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Last Updated: Friday, 18 July, 2003, 15:24 GMT 16:24 UK
Asylum Day jargon buster

Confusion reigns over many terms used to describe the asylum system and in debates over how well or not it works.

Use the guide below to find out what discretionary leave is, why the phrase illegal immigrant is officially meaningless and why the 1951 Convention is so important.

Either scroll down the page, arranged alphabetically, or use the links below to go direct to the explanation. Within each explanation, definitions for terms in bold can be found elsewhere on the page.

Asylum seeker

Often confused with illegal immigrant or refugee. Generally taken to mean someone who has fled persecution and applied for protection in another country, but use of the term varies around the world.

In UK law, it is defined as someone who has made a formal claim for asylum within the UK and whose claim is being processed.

The United Nations says asylum seekers are people who move across borders in search of protection, but who may not fulfil the strict definition of a refugee laid down by the 1951 Convention, to which the UK is a signatory.

The UN also describes an asylum seeker as someone "who has applied for protection as a refugee and is awaiting the determination of his or her status".

Deportation order

Mainly issued when an asylum claim and subsequent appeal have been rejected.

Anyone subject to a deportation order is required to leave the UK, and can be detained until they are removed. It also prohibits them from re-entering the country for as long as it is in force and invalidates any leave to enter or remain in the UK granted before the order is made or while it is in force.

A deportation order can also be made when the Home Secretary "deems the person's deportation to be conducive to the public good", or where a court has recommended it.

Discretionary leave

A grant of limited leave applied for one of a defined number of reasons. For example, in the case of an unaccompanied asylum seeking child for whom adequate reception arrangements in their country are not available.

Lasts for three years, it can then be extended or permission can be sought to settle permanently.

Alongside humanitarian protection, it replaced exceptional leave to remain in April 2003.

Dispersal scheme

System by which asylum seekers are housed outside London and the south-east, which the government says have accommodated more than their fair share.

Destitute asylum seekers are offered accommodation on a no-choice basis in houses, flats or hostels provided by local councils or private landlords.

Humanitarian protection

A grant of limited leave to stay in the UK for someone refused asylum but who can "demonstrate they have protection needs" - such as risk of the death penalty, unlawful killing and torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Lasts for three years, it can then be extended or permission can be sought to settle permanently.

Alongside discretionary leave, it replaced exceptional leave to remain in April 2003.

Illegal immigrant

Although a term widely used by the media and public, officially it does not exist. It is not defined anywhere in UK law and is not used as a category by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate.

The closest official term is "illegal entrant", which mainly covers people allowed into the UK after deceiving an immigration officer (for example, by lying about the reason for their stay or using false documents), people entering in breach of a deportation order and people entering by clandestine means (for example by hiding themselves in freight lorries).

The 1951 Convention states that countries should not impose penalties on individuals coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened just because they have gained entry illegally.


An all-encompassing term usually taken to mean someone who leaves their native land and goes to another country as a permanent resident (as distinct from a holidaymaker, for example).

Immigration and Nationality Directorate

Department of the Home Office responsible for immigration control at the UK's borders and for assessing asylum applications.

Indefinite leave to remain

Technical term for the permission an asylum seeker needs to be given to settle in the UK permanently.

Economic migrant

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the term migrant refers to someone who makes a conscious, voluntary choice to leave their country of origin. If and when they want to return, they can do so with no obstruction (or worse) from the government of the country to which they are returning.

An economic migrant is someone who leaves their country to seek a more prosperous way of life.

Exceptional leave to remain

A discretionary status now scrapped and replaced by humanitarian protection and discretionary leave. It was granted for various reasons to unsuccessful asylum seekers, mostly on compassionate or humanitarian grounds. The Home Office says its replacements will be applied "more sparingly".


A person who stays in the UK for longer than the period of time they have been granted. If caught, they can be served with a deportation order.

Reception centre

The Immigration and Nationality Department runs a centre at Oakington, near Cambridge, to hold asylum claimants newly arrived in the UK and their families. It "fast-tracks" claims where possible, normally within seven to 10 days.

If an asylum seeker's claim has been turned down, they are held further in another facility or moved under the dispersal scheme while an appeal is processed.


In the UK, the term is used to describe someone who has successfully applied for asylum and been granted indefinite leave to remain.

Internationally the term has huge significance as it forms the benchmark of the 1951 convention, in which article one defines a refugee as: "A person who is outside his/ her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/ her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/ herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution."

Safe third country rule

Asylum claims may be refused if the applicant can be returned to a safe "third country".

For example, a country through which an applicant passed en route to the UK. The third country would then consider the merits of the applicant's claim.

Separately to the third country list, there are 24 countries the UK considers to be generally safe. If nationals from these countries apply for asylum and are refused, they are only allowed to appeal against the decision once they have left the UK.

Those countries are:

  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Estonia
  • Hungary
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Malta
  • Poland
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Albania
  • Bulgaria
  • Jamaica
  • Macedonia
  • Moldova
  • Romania
  • Serbia + Montenegro
  • Brazil
  • Ecuador
  • Bolivia
  • South Africa
  • Ukraine
  • Sri Lanka
  • Bangladesh

1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

A key international legal document, now with 143 signatories, that defines who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states. Drawn up by a special UN conference, a significant provision stipulates that refugees should not be returned to a country where he or she fears persecution.

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