By Alan Travis
Refugees have little, if any choice, over which country they claim asylum in with most only learning they were heading to Britain after they left their home country, according to new research published today.
The Refugee Council report based on in-depth interviews with 43 refugees and asylum seekers also explodes myths about 'benefit tourism' showing that three-quarters had no knowledge of welfare support before coming to the UK.
The study by Professor Heaven Crawley, director of the centre for migration policy research at Swansea University, shows that most asylum seekers often had to leave their home countries within a few days or weeks because they were in fear of their lives. Their primary motivation was to reach a place of safety.
Most were also helped to leave by an external party or agent who made the key decisions about their destination. The research shows that fewer than one-third specifically wanted to come to Britain. Some, including many of those who arrived as children, only found out where they were after arriving in Britain.
For the minority that intended to head towards the UK family and friend connections and a belief that their human rights would be respected were their most important considerations.
Around a third of refugees come from countries that had previously been British colonies or under British adminstration. The single most familiar area of British life to asylum seekers is football with surprisingly few able to speak English when they arrived.
Crawley said that the findings suggested that creating a tougher asylum system and harsher policies would not deter people fleeing persecution and violence in their own countries from coming to Britain.
"Asylum policy making should be based on solid evidence such as that provided in this report rather than unfounded assumptions and misperceptions about the reasons why people come here," she said. "This is the only way to ensure that the system is accessible and as humane as possible for people seeking protection."
Donna Covey of the Refugee Council said that too much of the asylum debate centred on the idea that the UK was the destination of choice for refugees and the notion that people chose to come here because they would have an easier time of it.
"The reality is that asylum seekers are forced to flee for their lives. This report shows that in desperate circumstances most exercise very little choice about how or where they go to escape persecution."
The asylum seekers interviewed included people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran and Zimbabwe.
- Chance or Choice: understanding why asylum seekers come to the UK [PDF] is published by the Refugee Council.