Asylum seekers and refugees as a social problem in the UK

A growing number of asylum seekers in the UK led to the great media focus on this group of foreigners. As the media presented asylum seekers and refugees in an unfavourable light and emphasized the negative consequences of these massive arrivals, the British citizens and politicians started to perceive them as a social problem. In order to address this problem, the British government implemented strict measures aiming to reduce a number of asylum applications in the UK.Recently, many academic scholars and organizations underlined that these measures had a very negative impact on the lives of asylum seekers in the UK. The financial support for asylum seekers in the UK is limited to the minimum; they meet difficulties in accessing basic public services such as health care or education; they are not allowed to work during their application process. The evidence show that a growing number of asylum seekers is vulnerable to poverty and destitution; discrimination and social exclusion (Prior, 2008; Williams and Kaye, 2010; Crawley, 2010). Nonetheless, the government seems to undermine these postulates and continues its strict policy towards asylum seekers and refugees.

Historically, the United Kingdom has been characterized by a long tradition of granting asylum to significant number of foreigners. In return, these people have often contributed to the development of the UK. Amongst the best known individuals are Joseph Malin[1] and Michael Marks[2]. As the number of people seeking asylum in the UK has grown rapidly from the early 1990s, the Home Office was not able to cope with this high volume of application and many asylum cases remained unsolved. At the same time, the British media has started to promote the perception of asylum seekers as economic workers whose decisions on where to seek asylum are based on the opportunities for employment and welfare benefits. Thus, the issue of asylum seekers became a top concern of the British policy-makers. (Prior, 2008).
Prior to considering the problem of asylum seekers in the UK, it seems to be crucial to define the term asylum seeker and refugee. Following the UNESCO definition, asylum seeker is a person who “has applied for protection as a refugee and is awaiting determination of his or her status.” (UNESCO, 2011). The reason for seeking protection is a fear of torture or prosecution in origin country. In turn, refugee is a person who has been given protection (UNESCO, 2011). Asylum seeker becomes a refugee when the local immigration authority (or refugee authority) decides that the candidate fits the international definition of refugee. According to the international law, to become a refugee a person needs to meet the criteria for refugee status regulated by the Article 1(A)2 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Under the following article these are three basic characteristics of refugee. First, a person needs to be outside the country of origin or the country of his previous habitual residence. Second, the person is unable to stay safe and protected in that country due to the fear of prosecution or torture. Third, the fear of being prosecuted is based on at least one of the following reasons: race, religion, nationality, membership of the particular social group or political belief (RULAC, 2012). Due to the word count, the term asylum seekers will refer to both asylum seekers and refugees in the following work.
The following essay aims to examine why asylum seekers have been perceived as a social problem in the UK as well as to analyse how the government approaches this problem. First, the essay considers the changes in the number of asylum seekers in the UK over the past twenty years. Further, the essay discusses different perspectives of asylum seekers in the social context. Finally, the essay presents the government responses to the problem.
Asylum seekers in the UK – statistical approach
From the 1990s the UK has been characterized by significant fluctuations in numbers of asylum applications, as demonstrated in Appendix 1. Between 1993 and 2002 the number of asylum applications has increased rapidly from 19,700 to its peak of 103,080 in 2002. In this period of time a number of applications fell slightly in 1996 and 2001, based on year-to-year changes (Institute of Race Relations). The four major countries, from which the asylum applications were addressed to the UK at that time were Iraq, Zimbabwe, Somalia and Afghanistan. Wars, conflicts and political oppression, being the key features of these countries in the 1990s are perceived as major causes of the dramatic increase of the asylum applications to the UK from the mid-1990s (Prior, 2008). From 2002 the number of applications was gradually reduced, reaching 17,916 in 2010 (Refugee Council, 2011). Currently, most of the applicants come from Pakistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan (Refugee Council, 2011). Such decrease is a consequence of the government policy, strongly restricting the border control in the past decade. Additionally, from 2002 the government continues to reject almost 70% of applications each year. In 2010 68% of applications were refused; 24% of them were granted the refugee status; 7% – Discretionary Leave, while 1% – Humanitarian Protection (Refugee Council, 2012).
Nonetheless, the UK continues to be a country with one of the highest numbers of asylum applications in the European Union, next to Sweden, France, Greece and Germany, as presented in Appendix 2 (Eurostat, 2012). According to the report prepared by the Asylum and Destitution Working Group, there are four major pull factors that shape, shaping a decision to apply for asylum in the UK. These are the perception of the UK as a safe, democratic and tolerant country; the ability to speak English or willingness to learn the language; previous connections (including colonialism) between the country of origin or residence and the UK; and having relatives or family in the UK (Prior, 2008).
Asylum seekers and refugees as a social problem in the UK
A rapidly growing number of asylum applicants in the UK led the great focus on asylum seekers in the British media. The media started to present asylum seekers in an unfavourable light, emphasizing the negative socio-economic effects of the massive inflows of foreigners. For instance, the Daily Express has published 22 negative front page stories on asylum within 31 days period of time in 2003, often using very abusive language. Further, the issue of asylum became a hot topic of the debate between the two main parties during the 2005 general election (Prior, 2008). Exaggeration of the issue and misinformation resulted in spreading the perception of asylum seekers as a thread to the British people in the socio-economic context. Numerous research and surveys conducted amongst the British seem to confirm such approach. For instance, the IAC’s Citizens Speak research from 2008 revealed that most of the respondent perceived the asylum seekers as economic migrants, stealing jobs and welfare benefits from the British. Further, they believed that asylum seekers had a privileged access to housing and public services as well as that there were too many asylum seekers within the country. In turn, the 2003 Citizenship Survey conducted amongst the young British showed that 15% of them cited prejudice against the asylum seekers (Aspinall and Waters, 2010). Also the YouGov survey from 2011 demonstrated that the respondents had the poorest perception of asylum seekers amongst various groups of people, including the categories such as people from ethnic minorities; people from Christian religious groups; or people with disabilities (YouGov, 2011). Additionally, another survey conducted by YouGov in 2008 disclosed that 59% of the respondents argued that asylum seekers were a “drain on resources” and did not contribute to the economic growth of the UK. Additionally, 30% of the respondents saw the reduction in the number of asylum seekers as the most welcome change in the British system (YouGov, 2008). It is important to add that at the same time the British have a highly exaggerated view on the number of the asylum applications in the UK. In YouGov survey from 2007 46% of the respondents estimated this number at 80,000 when additional 31% – at 160,000. In fact, there was actually 23,430 asylum applicants in 2007 (Prior, 2008).
While the British media built the image of asylum seekers as a social problem amongst the British citizens, many academic scholars emphasized that asylum seekers are a disadvantaged group and that they often have to face various social problems. In particular, asylum seekers are vulnerable to poverty and destitution (Aspinall and Waters, 2010). They usually arrive to the UK without any financial reserves. Additionally, the financial support offered by the government to asylum seekers constitutes only 70% of Income Support, while they are not permitted to work (Buster, 2010). According to the British Red Cross in 2006 there was approximately 26,000 asylum seekers living in poverty in the UK (Prior, 2008). Asylum seekers also have a limited access to the basic health care services mainly due to the registration problems (i.e. lack of documents proving the address or identity; lack of interpreting services). Similarly, asylum seekers face difficulties in education and training[3] what is mostly caused by limited knowledge of the British education system, poor level of English and high costs (NIACE, 2009). Finally, asylum seekers are the victims of crime rather than offenders. Although there are no official records, the research conducted by Stanley in 2001 revealed that a third of the respondents have experienced racism, harassment or bullying. Also 81% of the asylum seeking women interviewed by the Refugee Strategy Women Group in 2007 admitted that they had experienced racial harassment (Aspinall and Waters, 2010).
The policy response to the problem of asylum seekers
As asylum seekers started to be perceived as a thread by the British society, the government aimed to reduce their number by implementing new policies and regulations from 1999. The 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act tightened the borders control to block new arrivals to the UK by extending visa requirements, pre-entry controls as well as by imposing financial penalties on the companies that transported passengers without permission to enter the UK (Crawley, 2010). The 2002 Immigration and Asylum Act gave greater power to the authorities responsible for application process, including the right to detain the application at any time during the process, not just prior to removal. Additionally, people applying for legal staying in the UK by granting citizenship need to meet English recruitments; take Life in the UK test and attend citizenship ceremony (Guardian, 2009). Further, in 2004 the government established the juxtaposed UK border control in France and Belgium and thus, the UK was able to decide whether the foreigners are eligible to enter the UK on the territory of another country. Further in the framework of the New Asylum Model from 2007, the application process became accelerated (new screening process; single case workers), while detentions and deportations became commonly used (Aspinall and Waters, 2010).
More importantly, the new legislation affected the asylum seekers’ access to accommodation and welfare. The 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act established the financial support for asylum seekers at the level of 70% of Income Support. Additionally, the food vouchers were granted to the asylum seekers instead of the cash. In 2007 the government reduced the support rate for lone parents (66% of Income Support) and for the single adult above the age of 25 (55% of Income Support) (Williams and Kaye, 2010). Despite numerous controversies around the effectiveness of the voucher system, the government still supports such solution. Further, the government implemented the dispersal policies, providing the accommodation and housing to asylum seekers on ‘no-choice’ basis (Crawley, 2010). From 2002 asylum seekers are not permitted to work when their application is considered. There are only a few exceptions from this rule.
It is crucial to emphasize that despite the overall fall in asylum applications to the UK and rising concerns on the government policy on asylum, the government continues to implement restrictive measures. These measures often worsen further the living conditions of asylum seekers in the UK (Prior, 2008).
The UK is one of the main destinations of asylum seekers in Europe. From the 1990s the number of asylum applications rose sharply, reaching its peak in 2002. Asylum seekers started to be perceived as a thread within the British society. Such negative attitudes were mainly caused by the British media, postulating that asylum seekers steal jobs and welfare benefits from the British. Thus, the government aim became to reduce the number of asylum seekers by new legislation. From 1999 the government implemented numerous regulations and policies. Particularly important were the 1999 Immigration Asylum Act, the 2002 Immigration and Asylum Act as well as the 2007 New Asylum Model. As a consequence, the UK border control was tightened, including higher visa requirement and pre-entry control. The asylum process became faster and more effective; the detentions and deportations are commonly used. The government also decided to limit the access to welfare for asylum seekers, seeing it as an important pull factor for high number of applications. To achieve that, various measures have been implemented. Amongst the most important were dispersal policies, withdrawing the rights to work for these asylum seekers whose applications has not been decided; as well as low financial support delivered in kind instead of cash.
While the government is proud of reducing in 2010 the number of asylum application to the level from 1993; a number of academic scholars postulate that asylum seekers are not a thread to the British. Asylum seekers do not take the employment opportunities from the British. They have a very limited access to the welfare benefits. They also do not increase the crime level across the country. The scholars underline that asylum seekers are at the risk of poverty, discrimination and social exclusion due to the government policy. Additionally, some international organizations (i.e. Amnesty International; the Refugee Council) argue that the British policy “may also have the impact of denying the internationally agreed rights of people to seek asylum” (Aspinall and Watters, 2010, p.10). Despite these claims made by the academic scholars and various organizations, the British government seems to continue its strict policy towards asylum seekers and discourage asylum seekers from choosing the UK. It indicates that the government still perceives asylum seekers as a social problem rather than notice serious social problems that asylum seekers struggle with.pplications in selected European countries, 2007.
Aspinall P. and Watters (2010). Refugees and asylum seekers. A review from an equality and human rights perspective. Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Buster M. (2010). Asylum seekers and refugees. London: Social Inclusion Unit.
Crowley (2010). Chance or choice. Understanding why asylum seekers come to the UK. London: Refugee Council.
Eurostat (2012). Asylum applications [online] Available from: <> (Accessed on 24.06.2012).
Guardian (2009). Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 [online] Available from: <> (Accessed on 24.06.2012)
Institute of Race Relations (2012). Asylum Statistics [online] available from: <> (Accessed on 24.06.2012).
NIACE (2009). Refugee and asylum seekers in the UK: the challenges of accessing education and employment. Leicester: NIACE.
Prior J., McDowell , Morell G., Taruvinga Y., Zanre L., Garner K. and Stranack A. (2008). Asylum Matters: Restoring Trust in the UK Asylum System. London: The Centre for Social Justice.
Refugee Council (2011). Asylum Statistics. London: Refugee Council.
Refugee Council (2012). Asylum Statistics. London: Refugee Council.
RULAC (2012). International Refugee Law [online] Available from: <> (Accessed on 24.06.2012).
UNESCO (2011). Asylum seeker [online] Available from: <> (Accessed on 24.06.2012).
YouGov (2008). Juniper TV Survey Results. London: YouGov.
YouGov (2011). Stonewall attitude tables. London: YouGov.
Williams R. and Kaye M. (2010). At the end of the line. Restoring the integrity of the UK’s asylum system. London: Amnesty International.

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