastly, there has been the stress that some face that they will be found by officials, who could then have carried out violations against them, such as torture or illegal imprisonment (Patel & Kelley, 2006). And again, this stress, anxiety and trauma may have been due to events while they fled, or the stresses could exist due to the tough conditions that they face in their new environment (Patel & Kelley, 2006).

Along with mental health issues, there are also other health issues facing the asylum seekers. For example, “[f]or women asylum seekers and refugees there is evidence of poor antenatal care and pregnancy outcomes, and low uptake of preventative heal care measures concerning breast and cervical cancer” (Aspinall & Watters, 2010: vi). In addition, children who are asylum seekers, or older refugees and asylum seekers are a concern (Aspinall & Watters, 2010). What makes matters worse for asylum seekers is the inability or ineffectiveness of the states hosting the asylum seekers to offer sufficient health care for these individuals.  Often, local officials are unsure about what they are required or expected to do with regards to asylum seekers that have health issues (Aspinall & Watters, 2010).

Education and Language Issues

There are many challenges facing children and other asylum seekers with regards to education. For example, writing on the situation in the United Kingdom, Aspinall & Watters (2010) argue that “asylum-seeking and refugee children’s right to eduction in the UK is hindered as a result of dispersal, residential instability, financial difficulties and inadequate support in schools” (vii). Moreover, children often have difficulty with language issues. As Aspinall & Watters (2010) argue, “English language acquisition is vital in the process of integration and cuts in provision have considerable negative consequences for asylum seekers and refugees” (vii). And yet, when looking at the UK for example, “In a skills audit of people granted refugee status and exceptional leave to remain conducted between November 2002 and January 2003, a quarter of all female respondents had no English language skills compared with 28% of men. Women from Somalia were particularly unlikely to have any knowledge of English – over a half (55%) had no English skills compared with 24% of men. Therefore language will be crucial to any attempts by refugees and asylum seekers to get on in many aspects of life in the UK (Kirk, 2004, in Patel & Kelley, 2006: 5). Therefore, the governments must be able to provide adequate support with regards to helping in education with regards to language, as well as providing the necessary supports such as translators (Patel & Kelley, 2006).

Disability Support for Asylum Seekers

There are a number of challenges facing asylum seekers with disabilities. For example, many of them have have trouble with daily activities such as dressing, as well as bathing. In addition, some were unaware that services are available for support, or, if they know about this, felt a “shame associated with disability acquired through torture [for example, which] prevented individuals from seeking help” (Patel & Kelley, 2006: 7). Others had trouble with feelings of isolation due in part to “disability-related barriers, but also because of language difficulties and separation from family” (Patel & Kelley, 2006: 7). 

Others still have pointed out that there exist further difficulties for those asylum seekers with disabilities who also have children. For example, it can be tough for them to carry out their expectations as parents. And “[s]ingle disabled parents felt particularly distressed that their disability prevented them from caring for their children” (7). In addition, those away from their children have had difficult with this situation (Patel & Kelley, 2006). Thus, there are many ways in which individuals with disabilities have had a tough time as asylum seekers.

Role and Responsibility of the State with Asylum Seekers

Because of these various challenges facing asylum seekers, it is critical that local and national governments work together and with other state and  NGOs to help provide the needed support for asylum seekers. For example, they must ensure that they provide the necessary services as dictated by international law, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention. Moreover, they should ensure that they provide sufficient health care (which of course includes mental health professionals), as well as other services such as translators. They should also help with  accommodations, as well as provide effective education opportunities for asylum seekers. They should also continue to build ties with the NGO community, since this will allow for a more effective response to the issues facing asylum seekers.


Aspinall, P. & Watters, C. (2010). Refugees and Asylum Seekers: A Review From an Equality and Human Rights Perspective. Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report 52, pages 1-163. March 2010. Available Online:

Kirk, R. (2004) Skills audit of refugees, Home Office online report 37/04. Available Online:

Patel, B. & Kelley, N. (2006). The Social Care Needs of Refugees and Asylum Seekers. Stakeholder Participation Race Equality Discussion Paper 2, pages 1-17.

Penrose, J. (2002). Poverty and Asylum in the UK, London: Refugee Council and Oxfam.

Phillips, J. (2011). Asylum Seekers and Refugees: What Are the Facts? Background Note. Parliament of Australia. Parliamentary Library. 14 January 2011. Available Online:

UNHCR (2012a). UNHCR Concerned at Detention of Asylum Seekers, Releases New Guidelines. 21 September 2012. Available Online:

UNHCR (2012b). Detention Guidelines. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Available Online:

UNHCR (2014). Asylum Seekers. Available Online:

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