Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Alice Bloch (2001) 'The Importance of Convention Status: A Case Study of the UK'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 1, <>

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Received: 25/4/2001      Accepted: 28/5/2001      Published: 24-05-2001


Convention status accords refugees social and economic rights and security of residence in European countries of asylum. However, the trend in Europe has been to prevent asylum seekers reaching its borders, to reduce the rights of asylum seekers in countries of asylum and to use temporary protection as a means of circumventing the responsibility of long-term resettlement. This paper will provide a case study of the United Kingdom. It will examine the social and economic rights afforded to different statuses in the areas of social security, housing, employment and family reunion. It will explore the interaction of social and economic rights and security of residence on the experiences of those seeking protection. Drawing on responses to the crisis in Kosovo and on data from a survey of 180 refugees and asylum seekers in London it will show the importance of Convention status and the rights and security the status brings.

Asylum Policy.; Asylum Seekers; Integration; Refugees; Social And Economic Rights; Temporary Protection


Since the late 1980s, when there was a marked increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Britain, the issue of asylum has been high on the policy agenda. Policy and legislative initiatives have been concerned with limiting the number of asylum seekers gaining access to Britain's borders, reducing the social and economic citizenship rights of those who manage to get access to the asylum determination process and preventing long term settlement.

The welfare ideology in which asylum policy has developed under the current Labour government has been a neo- liberal one of social inclusion. The government has taken measures to try and include previously excluded groups by the linking of welfare with an obligation to job seeking (Lister, 1998). In an era of individual responsibility, the government has created a policy anomaly in its treatment of asylum seekers. While others have a commitment to seek paid employment and to go on training schemes, asylum seekers are denied such opportunities on arrival in Britain and as a consequence remain excluded from society.

Forced migrants living in the UK fall into four different categories: refugees, people with Exceptional Leave to Remain (ELR), those with temporary protection status and asylum seekers. These categories are important because each confers, on individuals, different social and economic rights and different levels of security in the country of asylum. Asylum seekers find themselves living in the UK without the rights associated with social citizenship. The Marshallian notion of social citizenship refers to equal access to social security, health care, education, the right to work and to live according to the standards prevailing in society (Bulmer and Rees, 1996).

This paper will first provide some contextual background about asylum policy in the1990s. Secondly, it will examine the social and economic rights afforded to different statuses in the areas of social security, housing, employment and family reunion. Thirdly it will explore the way in which policy changes have created a wider division between the rights of asylum seekers and other forced migrants. Moreover, it will demonstrate the importance of security of residence, through the acquisition of refugee status, on the lives of forced migrants living in the United Kingdom.

Asylum Legislation in the 1990s

Though the UK has a long history of controlling the entry of forced migrants (Kushner and Knox, 1999) policies to restrict the numbers of asylum seekers entering the country gathered pace in the 1980s with the introduction of visas and the Immigration (Carrier's Liability) Act, 1987. Visa restrictions were placed on nationals of asylum producing countries as a device to control immigration (Guild, 2000) and heavy fines were imposed on carrying companies who transported people to the UK without the correct documentation (Cohen, 1994; Morris, 1998).

The 1990s saw three pieces of legislation concerned with the immigration of asylum seekers: the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act, 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act and the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act. The context of the legislative measures was the large increase in the numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Britain at the end of the 1980s (see Table 1) making them the largest single group of entrants to the UK after visitors and transit passengers. Legislation enacted between 1962 and 1988 had brought to an end virtually all primary migration from former colonial subjects (Holmes, 1991; Solomos, 1993), restricting entry for settlement to Britain to refugees, asylum seekers and family reunion cases.

Table 1: Asylum Applications, 1988-2000
YearNumber% Change from previous year

Sources: Refugee Council (1998), Refugee Council (1999a) and Home Office (2000)

The three asylum and immigration acts in the 1990s followed the dual strategy of restricting the numbers of spontaneous asylum seekers who were able to gain access to the asylum process and reducing the welfare entitlements available to asylum seekers waiting for their cases to be determined. Hansen notes that asylum policy has been 'designed to make life as a refugee in the UK less attractive' (Hansen, 2000: 235) as a deterrent to potential asylum seekers. However, the data in Table 1 shows that although there was a decline in the numbers seeking asylum in 1993 and 1996 there were increases in 1994 and 1997 so the legislation clearly failed to act as a deterrent.

The 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act extended Carriers Liability so that airline companies had to obtain transit visas to ensure that transit passengers did not disembark in the UK and claim asylum. Guild (2000) notes that there is a correlation between the extension of visa controls and the subsequent increase in the number of asylum seekers using false documentation.

Housing provision was also effected by the 1993 and 1996 legislation. Prior to 1993 Act, asylum seekers were entitled to local authority housing and to nominations for housing association accommodation. The statutory duty of local authorities to provide social housing for all in priority need was curtailed and replaced by a complex system of exclusion and eligibility. Zetter and Pearl (1999:240) note that the impact of the policy change 'is to create a distinction between refugees and asylum seekers so far as housing and housing benefits are concerned '. While refugees and those with ELR qualify for local authority housing virtually all asylum seekers are excluded.

The 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act built on the 1993 legislation by differentiating between asylum seekers who applied at the port of entry, who were seen as genuine, and those who applied in- country who were labelled as bogus. Port applicants were still entitled to 90% of the social security benefit income support. Those who applied for asylum in country were no longer eligible for cash benefits or homeless persons assistance and instead had to rely on very limited in-kind support from local authorities. In-kind support was often in the form of vouchers and food handouts. Local authorities had a statutory duty to provide for destitute single asylum seekers under the 1948 National Assistance Act while asylum seeking families were supported under the provisions of the 1989 Children Act.

In May 1999 local authorities in London were supporting 27, 804 asylum seekers (Refugee Council, 1999b). A survey carried out by the Audit Commission (2000) found that more than one-third of asylum seeking families had been housed in bed and breakfast accommodation, hostels or hotel annexes and the largest proportion (48%) were in private rented housing. Of the single asylum seekers receiving support under the 1948 National Assistance Act the largest proportion (44%) were in private rented property and just under a third were in bed and breakfast accommodation or hostels. The consequence of placing asylum seekers in temporary and often unsuitable accommodation is that the sense of social exclusion is increased and settlement is undermined (Zetter and Pearl, 1999).

In November 1999 the Immigration and Asylum Act received Royal Assent and it came into affect in April 2000. Under the 1999 Act, a number of pre-entry controls were introduced or reinforced including the incorporation of trucking companies into carrier's liability. In addition curtailments to welfare and housing rights were also introduced. Under the new system all asylum seekers are excluded from the social security system. Those entitled to support are assessed for vouchers administered by a new agency the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). NASS also co-ordinates a new compulsory dispersal programme for destitute asylum seekers, eligible for help with housing on a no choice basis.

Asylum, ELR, Temporary Protection and Refugee Status: Increasing the Divide

Asylum policy in the 1990s has created a divide between asylum seekers and other forced migrants living in the UK. This section will outline the different categories of eligibility for forced migrants in Britain.

Refugees have the same economic and social rights as UK citizens. Refugees recognised under the Geneva Convention are entitled to work legally, claim the same benefits as those available to UK and EU citizens, including access to education. In addition, refugees are entitled to immediate family reunion with spouses and children. However, as Table 2 shows, only a minority of asylum applicants are granted full refugee status.

Table 2: Decisions on Asylum Applications: 1990-2000
Refugee StatusELR*Refusal

Source: Refugee Council (1998); Home Office (2000)

* This does not include the 2500 former Yugoslavs brought to the UK under temporary protection programme.
**An additional 11,100 were granted leave to remain under a special backlog clearance exercise and 1,275 were refused.

People with ELR lack security of settlement because their cases are periodically reviewed and the Home Office can refuse them the right to remain. However, after seven years people with ELR are entitled to apply for indefinite leave to remain. Those with ELR have no family reunification rights for their first four years in the UK. After four years the Home Office will consider an application for family reunion although this usually means demonstrating the ability to support relatives without recourse to public funds. Such a policy is particularly problematic and effectively excludes those with ELR from family reunion due to the disproportionately high levels of unemployment experienced by forced migrants in the UK. A Home Office survey found that only 27 per cent of economically active refugees were employed (Carey-Wood et al, 1995). Other restrictions placed on those with ELR include paying overseas fees for study during the first three years of residence although those with ELR do have access to social security benefits and to social housing.

More recently a new status, temporary protection or temporary refuge, has emerged in European countries of asylum. Temporary protection was first utilised in response to the displacement of 500,000 Bosnians to the EU in 1992-1993 at the request of UNHCR. According to Koser and Black (1999) temporary protection was used as a mechanism for 'burden- sharing' and harmonisation. Moreover, it was politically expedient because public support could be maintained by emphasising the temporary nature of the status because this group had a need for protection even though they did not meet the criterion of the Convention. Temporary protection was used once again at the request of UNHCR in the case of the humanitarian evacuation of Kosovar Albanians (Guild, 2000).

Temporary protection is an adaptation of ELR but with some significant differences. First, those on the temporary protection programme are entitled to immediate family reunion. Secondly, those on temporary protection have been assisted on arrival through staffed reception centres while those on ELR arrive as spontaneous asylum seekers and have no help on arrival. Thirdly, temporary protection was only given in the case of Bosnians for six months then a year and in the case of Kosovars for one year in the first instance but there is no settlement schedule (van Selm-Thornburn, 1999). The terms of the temporary protection scheme excluded the right to be considered for refugee status under the Geneva Convention (Guild, 2000). In the case of the Bosnians, the period of protection was extended but this has not happened with the Kosovars.

The strategy of temporary protection reaffirms a lack of commitment to a longer-term policy of permanent resettlement in the UK. In the case of the Kosovars only 10% of those who applied for an extension to their temporary protection got a positive decision. Others have been forced to seek asylum and in so doing have lost the rights associated with temporary protection status. Virtually none of those who have their asylum cases considered, to date, have been granted ELR or refugee status[1]. The majority of asylum seekers have returned to Kosovo voluntarily.

Asylum seekers have been the main victims of policy changes in the 1990s. Asylum seekers have no statutory right to seek employment and cannot submit an application for a discretionary work permit from the Home Secretary until they have been living in the UK for six months. The process of obtaining a work permit is often a slow one (Carey-Wood et al, 1995). Moreover, it is generally limited to just the principal asylum applicant which often excludes women from seeking employment.

Under the 1996 Act, a system of penalty fines for employers taking on anyone without appropriate documentation was introduced. This has affected the likelihood of potential employers taking on asylum seekers and refugees due to the additional burden of checking documentation (Refugee Council, 1999c). One of the consequences of employment policies is that forced migrants find themselves in the secondary labour market often engaged in unskilled and sporadic work. Another consequence is the increase in the numbers of undocumented workers engaged in illegal employment. Düvell and Jordan (1999) note that the government has enforced criminality on some migrants by linking welfare entitlements with immigration.

In addition to economic exclusion, asylum seekers are also excluded from welfare benefits. After an assessment from NASS, they may be eligible for non-monetary subsistence support if they have no alternative support provision. Figure 1 shows the subsistence support received by eligible asylum seekers of which £10 per person is received in cash while the rest is in vouchers. Vouchers are redeemable at specified supermarkets and retail outlets although change is not given to asylum seekers for purchases of less than the value of the vouchers and the profit is kept by retailers as an incentive to participate in the scheme.

Figure 1: Benefits and Allowances received by Asylum Seekers and other Claimants in £

Source: Refugee Council (2000)

Moreover, there have been problems with the administration of vouchers. Outside of the larger urban areas some supermarkets have not been informed about how to use the vouchers and are refusing to accept them.

Housing provision for asylum seekers was also changed as a result of the 1999 Act. Under the legislation compulsory dispersal around the country, on a no choice basis, was introduced for anyone who is recognised as destitute, after an assessment by NASS. Dispersal policies have been justified by the government as a means of burden sharing due to the propensity of asylum seekers to remain in London and the South East of England. Cluster areas have been set up using a regional consortia approach in partnership with the Local Government Association who has responsibility for the management of dispersal on a local level. Eight regional consortia have been set up in England. The areas are: North West, Yorkshire and Humberside, West Midlands, East Midlands, South West, South Central, North East and Eastern England. As of February 2001, two-thirds of asylum seekers have been dispersed to three regional consortia areas: Yorkshire and Humberside (24.2 per cent), North west (23.8 per cent) and North East (18.7 per cent).

Dispersal is not a new phenomenon in Britain. It has been used in the past with programme refugees including those from Vietnam in the 1970s and more recently with Kosovar Albanians. Research carried out on the dispersal of the Vietnamese found large scale secondary migration away from the dispersal areas to a few large urban centres where there were pre-existing communities (Robinson and Hale, 1989). A pattern of secondary migration began to emerge with Kosovar Albanians very soon after their arrival and dispersal in Britain (Bloch, 1999a) and the same pattern is also emerging with current asylum seekers. Around 60% of those dispersed as part of the interim scheme that proceeded the full introduction of the new system returned to London. Moreover, 50% have opted for the support package without housing, placing pressure on family, friends and community organisations to provide accommodation[2]. Even though the justification for dispersal was to relieve pressure on London and the South East of England, the amount of secondary migration means that this is not in fact happening.

The main reasons for secondary migration are clear. On arrival in exile asylum seekers and refugees seek out social and community networks for support. Social networks are very important in the short-term adaptation process (Koser, 1997) and in some instances provide not only social support but also employment opportunities (Robinson, 1993). Those living in dispersal areas can find themselves very isolated especially as dispersal is often housing rather than needs led. Some find themselves in largely white indigenous areas and this has effectively removed any access to community activity and support, help with language and translation as well as cultural needs like community food and places of worship. This has additional affects because asylum seekers are increasingly vulnerable to racist attacks and racist abuse. The rise in racist attacks has been noted by the Refugee Council and others (see Refugee Council, 1999d; Institute of Race Relations, 1999). Other countries that operate dispersal policies, such as Germany, have also experienced violence towards asylum seekers in the dispersal areas (Schönwälder, 1999).

Social and Economic Settlement: the Effect of Immigration Status

Migrants can only settle where there are no legal restrictions and where the aims and objectives of the migration are compatible with settlement (Robinson, 1986; Weiner, 1996; Loescher, 1993). People with ELR, temporary protection and especially those seeking asylum face legal impediments and this section will explore the way in which structural barriers can effect both social and economic settlement.

Drawing on data from a survey[3] of 180 refugees and asylum seekers from the Somali, Tamil, Congolese communities in London, this section will show the way in which immigration status interacts with attitudes to settlement and economic participation. The findings presented relate to the specific sample and as such do not allow generalisations to be made to the population of forced migrants.

There was a large variation in immigration status among the three refugee groups included in the research. Nearly all the Congolese respondents were on temporary admission (i.e. asylum seekers waiting for their claim to be determined). Most of those with refugee status were Somalis. Both Tamils and Somalis had ELR but no Congolese respondents had this status. Thus, most Congolese had no security of status while Somalis followed by Tamils were the most secure. The asylum determination process can be and often is a lengthy process as indicated in Table 3.

Table 3: Immigration Status by Length of Residence in Britain - Percentages
Base number: 179

Immigration status> 1 year1-3 years3>5 yearsMore than 5 yearsTotal number
Refugee status98312738
Asylum seeker8353341967
Total number23383583179
Source: Bloch (2000), p. 85.

The significance of immigration status permeated many facets of refugee settlement. First, it affected attitudes towards Britain as an asylum destination. Those with refugee status were less likely to have preferred a different asylum destination than asylum seekers on temporary admission; 22 per cent and 57 per cent respectively.

The immigration status of respondents, at the time of the survey, influenced perceptions of Britain as home. Nearly two- thirds of those with refugee status (63 per cent) and just over half of those with ELR (51 per cent) said that they saw Britain as home. The proportions among those on temporary admission and those appealing against a Home Office decision on their case was much less, 27 per cent and 33 per cent respectively. Table 4 shows the relationship between key explanatory variables and the desire for return migration. It shows that those with refugee status were least likely to want to return to their country of origin while those on temporary admission were most likely to want to return home.

Table 4: Whether or not Respondents would like to return Home by Country of Origin, Length of Residence and Immigration Status - Percentages
Base number: 176

Whether or not respondent would like to return home
Yes MaybeNoTotal Number
Country of origin
Sri Lanka55291658
Length of residence
Less than 5 years7617794
5 years or more66211382
Basis of asylum claim
Political opinion80137112
Social group6430777
Immigration status
Exceptional leave to remain65251060
Temporary admission829966
Appealing against a Home Office decision7517812
Total Number1243318175

Congolese respondents were more likely to want to return home than others which is not surprising given their greater propensity to be on temporary admission. In addition, using Kunz's typology (Kuntz, 1981) a relationship between attitudes towards return migration and the grounds for an asylum claim might be expected.

Economic participation is also correlated with immigration status. Unemployment among forced migrants is very high and higher than that experienced by other ethnic minority people in Britain. Only 14 per cent of respondents were working at the time of the survey. However, a greater proportion of refugees (22 per cent) and those with ELR (23 per cent) were working than were asylum seekers (5 per cent).

Refugee Identified Factors Affecting Settlement

Respondents were asked if there were any factors that affected the ability of members of their community to settle in Britain. Table 5 shows that immigration status was mentioned most often. However, the majority of those who said that the main factor affecting settlement was immigration status had either temporary admission or appealing against a Home Office decision on their case (seven in ten).

Table 5: Factors affecting refugee settlement - Frequencies
Base number: 180

SomaliTamilCongoleseTotal %
Immigration Status11 85441
114 813
Different culture 511 311
Lack of relevant skills/ qualifications/training 713 -11
Unemployment 4 9 4 9
Lack of services 5 1 5 6
Lack of confidence 4 4 1 5
Weather 2 4 2 4
Lack of resources 2 4 2 4
Homesick/not ready to settle/not here by choice 2 3 1 4
Isolated 5 1 1 4
Housing 3 1 1 3
Lack of knowledge
About legal system
- 3 - 2
Lack of experience 1 1 - 1
Child care 2 - - 1
Access to education - - 2 1
Feel like an outsider 2 - - 1
Other 2 4 - 4
Nothing 2 7 - 5
Don't know 3 1 - 2

Respondents were asked their views about ways of improving life in Britain for members of their own community. The responses to the question were spontaneous and qualitative and some people mentioned more than one thing. Respondents identified a range of things that could improve their lives as Table 6 shows.

Table 6: Most Frequently Mentioned Ways of Improving Life for Refugees in Britain by Country of Origin - Percentages
Base number: 180

Total %
More employment opportunities and support for self- employment28
Provide refugee status 25
Setting up of social/leisure facilities22
Child care17
Greater awareness of refugees and their treatment including discrimination16
Process claims more quickly/resolve uncertainty12
More rights for refugees and respect for rights9<
More opportunities and support for job seeking8
Help for children7
Better use of existing skills/recognition of qualifications6
More information and advice6
More resources to help settlement process and help integration5

Congolese respondents were most likely to say that providing refugee status and processing claims more quickly would improve life and this was not surprising given that most of this group were on temporary admission. In the words of one Congolese respondent, the government should;

Consider or answer applications as soon as they come into the country because without status you can not think of integration. We are stuck.

Congolese expressed the most concern about the way in which refugees were treated in Britain. One in ten of the Congolese respondents also said that more rights would improve the lives of refugees and nearly one in three felt that the treatment of refugees was problematic, particularly the suspicion that exists that asylum seekers were not in fact political refugees but were instead economic migrants. Thus, for those without refugee status, the whole issue of status was of primary importance. Not having refugee status was certainly thought to impede settlement.


This paper has shown the way in which immigration policy throughout the 1990s has targeted asylum seekers for differential treatment. The Labour government has continued the trend begun by their Conservative predecessors of limiting access to Britain as a country of asylum, using temporary protection as a mechanism for deterring and preventing permanent settlement, eroding welfare entitlements and failing to revoke the employment regulations that are designed to exclude.

The situation for asylum seekers arriving in the UK is very bleak. They are unable to work and are only entitled to vouchers and 'no choice' accommodation if they are found to be destitute. Asylum seekers coming to the UK lack even the most basic of social and economic citizenship rights and have been singled out as a group that should not be included in society.

The attitudes towards settlement, aspirations for return migration and economic participation were all affected by immigration status. In addition, immigration status was mentioned most often as a barrier to settlement. Having refugee status is crucial for the successful settlement of forced migrants in the UK. Refugee status brings with it a set of rights and security of status and without these rights, forced migrants find it much more difficult to settle and lack an incentive to do so. Refugee status, under the Geneva Convention is a key mechanism for ensuring the rights of forced migrants and in light of this it is important that refugee status is maintained.


1Interview with policy worker at the Refugee Council.

2Interview with policy worker at the Refugee Council.

3See Bloch, (1999b).


An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the 7th International Research and Advisory Panel on Forced Migration, 5-11 January 2001, University of Witwatersrand, Eskom Conference Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa. Financial support was provided by the British Academy.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001