This article was written by Harry Sanders, a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of UK immigration lawyers providing free advice and legal support to asylum seekers and victims of abuse.
Recent times have seen the UK’s stance on refugees and immigration shift radically towards brazen hostility. In both the political and public spheres, asylum seekers are being branded criminals by the very system designed to protect them.
With Brexit – and the implications it has for the lives of refugees living in the UK and in the EU – currently front and centre in the public eye, it is important to recognise how refugees have been unjustly criminalised.
It is crucial to establish what must be done to ensure that such prejudices do not survive any further into the 21st century.
The last few years have seen the UK government create a hostile environment towards migrants, making the path to asylum near impossible to tread. The Home Office employs many methods in order to attempt to discredit an asylum claim from the moment the refugee in question enters the country.
If you do not claim asylum immediately upon entry into the UK, for instance, then this can be used to argue that you do not face real danger. Recent figures from The Migration Observatory show that 68% of initial decisions on asylum applications in 2017 were refusals.
As appeals incur a charge, the Home Office is fully aware of the likelihood that many cannot afford to appeal such rash decisions or do not have access to legal aid.
For those who do claim asylum, they face further dissection in their screening interviews. The interview sites in Croydon and Belfast provide interviewees with little privacy, with rooms often separated by only a glass screen.
Applicants are asked to provide identification, supporting evidence and biometric information (fingerprints and photograph) to verify their identities.
If an asylum claimant is deemed to be an illegal entrant into the UK, their application and further interviews will not be immediately affected – and they may well still be granted refugee status. However, this may play a key role in later applications for British citizenship.
Outside of immigration policy, migrants are often demonised and misrepresented as a threat to national security.
One must look no further than posters produced in the build-up to the 2016 EU referendum: one poster in particular was heavily criticised for evoking Nazi propaganda, which was similarly produced to incite fear and hatred of ‘alien’ peoples.
Images such as this are still produced, and continue to illustrate the hostile environment manufactured by the UK government, and reinforced by the UK media.
All who aggressively criminalise asylum seekers seem to omit any discussion of the fundamental reasons one applies for asylum. The right to seek asylum is laid out in the Universal Declaration on Human rights, stating that if you enter the UK and are escaping persecution you have the right to seek asylum – providing that you are outside your own country, and prove that you are being persecuted without any help from your native government.
Despite these facts, the public is told repeatedly that those seeking refuge in the UK are criminals – and asylum seekers are likewise consistently represented in this way.
A common misconception is that asylum seekers are obliged to seek refuge in the first country they travel through – they are in fact not obliged to do this at all and are well within their rights to seek asylum in the UK.
The detention of asylum seekers similarly portrays them as criminals, though this is done only through the wishes of the UK government: the UK is in fact the only EU country that does not implement a time limit on detention.
Shockingly, a 2019 Parliamentary report found that 12% of all detainees are held for at least 6 months – and in some cases longer. Not only is this treatment inhumane and unjust, but it is wholly unnecessary.
Whether through misrepresentative media or unjust governmental policy, asylum seekers in the UK are unfairly demonised, with the British public lead to believe that they are nothing more than criminals.
The branding of the most helpless and fearful as monsters is despicably xenophobic, but sadly it is a sign of the times. It is of the utmost importance that the UK overhauls both its asylum process and the misinformation that accompanies it.
A future free of artificial hate and division is still within our grasp, though this cannot be achieved until the current ‘hostile environment’ is fully abolished.