The difference between asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants

The legal distinctions between these groups of people has become lost amid the frenzied media coverage in recent months

In the current frenzied media and political debate about the chaotic situation in Calais and the supposed benefits abuse by migrants in Britain, the complex legal distinctions between asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants has got lost.

Legally, an asylum seeker is a person who has applied for asylum in the UK and is waiting for a decision on his or her claim. A refugee on the other hand has already received a positive decision from the authorities on his or her asylum claim. So, strictly speaking the migrants in Calais are neither refugees or asylum seekers from a UK legal perspective – at least as long as they remain in French territory.

In order to become an asylum applicant and be recognised as a refugee in Britain, migrants need to be on UK territory. However, the UK, like most countries in Europe that have signed the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, is making it increasingly difficult for asylum seekers to cross their sovereign territorial boundaries.

According to the Home Office, there were 25,020 asylum applications in the year ending March 2015. This is up 5% on the previous year, but low compared to the peak in 2002 when 84,132 people claimed asylum. As the graph shows, in 2014, the UK had the fifth highest number of claims within the EU.


Currently migrants wishing to claim asylum in the UK cannot do so from their home country, they have to apply for asylum on UK territory.

Most migrants fleeing from war and persecution have to resort to clandestine migration in order to get to Europe, which media and politicians then refer to as “illegal migration” or “irregular migration”. The reality is that the majority of prospective asylum seekers in the UK are forced to resort to irregular migration in order to be able to make their asylum claim in the first place.

What is an economic migrant?

Another label that frequently gets invoked in the current debate is that of the “economic migrant”. An economic migrant is not a legal classification, but rather an umbrella term for a wide array of people that move from one country to another to advance their economic and professional prospects.

For example, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, could be classified as an economic migrant just as much as a young Senegalese man trying to jump on a lorry in Calais.

If a claim is allowed, the applicant receives the refugee status and is generally granted a five-year stay in the UK. (AP)

The UK, like most countries with advanced economies, has specific policies in place to facilitate the mobility of highly skilled professionals and investors into their respective national economy. These people are considered desirable migrants and are identified as expatriates.

When the term economic migrants is used, it generally refers to the unskilled and semi-skilled individuals from impoverished countries in the global south. Economic migrants are not eligible for asylum under the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. However, any migrant arriving on UK territory has the right to have their asylum claim reviewed. This is a human right.

If a migrant makes it to UK territory and applies for asylum their claim is considered by UK Visas and Immigration. Distinguishing between economic migrants and asylum seekers is a challenging and time-consuming task for the agency. In 2014, out of 25,870 applications for asylum in 2014, 15,820, or 61.2% were rejected.

Migrants escape from the French Police as they try to catch a train to reach England (EPA)

If a claim is allowed, the applicant receives the refugee status and is generally granted a five-year stay in the UK. With it comes the right to work, access to state benefits (such as housing) and more significantly, the right to bring their family to the UK, who will also receive refugee status.

Even if an asylum application is rejected, claimants generally have the right to appeal the initial decision. If the appeal still finds that the asylum claim is unfounded, the claimant has right for another appeal, if new evidence is presented to support the initial claim.

What happens if an asylum claim is rejected?

If this appeal also fails, and by now several months are likely to have passed, the refused applicants are expected to arrange their departure from the UK. If the applicant refuses, the Home Office will arrange for their deportation. Many genuine asylum claimants as well as so-called economic migrants will use every legal tool available to them to appeal a refused asylum claim, which creates bottlenecks in the asylum system.

The problem with this approach is that every government in Europe is trying to do the same thing, closing their borders and passing the responsibility for asylum seekers off to neighbouring countries.

The deplorable situation in Calais as well as Lesbos, Lampedusa or Ceuta and Melilla are the result of this cynical approach by British and European governments.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original article.