Overwhelmingly politicians and the mainstream media present asylum seekers as an economic burden and not really in need of asylum at all. This is evident in the idea that asylum seekers are somehow ‘bogus’ or ‘illegal’.1 Technically there can be no such thing as a bogus or illegal asylum seeker as in the UK ‘asylum seeker’ refers to anyone who arrives claiming to be a refugee and is waiting for an official decision on if they will be allowed to stay as official refugees.2 While we may hear people talking about asylum seekers and how they should be treated, what we don’t tend to hear is asylum seekers talking about their own experiences, why they are in the UK and what their hopes for the future are. To address this imbalance my colleagues and I worked with partners in a refugee support centre to speak to asylum seekers about their own experiences. What we found painted a bleak and upsetting picture of the lives of asylum seekers living in the UK. It also challenged prevalent ideas that asylum seekers are just out for financial gain and that they somehow want to harm the UK. We saw that the people we spoke to had suffered serious traumas, often experiencing the murder of their parents, rape and conflict.
To conduct our research we recruited asylum seekers who were being supported by a local refugee support centre. Our participants were from a range of countries, including Afghanistan, Angola, Mauritius and Ethiopia and their age ranged from late 20s to early 40s. Everyone that we spoke to was either waiting for a decision on their asylum claim or had already been refused refugee status and was appealing this decision. One-to-one interviews were conducted with the asylum seekers in the summer of 2012. When we analysed the interviews we found that the same key topics were commonly discussed. These were: safety, problems with the Home Office, negative emotional effects of asylum seeking and their hopes for the future.
Safety: 'I don't want to return back to my country because they will kill me'
It’s perhaps no surprise that people who had fled terrible conditions in the countries they were born in and who are now living in the UK told us that safety was their main concern. In one harrowing example, an asylum seeker said 'I don't want to return back to my country because they will kill me. Before they send me to my country better I kill myself here I don't want to be returned back to my country'. Another told us 'I cannot go back because I face death how can I go?' The asylum seekers were clearly experiencing severe difficulties in the UK, but these were still contrasted favourably with having to return home: 'I like [a] safe country you know I don't see any problem like this it's better for me even I sleep outside no [one will] kill me no [one] makes problems'. This is a far cry from the notion of the economic migrant that asylum seekers are often presented as.
Problems with the Home Office: 'They do anything to kick you out of the country'
A common complaint of the asylum seekers we spoke to was that the Home Office, whose job it is to process asylum applicants and to make decisions about whether or not they are granted refugee status, dealt unfairly with applicants. Asylum seekers claimed to be treated inhumanely by the Home Office and they felt that they had no control over their lives as the Home Office was seen as dominating and controlling them by deciding their fate. In addition the need for regular reporting to immigration centres, often far from where the asylum seekers lived, could make life very difficult for them. For example one participant said that 'they’ve got a specific time you have to come if they saying you have to come at 11 o' clock you have to be there at 11 o'clock. If you try to make the excuse they won't bother to take your excuses, you see and they forget that having this little one and going there to report is not easy. Others were more critical still, with one claiming to have been treated ‘like an animal’. There was also the suggestion that the Home Office were operating in a way that wasn’t based on fairness or offering safety, but to ensure that applicants are turned down, so one participant said 'because this Home Office they do anything to kick you out of the country'. This complaint is in line with what has been described as the ‘culture of disbelief’ in the Home Office.3
Emotional effects: 'I am so stressed and have so many headaches'
The experience of seeking asylum had clearly taken its toll on our participants, with many of them describing states of depression, anxiety and stress. Some of this stress was attributed to the way they were treated by the Home Office, for example one said 'I'm just staying indoors not going anywhere...because I'm [in] this situation with this Home Office my life is just like sticking', For the same reason another described feeling like a prisoner. A particularly harrowing example was given by a female asylum seeker who said that 'I am so stressed and have so many headaches. I would really prefer to kill myself because my life is bad and I cannot go back there'. Others described having nowhere to live and were moving between friends’ houses to avoid sleeping rough, for example saying: 'I don’t need so many things but if I had somewhere to sleep it would be better even if I take my medicine I would have somewhere to relax as when I take my medicine I feel like I need to relax'.
Hopes for the future: 'Work like everybody ... pay your own taxes'
We also asked the asylum seekers that we spoke to what their hopes for the future were. The first thing that they hoped for, perhaps unsurprisingly, was to be given official refugee status so that they would be free to remain living in the UK. This was presented as the key aim for them and as something that would overcome all the problems that have been described for far. One person said for example 'I want to become British ... then my mind will be at peace'. Being allowed to stay was presented as the only way that asylum seekers could achieve their main aim of being truly safe.
The next set of hopes that the asylum seekers presented were striking in how normal they were. The people that we spoke to generally had very ordinary hopes for the future that would have been typical for many British born people of a similar age. They spoke of wanting to get married and settle down with a family; sadly many of them had lost contact with their families back home or knew that they had been killed. Contrary to the idea that asylum seekers are in the UK to ‘sponge off the state’ many participants spoke of their desire to work, being surprised and frustrated at not being allowed to work as asylum seekers, and also spoke of wanting to be able to make their own contribution in the form of taxes. One participant told us that he wanted to 'Work like everybody normally work, pay your own taxes'.
Challenging our understanding of asylum seekers 'I like British people... they're kind they're good to us'
What our analysis demonstrated is that asylum seekers have fled from some terrible situations in their home countries. Once they reach the UK, far from having an easy ride, they find themselves struggling again because they are unable to work, lack secure accommodation, and feel dominated by the Home Office. Together this leads to them having a range of mental health problems. What is perhaps most striking about the accounts of these asylum seekers are how far they differ from the way in which this group is presented in the public sphere. The asylum speakers we spoke to were generally fond of the UK and its residents, with one saying 'I like British people... they're kind they're good to us'. They also claimed to like British culture, citing a full range of examples from local galleries to nightclubs and the football teams they supported. This, along with a desire to pay their own way and to contribute to British society is in stark contrast to the common media representations of asylum seekers as being unwilling to integrate and as being scroungers. We could not find any evidence to support the ‘clash of civilisations’ idea that tends to falsely associate asylum seekers with terrorists or as people who intend to harm a country that they have no respect for.
On the basis of our findings we would like to challenge the prevailing idea that asylum seekers go to the UK for financial benefit because they are not really fleeing danger. For the asylum seekers that we spoke to, at least, their safety was the most important thing and the threat of being sent back to their home countries was terrifying. We would like to argue for a shift in talk about asylum seeking away from seeing them as a threat or a burden towards seeing them as people that the UK can help and that can contribute to the UK in a number of ways. We argue that the ‘culture of disbelief’ in which it is assumed that asylum seekers are lying and should be denied refugee status must be changed so that a culture of humanitarianism, support and fairness can replace it.
This article is part of NLP's Immigration series
Dr Simon Goodman4 is a senior lecturer in psychology at Coventry University. This research was funded by the Richard Benjamin Trust5 and was conducted with Dr Helen Liebling6, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Coventry University, and Shani Burke7, a research assistant who is now a PhD student at Loughborough University.
1 Goodman, S and Speer, SA (2007) Category Use in the Construction of Asylum Seekers. Critical Discourse Studies, 4(2) 165-185
2 United Nations High Commission for Refugees. (2003). Public information, UK.
3 Souter, J. (2011), ''A culture of disbelief or denial? Critiquing refugee status determination in the United Kingdom'', Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, 1 48-59