Refugees and violenceExplosive violence and victim rights

The Refugee Explosion – Case study: the UK

This article is part of AOAV’s report, The Refugee Explosion. The whole report can be found here. Whilst the report introduction and methodology can be seen here. The key findings can be viewed here. The report overview of explosive violence and refugees can be read here, as well as on refugee destinations, here, asylum law in Europe, here, and political and economic developments, here.  AOAV’s country findings for Germany and Greece can be found here, and here, respectively. For the report’s overall findings please click here, or for AOAV’s resulting recommendations here. To read some of the interviews from refugees AOAV spoke to please see here.

AOAV identified three countries that have presented very different reactions to the crisis, as well as situations for the refugees and asylum seekers that inhabit their borders. AOAV sent field researchers to investigate how each country is responding to the refugee crisis. Refugees and asylum seekers in Greece, Germany and the UK were interviewed about their experiences in the host country as well as their reasons for seeking refuge. In total, over 250 filled in a questionnaire on such issues across the three countries.

Below are AOAV’s findings from the UK.


According to Home Office data, there were 30,603 applications for asylum in the UK in 2016. Since 2011, such asylum applications have increased by 54%. Compared to the previous year (2015), however, 2016’s figures represent a decrease of 7%, and a substantive decrease from the highs of 1999 to 2002. 2002, for instance, saw 84,132 applications for asylum.

8,466 people saw their asylum applications granted in the UK in 2016, with an average acceptance rate of 34%. Whilst asylum acceptance rates had been increasing in the last five years – with a rise to 41% of all cases in 2014 – 2016 marked a return to the lower levels seen in 2011.

Countries of origin

In 2016, there were 1,859 decisions made on Syrian applications; of these, 86% (1,591) were granted. Throughout the entire EU the recognition rate of Syrian refugees was 96% in 2015.99

In 2015, only 20% of Iraqis seeking asylum in the UK were allowed to do so, with 216 being granted protection. The overall EU recognition rate for Iraqi refugees was 85%. In 2016, UK acceptance levels sunk lower, with just 12% of decisions on applications from Iraqis being granted. Though the levels of explosive violence decreased in 2015, civilian deaths and injuries from such violence were still so severe that Iraq was still the third-most impacted state by explosive violence in the world that year.

On the other hand, there were 346 asylum applications granted to Albanians in 2015 – 24% of all asylum decisions for Albanian applicants. This is not to say that the Albanians granted asylum were undeserving, but to question as to why the levels of Iraqis being granted asylum was lower, given the greater threat explosive violence plays in Iraq.

Daily Mail cartoon by Mac



Some of the UK’s most popular newspapers have been regularly accused of virulent anti-refugee sentiment, and are linked with the rise of anti-immigration sentiment across the UK. The most popular perpetrators of such rhetoric are the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun.

Between September 2015 and September 2016, the Daily Express had 62 front page news stories of their print edition on immigration, whilst the Daily Mail had 60, and the Sun, 23.

Working then as a columnist in the Sun, Katie Hopkins, has described refugees as a ‘plague’, ‘feral’, and


‘cockroaches’, amongst other slurs. Her column also advocated threatening refugees with violence and using gunboats to stop them crossing the Mediterranean. The column was condemned as inciting racial hatred, and the UN Human Rights Chief encouraged the UK to take steps to ‘curb incitement to hatred by British tabloid newspapers’.


Hopkin’s language has been compared to that used in the run up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and in Nazi propaganda. The Daily Mail has also provoked complaints for its portrayal of refugees. In a cartoon, published in the Mail in November 2015, rats were depicted along-side armed men crossing across the ‘open borders’ of Europe. Many have drawn parallels between that image and those that were used rats to represent Jews in Nazi propaganda.

These examples are extreme but the fact that such papers feel they can, and should, publish such hatred is problematic. The figure below, highlights some of the more prevalent news stories on immigration in these papers. What is particularly concerning is the conflation between refugees and economic migrants. Those who are anti-immigrant in the UK rarely refer to refugees as refugees, instead preferring to call them migrants so no distinction is made between those fleeing because of war, persecution or humanitarian reasons and those seeking a better life. As Katie Hopkins recently wrote in the Daily Mail: “I don’t care if you want to call them migrants, refugees or asylum seekers. All semantics to me.”

Composition by Liz Gerard from SubScribe,

Such rhetoric is not only prevalent in the tabloid press, but is also becoming increasingly common in politics, with politicians, particularly from the far-right party United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), drawing on such expressions. UKIP’s former leader, Nigel Farage, notoriously campaigned in front of a poster showing a long queue of refugees, claiming that the UK was at ‘breaking point’.

Much of the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum was fuelled by such anti-immigrant sentiment. A key motivator for Leave voters was ‘for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders’.

Since the decision to leave the EU was made, there has been a rise in racism and hate incidences; in some areas this has been by as much as 100%.

This violence has been targeted both at European and non-European immigrants. The latest political development in regard to the refugee crisis in Europe has seen the UK government terminate its efforts under the Dubs agreement. The Dubs agreement was meant to see the UK commit to resettling 3,000 unaccompanied minors in the UK – instead the UK is taking 350.

Conservative MP, Pauline Latham argued that it was not Britain’s responsibility to take in refugees and that it is not the UK’s fault if refugee children live in unsafe and inhumane condition elsewhere in Europe and the UK does not intervene.

Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, called the scheme a magnet for people traffickers and an incentive for migrants.


The UK Home Office currently operates three refugee resettlement programmes through the UNHCR:

  • The Gateway Protection Programme for refugees with pressing humanitarian or security needs and those unable to return to their countries of origin or integrate locally (quota of 750 people per year);
  • The Mandate Refugee Scheme for refugees with close ties to the UK (just eight arrived under this route last year);
  • The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme for Syrian nationals currently living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt or Iraq with specific vulnerabilities (quota of 20,000 people over five years 2015 – 2020 – in the first two years 5,706 were received).

Most asylum procedure occurs through asylum claims. In the UK, the guiding principles and obligations under the Refugee Convention are laid out in a document titled ‘UK Asylum Policy Instruction: Assessing Credibility and Refugee Status.’ A separate document outlines the UK’s ‘Guidelines on Humanitarian Protection’.

A view of Calais Jungle, July 2016, /photos/67570481@N04/24369972720/ malachybrowne.

The UK’s guidelines on assessing credibility and refugee status, are based upon three areas of relevant legislation: the 1951 Refugee Convention, the EU’s Asylum Directives, and part 11 of the UK Immigration Rules. The Guidelines on HP detail the specific nature of ‘serious harm’ and ‘indiscriminate violence’ which may be faced in the applicant’s country of origin. The guidelines ask caseworkers to take into account ‘general levels of violence and other severe humanitarian conditions’ when deciding whether to grant humanitarian protection, specifying situations in which ‘civilians are at real risk of random injury or death… for example, by indiscriminate shelling or bombing of civilian areas.’ Decision makers should consider additional factors such as whether ‘hospitals are coming under fire’; whether conflict has caused ‘dire humanitarian conditions’; or instances in which parties to the conflict are using ‘indiscriminate methods of warfare in densely populated urban areas, with no regard for the safety of the civilian population.’

Caseworkers must also consider if internal relocation (within the country of origin) is a possibility. This requires full consideration of the situation in the country of origin.

The UK’s asylum regulations also state that caseworkers must provide a safe and open environment to facilitate the disclosure of information, and must assess the claimant’s oral testimony and written evidence, against the background of detailed information about the situation in the origin country. A successful application is said to require a relatively low standard of proof, with caseworkers told to assess to what extent the evidence presented can be considered accurate to a ‘reasonable degree of likelihood.’

Despite this, many refugees interviewed in the UK still reported to AOAV that the process felt like an interrogation, in which they felt dehumanised and where they were treated with rudeness and aggressiveness – they expressed concern for those going through the process who were vulnerable.

Country of Origin Information and explosive violence in UK Law

According to government procedures, Country Guidance (CG) can be used by case owners to gauge the level of explosive violence in origin countries. However, CG reports can be unreliable and difficult to use. CG reports on the security situation of a particular country is generally only used when an asylum seeker does not qualify for asylum under the Refugee Convention, or the ECHR.

If claims are successful under these avenues then it is highly likely that the success of the claims was not based on the level of explosive violence in a country but rather on the ‘individual threat’ of persecution faced by the applicant in their country of origin.

If claims are not successful under these avenues, then civilians may be successful under Article 15(c) of the Qualification Directive, which allows asylum applicants, if successful, to be granted subsidiary protection.

The UK Upper Tribunal (UKUT) has stated that the Article 15(c) definition of indiscriminate violence encompasses bombings (or shootings) in which populated areas are targeted or where civilian casualties are likely to result, as being ‘collateral’.

In assessing whether country violence is enough to pose indiscriminate risk to civilians, certain criteria has been adopted. This includes whether the warfare used: targets civilians, or increased the risk of such casualties, how common this warfare is amongst the parties to the conflict, whether fighting was localised or widespread, and the number of civilians killed, injured, or displaced.

For example, the UK appears to recognise the threat of indiscriminate violence, including explosive weapons, faced in Iraq as part of their Country Guidance on asylum applications for Iraqi nationals. The Country Guidance in [2015] UKUT 00544 highlights the risk of indiscriminate violence in ‘certain parts of Iraq’, and specifically lists the governorates of Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewah, and Salah Al-din. The document further expresses that: ‘there are substantial grounds for believing that any civilian returned there, solely on account of his or her presence there, faces a real risk of being subjected to indiscriminate violence amounting to serious harm within the scope of Article 15(c) of the Qualification Directive.’ Since this CG report was given however, the UK has recorded a decrease in harm in Diyala, Kirkuk and Salal Al-din so they no longer reach the threshold to invoke Article 15(c).

The guidance also highlights harm in ‘parts of the “Baghdad belts”’, though this largely ignores the fact that over half of all civilian deaths and injuries from explosive violence recorded throughout Iraq in 2015 took place in Baghdad city. The guidance goes so far as to say that the ‘degree of armed conflict in the remainder of Iraq (including Baghdad City) is not such as to give rise to indiscriminate violence amounting to such serious harm to civilians, irrespective of their individual characteristics, so as to engage Article 15(c).’ The guidance further states that Iraqi nationals  – or at least the individual subject of the case referred to – could relocate to Baghdad City.

According to the Home Offices’ own data, the levels of fatalities and injuries in Baghdad are significantly higher than in the contested areas.

Furthermore, whilst most of the violence in the contested areas is carried out through shooting – a more targeted form of killing – the majority in Baghdad are caused by explosive weapons, most significantly, IEDs – which are far more indiscriminate and kill or injured fare more people with each incident.

When examining the situation in Baghdad City in more detail, the Country Report finds that given the large population in Baghdad City, the proportional level of civilian deaths and injuries are not indicative of sufficient indiscriminate violence so as to engage Article 15(c). The country report does, however, recommend that a Baghdad City resident wishing to avoid such violence could avoid ‘busy public places’, as these are one of the primary targets for attacks. From AOAV’s research, these ‘busy public areas’ are the ones that are most impacted by explosive violence in Baghdad City, and include markets, shops, restaurants/cafes, checkpoints, mosques and residential areas – they are also areas that are generally considered necessary places to visit in order to conduct a normal life.

To this end, it appears highly likely that levels of explosive violence faced by an asylum seeker back in their home country are not given enough weight in the UK’s consideration of indiscriminate violence. Particularly, at least in the case of Iraq, the UK government does ‘not find that the level of violence in Baghdad city, or in Baghdad governorate as a whole, comes even close to crossing the Article 15(c) threshold.’  Of the 7,756 killed and injured by explosive violence in Iraq in 2015, 65% (5,047) were civilians. 54% of civilian deaths and injuries occurred in Baghdad City. As such, there appears to be sufficient evidence to suggest that civilians in Baghdad face enough of a risk of serious harm so as to engage Article 15(c).

Furthermore, the UNHCR advises that it would not be appropriate for States ‘to deny persons from Iraq international protection on the basis of applicability of an internal flight alternative or relocation alternative.’

In comparison, the CG report for case owners on Yemen recognises that the use of indiscriminate violence is ‘likely to be at such a level that substantial grounds exist for believing that a person, solely by being present there, faces a real risk of harm which threatens their life or person.’

Internal relocation is also not seen as a viable option, despite the huge levels of IDPs across Yemen. Yemenis, it should be noted, seldom seek refuge in the UK. What is significant about the UK’s CG report on Yemen is that it refers to the harm caused not only by non-state actors, but also from the use of cluster bombs and airstrikes on civilian areas, as part of the indiscriminate violence faced by civilians. Airstrikes and cluster bombs are perpetrated by the Saudi-led coalition, whom the UK government not only assist with intelligence but also provide weaponry to, including cluster bombs.

AOAV has found that 85% of the civilians killed and injured in airstrikes in Yemen, throughout 2015 and 2016, were in populated areas, such as schools, homes, markets, and hospitals. In 2015, Yemen saw more civilian deaths and injuries from air-dropped bombs than anywhere else in the world. UK supplied weapons have even been found at the sites of unlawful attacks.

It is also worth noting that, in general, asylum seekers in the UK are entitled to free legal support but as there is a ‘serious shortage of providers’, likely due to the poor pay for such work, meaning that those that do provide this service are often over-stretched. This has meant that some asylum seekers face significant difficulties finding a solicitor that will take on their case.


All refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to free access to healthcare and free or concessionary transport to help them attend appointments. Those with healthcare needs should also be provided with suitable housing by local authorities – this is not always the case.

In October 2016, the UK government decided not to appeal against a decision that meant disabled refugees could access disability support in the UK, lifting a two-year restriction on accessing such support, after a court found this to be discriminatory.

However, the government has been refusing to consider applications under the resettlement scheme from people with disabilities since January 2017. In February 2017, it was revealed that the UK has stopped accepting disabled child refugees, as they believe that the UK cannot cope with their needs.

Given that most refugees are fleeing explosive violence and explosive violence is a major cause of disability, this decision is a heavy blow to those minors seeking to flee violence. It has also been reported by the Refugee Council that ‘there is an urgent need for accessible accommodation’ for refugees. A more general issue with refugee housing was also reported by those AOAV spoke to in the UK.

Depression and PTSD are considered disabilities, and counselling and mental healthcare should also be provided for free to disabled refugees. However, there is often deep stigmatisation around mental health in many refugee communities, as confirmed by many of the refugees AOAV talked to.

Possibly partly because of this, very few of the refugees AOAV spoke to were offered psychological support. One even suggested that due to the ill treatment encountered during the rest of the asylum process, they would be unlikely to accept anything offered by the government, unless there would be assurance that the support offered would be conducted by someone with similar experiences. This was due to the considerable lack of empathy he had previously witnessed.

UK’s refugees are also likely to experience language barriers when seeking assistance at all levels. This can be particularly detrimental for medical assistance due to the specific nature of the language alongside any cultural barriers on physical and mental health.


In the UK, refugees and asylum seekers completed 51 questionnaires. AOAV faced difficulties in reaching out to asylum seekers in the UK, as they are far more dispersed and in smaller numbers than in Greece or Germany. The UK also saw a wider range of country or origins from those talked to. Of the 51 refugees and asylum seekers AOAV spoke to 27 were from Syria, four from Pakistan, three from Afghanistan and Iraq, two from Eritrea, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Nigeria and Iran, and one from Mali and India.

Experience of explosive violence

76% of the refugees and asylum seekers who answered the questionnaire had witnessed explosive violence in their country of origin. 59% had witnessed airstrikes, 63% had witnessed shelling, and 51% had witnessed IED attacks.

Those from Syria accounted for 53% of respondents. Of those from Syria, 93% had witnessed explosive violence.

59% of those refugees from Syria told AOAV that their home had been destroyed. Others reported looting, or their homes having been taken over by one of the rebel groups operating in Syria.

59% said they were directly impacted by the explosive violence they witnessed. Many had family members killed or severely injured, or were injured themselves.

Reasons for fleeing

When respondents in the UK were asked why they fled their country of origin, 24% said they fled due to war. Another 24% cited safety as their main reason.

Of those from Syria, the numbers were largely the same: 19% cited war and 37% cited safety. Other reasons included political persecution.


18% of the respondents said they had been offered psychological support. Of those from Syria this was 15%.

One respondent told AOAV that they had been offered psychological support but this was due to domestic violence suffered in their home country. The respondent also explained to AOAV that though she was offered psychological support it was very hard for her to take-up the offer as she had to travel to London if she wished to receive the support offered – she lives in Brighton and said she could not afford the expense or time whilst looking after her toddler. Another who had been offered support due to the torture they suffered, reported that their costs for travel to receive support were not covered.


It was clear from AOAV’s research that one of the main hindrances to someone seeking refuge from explosive violence in the UK is the application of the law. Whilst explosive violence in the country of origin is considered from those fleeing such countries worst impacted by explosive violence, such consideration lacks consistency and logical explanation. The evidence provided in the country of origin advice was often contradictory to the advice given, as shown. Furthermore, whilst the information is said to rely on expert findings, the advice of UNHCR experts was often ignored.

This shows a failure to adequately address the consequences of explosive violence under the UK’s asylum law, despite a strong recognition of the role such violence plays in an asylum seekers decision to leave their home.

Not only was the law itself confused but the asylum process itself was reported to be traumatic – a place where empathy was rarely shown and where those trying to navigate the process felt dehumanised. Many of the respondents spoke English fairly well and were not otherwise vulnerable, but they expressed particular concern for others that were vulnerable who would have to navigate the same process.

The UK’s media and political voice also present difficulties for those fleeing explosive violence. Again, there is the same pattern of dehumanisation and a lack of empathy. That the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) felt this was an area to comment on in their report on the UK shows the gravity of the problem. Such sentiments should be better addressed, particularly when such opinions seem to be giving rise to an increase in hate crime and racism.

The UK’s failures at a national level reflect their inaction at a regional level. In comparison to some other European leaders, the UK is doing little in the face of the refugee crisis, with the apparent hope to do even less. The UK must join those other leaders in Europe trying to make at least some attempts to fairly address the refugee crisis– fairness for both the countries currently under the most strain and the refugees.