Getting the Terms Straight

‘Refugee’ is generally the term used by people who are supportive to the plight of those forced to flee their countries of origin, and by those people themselves. It simply identifies a person or family forced to leave their homeland by the circumstances there. The reasons are widespread, but most often it is a result of violent conflicts or violently oppressive governments.

Legally the term refugee has a more narrow meaning. The following definitions are how our law defines various groups of migrants:


‘Refugee’: A refugee is a person who ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…’ (Definition quoted from the 1951 UN Refugee Convention).

The UK government decides whether individuals meet this definition, and, if so, they will normally be granted refugee status, initially for 5 years, and at the end of that period can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain.


‘Humanitarian protection’: This term applies to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, in other words the right to protection from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. Often the Home Office decides that someone does not fit into the definition in the Refugee Convention, but that they could well face torture or inhuman and degrading treatment if they are forced to return to their country of origin. These people will normally be granted humanitarian protection, initially for 5 years. People from war zones, such as Syria, are often placed in this category by the Home Office.


‘Asylum seeker’: Anyone who is over 18, has made an application for asylum, and whose application is still pending with the Home Office or the immigration appeals system. The term ‘asylum seeker’ applies to people seeking refugee status or humanitarian protection.


‘Unaccompanied asylum seeking child’: This applies to anyone under 18, who has fled their home country without an adult accompanying them.

Often such children are sent away from home by their parents, at huge emotional and financial cost, in the hope that they will find safe refuge.

‘Undocumented migrant’: This is not a technical term, but one of many used to describe people in a range of situations; often referred to in the media as ‘illegal’ immigrant. It usually applies to people who were initially granted time-limited leave to enter the UK, but have overstayed that leave without getting it renewed by the Home Office. It also applies to people whose asylum claims have been refused and who are unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin. Often people refused asylum make subsequent applications to the Home Office as they find more evidence to support their case or because their situation changes. It is worth noting that the quality of decision-making by the Home Office is extremely poor and that there is a well-documented culture of disbelief that means many people are wrongly refused asylum.