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How to Claim Political Asylum in the UK

Few things are more terrifying than facing persecution from your country’s government. Here in Britain, although we may complain about our government’s performance, thankfully no one fears physical or economic retribution for expressing views contrary to those in power at the time. British nationals do not have to seek political asylum in other countries.

But for millions around the world, freedom of speech, association, religion, and politics is a far-off dream. However, even modern countries can take actions that can trigger a person to seek political asylum.

One of the most famous cases is that of Australian-born Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks. In 2012, Ecuador granted the editor asylum in its London embassy, two months after he sought refuge there to avoid extradition to Sweden to answer sexual assault charges. Mr. Assange argued that his human rights would be violated of he entered Sweden, as the allegations were false and designed ultimately to get him extradited to the United States.

He was quoted in the BBC in 2012:

"It was not Britain or my home country, Australia, that stood up to protect me from persecution, but a courageous, independent Latin American nation.

"While today is a historic victory, our struggles have just begun. The unprecedented US investigation against Wikileaks must be stopped.

"While today much of the focus will be on the decision of the Ecuadorean government, it is just as important that we remember Bradley Manning has been detained without trial for over 800 days.”

Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning) is a former US soldier accused of leaking government material to Wikileaks.

The right to political asylum in international law

The right to seek political asylum is an ancient one. It was recognised by those who inhabited the classical Greek and Roman world, and by medieval people who would seek sanctuary in a church. Many famous people in history sought asylum in other nations, from Kings (Edward IV, Charles II), to philosophers (Descartes, Voltaire, and Hobbes).

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, supported by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees declares

"Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution".

Understanding the difference between an asylum seeker and refugee

The term asylum seeker and refugee are often used interchangeably; however, legally, they are distinct. If you have reached a country and have applied for political asylum there, you are an asylum seeker. If your application is granted, you become a refugee.

How to seek asylum in the UK

You must make an asylum claim from within the UK. You cannot claim asylum from another country. Therefore, as soon as you reach Britain, whether that be by plane, train, or ship, you need to go to the UK Border Agency in Croydon (in south London) and claim asylum. Failure to do so may result in you not being able to access accommodation and benefits whilst your claim is being considered. You should also immediately contact an immigration solicitor who is experienced in asylum claims to help you with your application.

Asylum can be claimed under the following international treaties:

  • The 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – you must prove you have a legitimate reason to fear persecution due to your ethnicity, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group, and cannot obtain protection from authorities in your own country. Under the Convention, immigration authorities considering your case need to evaluate the threat of persecution that may await you if you return to your home country. If you have suffered persecution in the past, but the threat has now gone, you will not receive asylum. However, a lack of past persecution does not exclude you from being able to claim risk of future persecution. For example, if you are in the UK to visit family and there is a regime change in your home country, and that regime is hostile to you, you can claim asylum. These are known as ‘sur place’ claims.
  • The 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – often referred to as human rights claims. Asylum is usually claimed under Article 3 (the right not to be subject to torture and/or inhumane treatment) or Article 8 (the right to private and family life). Article 3 is an absolute right, meaning a signatory State cannot qualify torture or inhumane treatment on the grounds of protecting national security, public safety, or the economic well-being of the country. However, a government can balance Article 8 rights against these given considerations.

The UK is also a signatory to the European Union Asylum Qualification Directive. This Directive is designed to provide consistency across the European Union (EU) regarding who qualifies for humanitarian protection and the level of public funds an asylum seeker is entitled to. When the UK leaves the EU on 31 December 2020, this Directive is set to become retained law. However, Britain will not be obliged to take on any developments to this and other EU Directives relating to asylum seekers.

When you apply for asylum, you will be assigned a caseworker who will investigate your asylum claim and make all the decisions relating to it. You will be asked to attend a Screening Interview, where UK Border Agency officials will check if you have made any previous asylum claims and provide you with a reference number.

After the Screening Interview, you may be taken to either the Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre or Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre and held in detention until a decision on your application is made. You will not normally be detained if:

  • you’re a child
  • you’re elderly
  • you’re a family with children
  • you’re pregnant
  • you’re accepted as being a victim of trafficking
  • you’re able to provide independent evidence of torture
  • you have a mental or physical condition that cannot be managed or would present a risk to others in an immigration removal centre

You will need to attend an Asylum Interview with your caseworker. This is where you have the chance to tell your story about why you fled your home country, your journey to the UK, and why you need political asylum. You can bring your legal representative to this interview.

Applications are decided within six months; however, this can take longer if there are complications. Having legal representation from the outset can help shorten the length of time it takes to get a decision.

If you are refused asylum, you can appeal.

See also ‘How to apply for Asylum and become a Refugee in the UK

Final words

Claiming asylum is not easy, and Britain’s Conservative government has been notoriously tough on allowing asylum claims to succeed. It is therefore crucial that you get the best legal advice from the outset. Having an experienced immigration lawyer on your side dramatically increases your chances of a successful political asylum application.

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