How do the British public and media view asylum seekers? What is myth and what is reality?
In the 1951 UN Convention for Refugees it was first stated that people had the right to claim safe haven from persecution in other countries. As it stands today there are widespread misconceptions and varying media depictions of asylum seekers. The debate over asylum seekers is so important because people’s lives and well-being are at stake, and it is a terrifying thought that individuals who have fled torture and inhumanity could be demonised by the press or misunderstand by the public at large.
In this report we analyse three of the most important media and public perceptions and then compare this to the reality. The three areas of focus are the following: 1) the view that Britain allows in too many asylum seekers, 2) media representation of the issue of asylum and 3) the perception that asylum seekers drain state resources.
Britain and the number of asylum seekers compared to the rest of the world
One strong indication of the level of misunderstanding is how people overestimate the number of asylum seekers granted refugee status. For example, a 2009 opinion poll found that 44% of British people thought that 100 000 or more asylum seekers were accepted. A further 33% thought the figure was around 25 000. In reality, only 4 175 people received refugee status in 2009.
When compared to other countries, such as Canada, the UK’s acceptance rate is relatively low. Between the years 2001-2006, the average acceptance rate of initial asylum decisions for the UK was 7.77%, whereas Canada’s was 47%. In fact in 2010, the UK was not in the top 5 countries who received the most asylum seekers; the top 5 comprised the United States, France, Germany, Sweden and Canada.
Importantly, not only is the acceptance rate low in the UK, but the asylum claims. Compared to the rest of Europe, asylum claims in the UK are “below the European average.” For example, in 2010, “the UK received 0.37 asylum applications per 1000 inhabitants, compared to 0.55 across Europe.” In actuality, the UK does not accept that many asylum seekers.
Media and public opinion on the asylum seeker process
The British public have conflicting views about the asylum seeker process. In a 2008 opinion poll, although 89% believed providing refuge to those in danger is an important British tradition, 90% were worried about abuses in the system and 71% thought that Britain accepted too many. Brits are in a seemingly paradoxical position. We think helping asylum seekers is an element of our identity, but we are uncertain of the extent to which the process is open to abuse and whether the UK is too accepting.
The capability of the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA), and by extension, its ability to prevent abuses of the system, is often called into question. Different focus groups comprised of different newspaper readerships agreed that ‘the system is stressed and its legitimacy under threat’. A report into newspaper coverage of asylum seekers writes, ‘the top six national dailies… in contrast to the overall sample of national, regional and faith/minority newspapers placed the emphasis on describing asylum as ‘in chaos’ or ‘out of control’.’ Indeed recent Daily Mail articles (as of the 27th February 2012) to mention asylum seekers have included stories about failures in UKBA and those trying to cheat the system.
Richard Chessum of ASSIST (Asylum Seeker Support Initiative Short Term) argues that amongst the national press ‘it’s almost wholly negative, except one or two papers, like the Independent and the Guardian.’ A study analysing newspaper coverage of asylum seekers over a ten week period, concluded that ‘a minority of articles described asylum seekers and refugees in terms that are hostile and risk being inflammatory and contained inaccuracies including misuse of statistics, groundless claims, misrepresentation and confusion of comment, conjecture and fact’. Although it is important that most articles are not demonizing or inaccurate, the report emphasizes how, due to the large amount written on asylum seekers, ‘the minority of inaccurate and hostile articles represent a significant amount of circulating information that is likely to be having an impact on sections of public opinion and possibly on community relations.’
However, stories from The Guardian and The Independent show that not all the press is negative. One focuses on a young boy who came to Britain with his mother and was originally granted refugee status. They were then served with a deportation order after authorities discovered they were from Pakistan, and not Kuwait, as they had claimed. It depicts them living in a no man’s land without any idea where they will end up. The article gives an asylum seeker the chance to get his story across. A second case study focuses on the experiences of a woman who fostered children who were asylum seekers. These case studies show how positive depictions of asylum seekers attempts to put forward their side of the story and, in the process, humanise them. However significantly, taking the most popular newspaper as a whole, these stories are rare, and the readership of the Daily Mail is far higher than those of The Guardian or The Independent.
How the asylum process works
Since March 2007, every new asylum application is placed with a caseworker who deals with every aspect of it from beginning to end. The case owner aims to conclude each asylum case within six months, resulting in either integration or removal. With tens of thousands applying for asylum each year there is a worry that decisions are rushed.
Once an application has been made, there are six stages to the process:
- Screening – Applicants are asked basic questions about their application, with an interpreter provided if necessary. People can be traumatised in this initial screening process, and could say things they contradict in later interviews. This will be used to present them as ‘not a credible witness’ and often results in a refusal. What applicants say at the first stage of the asylum application process is therefore of the utmost importance.
- Case Owner – After the screening, applicants are allocated their case owner. The case owner carries out interviews and makes the decision regarding applications. The experience and training of the case owner has been criticised. Richard Chessum argues that there ‘ought to be an independent court who decide it to begin with, not some lowly civil servant’.
- First Meeting – This will occur within the first few days after an application is made and the case owner will explain the asylum process.
- Interview – This is the only opportunity for applicants to explain why they fear returning to their country. Applicants need to satisfy the case owner of who they are and what country they come from, and can provide evidence of the information provided and any papers supporting the application.
- While waiting for the decision – The case owner informs applicants when they are expected to report to the UKBA. If the applicant fails to report they risk the suspension of any support they receive and they may also be detained. The case owner will decide if applicants are eligible for any of the available support such as housing and living costs.
- The asylum decision – Case owners aim to give the decision within 30 days of when the application was made. The decision is based upon what applicants said at the asylum interview, any evidence provided, and information about the country of origin of the applicant. If the application is refused, the right to appeal against the decision and the time limits for doing so are explained by the case owner.
It seems much relies on the case owner and how they feel about the applicant’s situation. Also, applicants are put at a disadvantage by any trauma and shame they are experiencing. This is not accounted for if information provided at the initial screening contradicts information at the later interview. Applicants have arrived in a strange country where they may not know anyone, may not speak the language and have escaped desperate situations. This process can be daunting and complicated because of trust barriers, language barriers, and culture barriers working against genuine asylum seekers. A system that places the emphasis on asylum seekers to prove their case and aims to complete the process in a short space of time is not sufficiently compassionate.
Does the process get it right in practice?
There is evidence that the asylum system is not protecting those in need of refuge. The organisaton Justice First produced the report Unsafe Return expressing concern about Congolese nationals deported from the UK to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the period 2006-2011. Evidence suggests that shortly after being forcibly returned to the DRC they experienced ‘inhumane and degrading’ treatment. These returnees were ‘real and supposed political opponents of President Joseph Kabila’, whom UKBA had classified as low-level activists of no interest to the authorities. One individual claimed she was a member of an opposition political organisation and was in danger, but her claim was rejected. After returning, she was imprisoned, tortured and raped and has yet to find her husband. Several returnees reported being detained at the airport and subjected to ill-treatment and others were after leaving the airport.
The post-return experience of children and women is particularly concerning. The report states that families have been unable to resume a normal family life due to threats. Returnees have experienced difficulty in finding accommodation and work because people are frightened to be associated with them. Some of the children are known to have been imprisoned, to be experiencing hunger, illness and/or poor conditions. A doctor who worked with rape victims in Kinshasa said, ‘take much care when deporting a women or a lady, most the time the chance to be raped is about 70%, see (rapes and complications) in the countries like Congo.’
The Guardian covered this story with a sympathetic attitude towards the asylum seekers and focused much more on the allegations of violence than the more unsympathetic response of the UK Border Agency. In contrast the Daily Mail did not cover it.
Asylum seekers and government support
An ICM poll in 2010 revealed that one in four British people believe asylum seekers come to Britain to claim benefits, and 71% believe asylum seekers are given £100 or more of benefits every week to cover their living expenses.
In reality, asylum seekers whose claims are being processed receive, if they are a single person over the age of 18, only £36.62 every week. Additionally, asylum seekers are entitled to rent-free accommodation. The contract for accommodation is given to private housing providers, who can move asylum seekers between cities and houses whenever they want. Asylum seekers cannot choose where they live. Richard Chessum has spoken about the negative impact this has on vulnerable asylum seekers, saying that ‘people in real distress are being moved around.’
These statistics contrast with media representation of resources spent on asylum seekers by the UK government. A quote from the Sun in April 2010 revealed the newspaper’s position: ‘Many asylum-seekers are no more than dole-scroungers’. Considering the level of asylum support previously mentioned is around half what those on Jobseekers’ Allowance receive, this would appear to be an unfounded claim.
By Kay Bennett, Miriam Dobson, Rebecca Ives, Sara Mhaidli, Ben Mackay and Josh Pascall
 Refugee Council. ‘Helping others is part of the British DNA’ 18 April 2011 http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/news/archive/press/2011/april/20110418_refugeepoll.htm?WBCMODE=%2F Accessed 26 February 2012
2 Refugee Forum ‘International Asylum Seekers: United Kingdom’ University of Ottawa 2010 http://www.cdp-hrc.uottawa.ca/projects/refugee-forum/projects/systems/RefForum-UK.pdf p. 8 Accessed 26 February 2012
4 The UN Refugee Agency. ‘Asylum seeker numbers nearly halved in last decade, says UNHCR’ 28 March 2011 http://www.unhcr.org/4d8cc18a530.html Accessed 26 February 2012
5 Dr Scott Blinder, ‘Migration to the UK: Asylum’ 5 December 2011 http://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/migration-uk-asylum Accessed 26 February 2012
6 Asylum and Destitution Working Group, ‘Asylum Matters: Restoring Trust in the UK Asylum System’ The Centre for Social Justice p.95
7 Ibid, ‘Asylum Matters: Restoring Trust in the UK Asylum System’ p. 90
8 Kate Smart, Roger Grimshaw, Christopher McDowell and Beth Crosland ‘Reporting asylum: the UK press and the effectiveness of PCC Guidelines’ The Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees in the UK, p. 13
9 Richard Chessum, personal communication, 20 February 2012
10 Smart, Grimshaw, McDowell and Crosland ‘Reporting asylum: the UK press and the effectiveness of PCC Guidelines’ p. 144
11 Ibid, ‘‘Reporting asylum: the UK press and the effectiveness of PCC Guidelines’ p. 145
12 Abdullah Shakil, ‘We were in prison. I did not understand’ The Guardian 9 October 2003 http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2003/oct/09/politics.immigration?INTCMP=SRCH Accessed 26 February 2012
13 Anne King, ‘Fostering asylum seekers: their past is a foreign country’ The Independent 20 December 2011 http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/fostering-asylum-seekers-their-past-is-a-foreign-country-6279382.html?origin=internalSearch Accessed 26 February 2012
14 Richard Chessum, personal communication, 20 February 2012
16 Catherine Ramos, ‘Unsafe Return: Refoulement of Congolese Asylum Seekers’ 24 November 2011 p. 5
17 Ibid p. 24
18 Henry Makiwa, ‘UK public understand asylum – but many still hold negative beliefs‘ 14 June 2010 http://www.redcross.org.uk/About-us/Media-centre/Press-releases/2010/June/UK-public-understand-asylum-but-many-still-hold-negative-beliefs Accessed 26 February 2012
19 UK Border Agency ‘Current support amounts’ http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/asylum/support/cashsupport/currentsupportamounts/ Accessed 26 February 2012
20 Refugee Council, ‘The facts about asylum’ http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/practice/basics/facts Accessed 26 February 2012
21 Interview with Richard Chessum, 20.2.12
22 Paul Kenyon, ‘Tabloid treatment of asylum seekers under fire’ The Guardian 7 June 2010 http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/jun/07/tabloids-treatment-asylum-seekers Accessed 26 February 2012