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Asylum seekers ‘living in limbo’; the hostile reality of the waiting game for UK refuge

Updated: May 3

This week, we have seen four men commit suicide at the Napier army barracks in Folkestone, Kent. The barracks are currently being used as a detention centre for asylum seekers who are newly arrived in the UK; another 22 individuals are on suicide watch. COVID-19 hit the barracks this week, and over half the population of the over-cramped detention centre, where asylum seekers sleep twenty to a room, have contracted the virus. Allegedly, there has been no attempt to remove those presenting symptoms from the shared dorms.

UK government policy is making life in Britain increasingly challenging for ‘alien’ populations. One aspect of this has been a marked increase in waiting times before decisions on the right to remain are made. The University of Oxford has shown that only 25 percent of asylum requests are processed within six months of arrival. This puts asylum seekers in a state of limbo, feeling forgotten and disregarded.

A nerve-wracking wait for a decision is not the only difficulty asylum seekers face. Government policy deliberately disperses asylum seekers across the UK, and restricts work opportunities. Many feel unwelcome in their new environment and experience racism from the local community. The confluence of these issues is beginning to make asylum in the UK seem like an unattractive proposition. According to data produced in 2016, the UK received 38,517 asylum seeker applications - a drop from the previous year and for the first time since the Second World War.

This may well be the exact result the government and far-right groups are looking for. But when we consider the persecution and hostile conditions of the sending nations, the decrease in asylum applications should be a cause for concern.

A policy defined by dispersal

The experience of loneliness, isolation and disintegration is amplified by the government’s dispersal policy. Established in 2000 to ‘spread the burden’ of asylum seekers and to reduce the strain on ‘more prosperous’ regions, this policy has severed support networks within migrant groups, making integration more precarious. Considering that the majority of asylum seekers arrive with nothing, they find themselves dependent on government funded accommodation and then are often sequestrated in Northern, ‘hard to reach’ areas. This harsh treatment is counterproductive: it undermines community resilience and support - in Yorkshire for example, 105 Eritreans were reportedly dispersed across eight cities, weakening ties and contributing to marginalisation.

This austere regime has been particularly damaging for asylum seeking families. According to OECD data, familial decisions to migrate together have increased in recent years, as parents strive to improve the lives of the whole household. Relentless relocation and long distance dispersal however sees children regularly pulled out of schools and jeopardises their ability to resettle and acclimatise to their new surroundings and environments. Asylum seekers not only endure a long wait for a decision, but they are faced with the harsh reality of restarting their lives in a new country, with minimal support and constant upheaval.

A hostile welcome

The policy of dispersal has other ramifications. The Home Office initiative to locate asylum seekers in poorer, financially stretched regions has been met with criticism. These regions, in many ways, are “unprepared for the arrival of asylum seekers”, and state dependency only serves to fuel local resentment and suspicion. The consequences are visible through the vilification of asylum seekers, blamed for community fragmentation and the decline in public services.

Government action has fuelled this local discontent. ‘Go home vans’ in ‘dispersal’ locations, used to dissuade asylum, also serve to promote xenophobic behaviour. Taken together, the UK feels like an unwelcoming place: as one asylum seeker noted:

For the more ‘patient’ asylum seekers, experiences of loneliness, segregation and disenchantment are exaggerated by the fear of deportation and their outsider status.

Asylum seekers are unable to work whilst the government reaches a verdict on their claims. This isolates asylum seekers and creates further tensions with the host communities.

Unless an asylum seeker’s profession fits within the ‘Shortage Occupation list’, there is no option to seek formal employment. Not only does this make survival difficult, but the possibility of sending financial remittances back home to dependent friends, families and communities is also stymied.

If an asylum seeker is unable to fill a labour scarcity as an ‘experienced ballet dancer’ or ‘skilled orchestral musician’, they are forced to rely on monetary government support. Contrary to popular misconceptions, statutory support is based at the level of subsistence - asylum seekers are provided £37.95 per week, which equates to £5.40 per day (the living wage in the UK now stands at £9 per hour).

The UK has the harshest restrictions on who can work and when

Access to this money is far from easy. Each week, money is loaded onto an ‘ASPEN’ card, which allows the Home Office to track and monitor the asylum seeker’s movements and expenditures. This is a common trend across many western states used to control and survey and casts the asylum seeker as ‘deviant’, someone not to be trusted. Cards may be suspended or restricted from spending money on ‘unnecessary items’ - all asylum seekers are subject to scrutiny, monitoring and inspection, treated as potentially untrustworthy.

Moreover, some restrictions are perverse. ASPEN cards cannot be used on public transport, making travel to bail or court hearings and compulsory home office meetings unaffordable.

We might cynically suggest that this is another government ploy, one that prevents asylum seekers reaching appointments punctually. Given the compulsory aspect of these meetings, the chances of deportation are rendered more likely.

Ultimately, the State’s goal is to make life for asylum seekers feel unfavourable. Asylum seekers are positioned as both undeserving and undesirable. This policy denies that migration to the Global North can reap financial and social benefits, preferring to dissuade the diaspora, through its draconian techniques of isolation and impoverishment. As such, we are witness to an increasingly hostile environment, which makes life in the UK intolerable for many.


About the Author

Ollie Fox has worked with refugees and asylum seekers for the past few years - most notably with an organisation local to Brighton that seeks to support asylum seekers held in detention centres. He graduated from the University of Sussex in 2020 with a degree in Geography and International Development and he is now training to be a geography teacher at a secondary comprehensive. The classroom has acted as an effective space to talk to young people about migration and the current issues that refugees are faced with.

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