Political Migrants

Many people are forced to migrate because of a war, civil war or state policies which discriminate against particular categories of its citizens or the political opponents of those in power. These people are unable to return home because they have well founded fears of being persecuted and are unlikely to receive any protection from their government. 
A drawing made by a refugee child, former resident in Pristina, depicts his horrific experiences in Kosovo.
A drawing made by a refugee child, former resident in Pristina, depicts his horrific experiences in Kosovo.



A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence.  ‘Asylum seeker’ is a term for someone who has applied to a country for protection as a refugee and is awaiting the determination of his or her status. The right to seek asylum is set out in article 14 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948).  The obligation of states to provide asylum in these circumstances is one of the most important obligations in international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention drew up a binding code of practice among states that meant that refugees would be treated humanely and given protection. The UK is a signatory to this convention.

The majority of people seeking refuge move to a neighbouring country – only a tiny minority of people affected by the crisis manage to migrate to Western countries like the UK, Canada or Australia. This is because of the costs of making such a move. For example, in 2007, over 520,000 refugees fled the conflict in Sudan to neighbouring countries, yet only 265 Sudanese people applied for asylum in the UK  in that year (UNHCR 2007).

How do asylum seekers decide which country to go to? Research  funded by the UK government tried to find out how these decisions are made. Once the person has decided to go further than a neighbouring country (a decision primarily based on financial resources of the family), this research shows that asylum seekers’ decision to come to the UK depended firstly on whether they had family and friends here, the language spoken here, their cultural affinity, and perceptions about the UK acquired from films, music, sport, novels and contact with Britons overseas.



Case studies

Farid Ahmad  
Farid Ahmad was a 16-year-old student at Villiers High School in Southall, West London, UK when he told his story in 2001 as part of a school project which gave refugee children a chance to get together to talk about their experiences.

He is an Afghani refugee from the province of Ningarhar, which lies on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Farid had a happy and peaceful childhood which changed when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979. His father went off to fight in the war against the Russians and went missing. The family eventually found out that he had been killed in the war.

Soon after that, the Taliban gained control of the government in Afghanistan and their regime prevented women from working or studying. Farid's family faced many difficulties in the absence of his father. Farid's older brother left Afghanistan for the UK, in the hope that he could send money home to support his family. When Farid was 15, his mother made arrangements for him to join his brother in England.

"I remember the day when I left my family. I looked at my brothers and sisters and they could all see me crying because we didn't know when we would see each other again. On my way to the UK I faced hundreds of problems. I walked for several hours in deserts, mountain, in dark nights, in forests, rain, cold weather and hunger. I spent many nights without any bed or blanket with very little food to survive on” (BBC News, 2001).

He eventually reached the UK, and gained refugee status. When he wrote his story, Farid did not know where his mother and sisters were.

Adapted from: BBC News (2001) A refugee’s story. 18 October 2001. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/1607320.stm

A local refugee child (not Farid) stands in front of his home, a building filled with approximately 1,000 refugees in Dar Ul Aman, Kabul, Afghanistan, April 8, 2007.
A local refugee child (not Farid) stands in front of his home, a building filled with approximately 1,000 refugees in Dar Ul Aman, Kabul, Afghanistan, April 8, 2007.


United States Air Force, ID 070408-F-3961R-909

Background note on Afghan migration to the UK

Afghanistan has had a history of conflicts since the 1970s. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan was at the centre of a power struggle between the US-backed mujahideen forces and the Soviet-backed Afghan government. Over a million Afghans lost their lives in this conflict. From the 1990s, there has been a civil war which led to the rise of Taliban government. The US-led invasion in 2001 has created the present phase of insecurity in that region.

These successive conflicts have resulted in high levels of instability and poverty, and have led to many Afghans becoming refugees. Most Afghan refugees live in the neighbouring Pakistan. In 2013, according to the UNHCR, some 2.7 million Afghans continue to live in exile in neighbouring countries. UNHCR estimates that as of mid-2012, some 425,000 Afghans were internally displaced.

The Nato-led troops are due to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. As rival groups including the Taliban attempt to wrest control from the US-backed Afghan government, the levels of violence remain extremely high.

BBC News Asian Profile on Afghanistan. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12024253

Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam

Maya (also known as MIA) was born in London to Tamil Sri Lankan parents. When she was 6 months old, her family moved to Jaffna, a town in Northern Sri Lanka and settled there. Her father became a political activist and set up a group to address the discrimination against Tamils, but was forced to go into hiding from the Sri Lankan army.

During the first eleven years of her life, Maya had little contact with her father. She remembers happy days from her childhood spent playing with her cousins and her brother and sister. But her family also suffered at the hands of the Sri Lankan army who were looking for her father - the soldiers would beat her mother in front of the children. The family spent periods of their life in deep poverty. They sought refuge in neighbouring India, and eventually, with the help of money collected by their friends managed to come to the UK a week before Maya’s 11th birthday.

On her first day at school, her class were working through a sum and Maya put her hand up, because she knew the answer. "And literally the whole class turned round and laughed at me," she remembered. The teacher patted her on the head and told her she didn't have to pretend. But she did know the answer – she just couldn't speak English. She didn't have the words to tell them (Sawyer, 2010).

Today MIA is a self-taught rapper, songwriter and producer and has been nominated for two Grammy awards. Drawing upon her childhood experiences, MIA supports the cause of oppressed people around the world.

M.I.A. (Maya), a rap artist and a refugee from Sri Lanka performing at the Siren festival in 2007.
M.I.A. (Maya), a rap artist and a refugee from Sri Lanka performing at the Siren festival in 2007.


Taken by flickr user j. appleseed

Background note on Sri Lankan migration to the UK

During the 1960s and 70s, small numbers of professionals emigrated to the UK from Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon till 1972), and found work in the NHS and other white-collar occupations. These early migrants came from affluent backgrounds, were well-educated and have become established in British society.

The next distinctive phase of Sri Lankan migration to the UK occurred from the 1980s onwards, during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Following independence from British colonial rule in 1948, the Tamil population experienced discrimination by successive majority Sinhalese governments. The Sri Lankan civil war (1983-2009) was a conflict that began in 1983 when Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers) demanded a separate state in the north east of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans sought refuge in neighbouring India during that time as well as seeking asylum in Europe, especially Germany, France and the UK, and in the USA and Canada.



Kamila came to England from Slovakia in 2003. She remembers: “I was 14 years old and came here with my parents. My mum, she is from the Roma community but my dad is not. The Roma community are quite close, like my grandmother, my mum, my aunties, my cousins and uncles, were already living here. My mum felt the need for us to have education so that is why she decided it would be better for us to be here.”

“We were probably the last family to move, and moved because of the racism and prejudice in our country, because we are Roma.  My family could not find a job.  It is different because you are Roma. When I was in school, I never had any problems but my brother and sister did, because you can tell they are Roma.  I look like my dad. They are darker skinned. You could see the difference with the teachers - how they behaved towards my brother was different to how they behaved towards me.”

“It was actually really hard because I was finishing high school. When we left home, I was applying for college.  I did the test ... and just the week after that, my parents told me we were moving to England.   So it was disappointing. At first when we came, I was happy to see my family, but it was a different culture, a different language.”

Today Kamila is settled in England and has her own family here. "I have been working here for two years now.  I am working with the Roma children, trying to find them school places."

Moss, D. (2013) Case Studies: Childhood and immigration to the UK: Social change and social justice', Leeds Metropolitan University, Unpublished Research.

Roma children playing in Slovakia in 2007.
Roma children playing in Slovakia in 2007.


Ing.Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Background note on Roma migration to the UK

Roma population in Europe is estimated to be between eight to 12 million, with the greatest numbers in Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia. Accurate population estimations are difficult to make because of infrequent data collection, the mobility of the Roma, and their reluctance to register as "Roma" in the population census for fear of being stigmatized.

Roma have historically been marginalized in every European country where they have settled. Romas lack equal access to government services and health care, good-quality housing and schools, and suffer from high rates of unemployment and discrimination in the labour market. 70 percent of Roma in Slovakia and 85 percent in the Czech Republic are unemployed. Between 1997 and 2005, approximately 12,000 to 15,000 Roma left Eastern Europe for the UK, Switzerland, Norway, and Canada to escape discrimination and to improve their socioeconomic position.

Amnesty International (2009) Europe's Roma community still facing massive discrimination. Amnesty International. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2009/04/europe039s-roma-community-still-facing-massive-discrimination-20/