Life in Limbo: The realities of being a Refugee in the UK

20 June 2017

You finally made it. It could be months or even years since you were forced to flee your home country, for fear of conflict, persecution, torture or death.  You may not have seen your family or friends since you set off on a journey for a better life, you may feel isolated and afraid. You may have been at the mercy of people smugglers and risked your life on perilous journeys by land and sea. Many making the treacherous journey will die in transit but you have finally arrived at your destination – the United Kingdom.

Now what?

According to Home Office statistics, around 38,000 individuals claimed asylum in the UK in 2016.  33,000 asylum applications were pending at the end of 2016, with over 8,500 being undecided for more than six months. Each case represents a person living in limbo, trying to find their feet in a new environment with an uncertain future.

Refugees and asylum seekers face many disadvantages on arrival in the UK, in overcoming barriers to accessing public services and experiencing a range of problems based on their immigration status. The reality of life in Britain can be a far cry from the land of opportunity which they imagined.

Immigration status

Immigration status and awaiting the outcome of an asylum claim, permeates all aspects of an asylum seeker’s life.  Decisions can take between 2 months to 6 years and in that time their life is put on hold. Long waits and a lack of information create anxiety and distress which inhibits their ability to begin building a new life here. The process of making an asylum claim can be complex and stressful, particularly for children and young people. Many do not understand how the system operates, face language barriers and can find themselves confused and in constant fear of removal from the UK.

Even when asylum is granted, only an initial period of 5 years' leave is given. The new Home Office policy of ‘safe return reviews’ will assess whether it is safe for the individual to be returned to their country of origin after this time. This policy which has been described as ‘beyond basic morality’ by leading refugee organisations and means that refugees can no longer assume they will automatically qualify for settlement. This makes it harder to find work, education or to settle in a community. For refugees fleeing because of domestic violence or FGM, it is particularly hard to prove such risks still exist and they face the prospect of being detained and removed from their new life in the UK.


Asylum seekers and refugees have widely differing experiences and expectation of health services. People with an outstanding application for refuge are entitled to NHS services without charge but accessing primary health care can be difficult as they may not know their entitlements. 

Communication is also a barrier to access. Many GP surgeries do not offer interpreting and the different cultural attitudes to health care can make discussing problems difficult.  There is a strong link between physical, mental and emotional health and many refugees have complex needs due to their particular circumstances. The cumulative effect of poverty, malnutrition and poor housing conditions on health and wellbeing also cannot be underestimated.


A major challenge for newly arrived asylum seekers is the policy of dispersal. This is when they are relocated to so-called ‘dispersal’ towns anywhere in the UK, to alleviate pressure on local councils in immigration hot spots such as Dover and London. Asylum seekers may have friends and/or family in the UK and relocation deprives them of the support system offered by these networks. 

Accommodation for asylum seekers is offered on a no-choice basis. Earlier this year the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee called for a major overhaul of the system for housing destitute asylum seekers after hearing of families living in ‘rat-infested conditions’ in unsafe accommodation. Asylum housing is overwhelmingly concentrated in the most deprived areas of the country thus contributing to problems with community cohesion.

Once granted refugee status, the elation of acceptance quickly evaporates as individuals are given 28 days to secure accommodation before facing eviction from their temporary homes. This ‘move on’ period is illogically short and delays in Home Office paperwork leave many refugees homeless and destitute less than a month after being given asylum.


Asylum seekers are not normally allowed to work in the UK while their applications are considered, except in very limited circumstances.  If someone has waited over a year for an initial decision on their asylum application they may request permission to work but in practice, the restrictions on the types of work they can do mean very few asylum seekers can access employment this way. This assumes detailed knowledge of UK immigration procedures, entitlements and benefits which most people in this position do not have. Finding work is a major concern as it offers a purpose, sense of self-respect and a way of planning for the future.

Once refugees have the right to work there remain barriers to obtaining employment.  Unfamiliarity with UK workplace culture, employer attitudes, lack of work experience and poor language skills can limit work opportunities. Integrating refugees into the job market quickly has huge economic benefits and this untapped potential, especially in highly skilled refugees, is not being realised.


Being a refugee is not a choice. It is the absence of choice. The current anti-migrant rhetoric in the media leads to misunderstanding and stigma around refugees and their role in society. The dehumanising language used by politicians and journalists ignores the fact that they are in the UK for safety, not for financial gain. Starting a new life here is a complex challenge; the issues explored in this article identify only some of the potential difficulties faced by new arrivals. Refugee Week offers an opportunity to try to understand what it really means to be a refugee. A fresh perspective is needed to overcome the negative stereotyping and prejudices presented in the press and truly foster integration into a society that respects everyone equally. 

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