To further progress in our mission to serve, accompany, and advocate, JRS has launched a new group named Refugees Call for Change. The group is an open space were our refugee friends gather and discuss voluntarily the problems and experiences they are facing within the UK’s asylum system. It could also be a space just to listen and gain some advice. The group’s aim is for their voices to be heard so that others can have an idea about what is life like as an asylum seeker in the UK. This will be done through a series of blogs and articles.
The UK is a hostile environment for asylum seekers. That’s not an accident. Home Office policies deliberately set out to frustrate asylum seekers so that they leave the United Kingdom. The ex-Prime Minister Theresa May mentioned in 2012 ‘The aim is to create here in Britain a hostile environment for illegal migration’. These policies can have a severe impact on one’s mental health and can continue to have an effect on you in the long-run, even after a refugee has been granted refugee status.
First, it’s important to understand that the asylum determination system is unfair: within the Home Office, there is a culture of disbelieving people, so they always think that refugees are not telling the truth. According to Amelia Hill, Home Office caseworkers may be biased and insufficiently trained to handle asylum cases. This event could mean that caseworkers will be making a decision about a country they know nothing about. A case that went to the supreme court gives an example of how the Home Office was about to deport two homosexual refugees back to Iran and Cameroon although both countries are known to be intolerant of homosexuality. Another issue refugees face is the need to have a solicitor to help you navigate the asylum system, but it can also be very hard to get one, especially with the cuts made to legal aid. Ultimately, the consequence is that refugees are forced to struggle in the asylum system for a long period of time, and all this has to be done within a hostile landscape.
There are many layers to the hostile environment. Crucially, you are not allowed to work, so most refugees cannot afford their basic needs to live. If one is found to be working then they face receiving a criminal record, and this would make it more difficult for him/her to receive refugee status as the Home Office could use that against them. Also being barred from work can have detrimental effects on a person’s physical and mental health. Ernest Zhanaev mentions that unemployment is one of the main factors that lead to poor mental health within refugees. It also means that you are financially excluded. Once you’ve been refused asylum, you don’t receive any financial support from the government either, so you can end up homeless. An incident happened in 2019 where the Home Office changed the locks of many failed refugees and forced them into destitution. Many of these refugees are elderly, frail and have poor mental health and many of them do not know their rights in the United Kingdom (see Scottish Housing News, 2019 for further details). Trying to find somewhere to live/ even if you get home office accommodation, you’re always moving from one place to another and this can make you feel particularly vulnerable. To make matters worse, it is difficult to access services you need, like education, healthcare, and bank accounts, either because you simply aren’t allowed to, or because you have to pay for them.
While all this is going on, you have to report to the Home Office at regular intervals. This limits where you can go and what you can do – you have to be near the Home Office at prescribed times. Reporting is also stressful on another level because refugees could be detained. This can make one feel that reporting is a trap. For example, sometimes, at the reporting center officials can ask questions in an attempt to mislead a person into saying something wrong. There was a report that mentioned a couple of incidents where Zimbabwean refugees were asked to report and have gotten surprised to find members from their own government present and prepared to question them about the reasons they are claiming protection. What if you are detained? Being held in detention is an awful experience, and people can be held for many years. The nearest reporting centre for some refugees can be a five-hour round trip. In addition, neither a bus pass or travel allowance can be provided. The long queues and long waiting hours is also another factor in part of making life harder for an asylum seeker.
Every part of this process gets worse the longer it goes on. It’s the duration of the whole process that gets you: the longer you are not allowed to work, the worse it gets; the longer you have to report, the worse it gets. And this takes it toll on the person and everyone connected to them. It is important to note that we are social creatures and human beings depend on themselves for various reasons from financial support to emotional and to physical help but whilst all this goes on the refugee and their family members who might be settled here will have their family life and social connections disrupted and this is the impact this hostile environment has. This hostile has proven not to be humane and a change is long overdue. It is the hope and wishes of many refugees and asylum seekers to able to contribute to the UK in practical ways and as Britain looks at a future outside of the EU it has never been so urgent to create a humane environment so people can thrive and create a successful future for themselves and their loved ones.
BBC News. (2019). Asylum seeker lock-change evictions begin. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-49126126 [Accessed 9 Feb. 2020].
Hill, A. (2019). Home Office chaos and incompetence lead to unlawful detentions, claim whistleblowers. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/apr/28/home-office-chaos-and-incompetence-leads-to-unlawful-detentions-claim-whistleblowers [Accessed 9 Feb. 2020].
Kirkup, J. (2012). Theresa May interview: ‘We’re going to give illegal migrants a really hostile reception’. [online] Telegraph.co.uk. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/9291483/Theresa-May-interview-Were-going-to-give-illegal-migrants-a-really-hostile-reception.html [Accessed 9 Feb. 2020].
Right to Remain. (2019). We’re not frightened anymore – Sheffield says no to Zimbabwe Deportations • Right to Remain. [online] Available at: https://righttoremain.org.uk/were-not-frightened-anymore-sheffield-says-no-to-zimbabwe-deportations/ [Accessed 9 Feb. 2020].
Scottish Housing News. (2019). Serco lock change evictions prevented for five asylum seekers in Glasgow. [online] Available at: https://www.scottishhousingnews.com/article/serco-lock-change-evictions-prevented-for-five-asylum-seekers-in-glasgow [Accessed 9 Feb. 2020].
The Conversation. (2018). Home Office routinely disbelieves people – even those claiming asylum from persecution. [online] Available at: http://theconversation.com/home-office-routinely-disbelieves-people-even-those-claiming-asylum-from-persecution-94664 [Accessed 9 Feb. 2020].
The Independent. (2018). Asylum seekers forced to make weekly five-hour journeys after Home Office policy change. [online] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-seekers-uk-home-office-policy-change-reporting-sessions-immigration-a8625866.html [Accessed 9 Feb. 2020].
UK Immigration Justice Watch Blog. (2019). Re-documentation Interviews: UK Gvt enabling access to failed asylum seekers by Zimbabwean Embassy officials arguably gives rise to a fresh asylum claim says Upper Tribunal. [online] Available at: https://ukimmigrationjusticewatch.com/2019/11/24/re-documentation-interviews-uk-gvt-enabling-access-to-failed-asylum-seekers-by-zimbabwean-embassy-officials-arguably-gives-rise-to-a-fresh-asylum-claim-says-upper-tribunal/ [Accessed 9 Feb. 2020].
Zhanaev, E. (2019). What could improve the mental health of refugees? Letting them work. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/the-guardian-foundation/2019/jun/20/what-could-improve-the-mental-health-of-refugees-letting-them-work [Accessed 9 Feb. 2020].