Since the early 1970s, the number of refugees worldwide has gone high by a factor of four, from about four to twelve million people. Additionally, the number of people seeking asylum in developed countries has also increased by a factor of about 10 over the same period, from a figure of about 50,000 per annum in the 1970s, to over half a million in 2001. It has been widely viewed as a serious crisis that requires quick intervention. It has been seen by many as a humanitarian issue (McDonald, 2007). This is because most of the refugees who are displaced from developing countries undergo numerous forms of human suffering such as torture, poverty and disease. Secondly, the increasing migration of asylum seekers in developed countries continues to trigger political controversy about asylum policies that have contributed to a rising political temperature, mostly from the far right. This paper is divided into a number of sections (Giovanni and Gerald, 2006). The first section will analyze various background issues facing refugees and asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. It will also analyze why people move from their home countries to another country, demographic information, and sociological perspective on the issue. The second section will examine the social construction of refuges and asylum seekers as well as the legislative and policy responses facing the problem of refugee and asylum seekers.
Refugees and asylum groups represent a diverse group with one thing in common: they are individuals who have been subjected to forced migration, fleeing from persecution in their home countries. The term ‘asylum seeker’ is used in this paper to refer to individuals who have applied for asylum and are waiting for a decision on their applications. It also refers to the group of people whose applications have been denied based on their inability to fulfill certain requirements. On the other hand, the term refugee is usually used to refer a person who have applied for asylum and who have been given recognition based on their refugee status (Burnett and Peel, 2000). It is also adopted for those who have been given an exceptional or indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom. Markedly, the occurrence of war, conflict, minority persecution and factional fighting are deemed to be some of the major reasons that have contributed to this worrying trend. It can be noted that in 2002, there are a high number of people seeking for asylum in the United Kingdom from countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Iraq. As noted earlier, conflicts and war have been the major cause of refugee flights in many countries. Giovanni and Gerald (2006) contend that the high displacement of people in countries such as Rwanda, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Somalia has been due to numerous incidences of conflicts that have heightened the movement of refugees to become a humanitarian issue. It is also noted that the movement of refugees are also highly determined by economic and demographic forces as well as violence and political situation in the given country or region. From this perspective, refugee flights and asylum seeking has been attributed to several factors such as repressive political regimes, lack of democracy and weak institutional framework along with other issues that cause human rights abuse (Burnett and Peel, 2000).
It can be noted that refugees and asylum seekers represent a hugely varied group that is different from other migrants. Burke and Shani (2009) mentioned that there are several reasons that differentiate asylum seekers and refugees from other migrants in the United Kingdom. Some of these issues include lack of proper documents, multiple and transition issues, reasons for being in the United Kingdom, unfamiliarity with the country’s culture or system, to mention a few. While the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the United Kingdom has been on the rise, the British government is continuously coming up with new restrictive policies on asylum. It was noted that in the 1980s, the number of asylum seekers and refuges entering Britain rose significantly due to the environmental devastation, military conflict, and breakdown of state structures in the Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, following the introduction of new policy measures, the percentage of successful asylum applications dropped from 58 percent in 1982 to less than 10 percent during the 1990s. McDonald (2007) contends that while political debates in ‘fortress Europe’ has been on the rise, there are no clear or formal policies or programs that have been established to oversee the resettlement of refugees. This implies that the needs of these vulnerable groups are inadequately met. Nevertheless, apart from the refuge community organizations who have assumed an important role in the provision of practical and emotional support, the local authorities also contribute to the livelihood of refugees. On the other hand, under the current support system, asylum seekers have inadequate choices about where they are accommodated. There also cases where asylum seekers have been detained or forced to live in accommodation centers. Burnett and Peel (2000) assert that these forms of treatment have resulted into social exclusion that continues to separate such vulnerable groups from the mainstream society. The situation of asylum seekers and refugees has been characterized by an increasingly hostile environment that has made settlement and development of new goals to be a very difficult endeavor.
The existing information about the population of refugees and asylum seekers in the United Kingdom can be said to provide only partial of the actual numbers and flow of this segment of the population. According to Home Office data, there were a total of 25,930 applications for asylum in 2008, 10 percent more than the previous year. In 2009, the figure was about 24, 485, a decline from what was recorded in 2008. Generally, the numbers have fallen since 2002 where over 30,000 applications of asylum were made (Lorna and Sweeney, 2010). Additionally, in 2008, the UK had the second number of asylum applications from various countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sri Lanka, China, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iran, India, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Information regarding asylum decisions indicates that a total of 19,400 initial asylum decisions were reached in 2008, 10 percent fewer than the previous year. This also represented a lesser number of the total applications (25,930). Out of this number, a total of 3,725 principal applicants were granted asylum in the United Kingdom, which was 19 percent of the initial decision (Lorna and Sweeney, 2010). In addition, a total of 2,165 people were granted discretionary leave to remain or humanitarian protection, which amounted to 11 percent of the initial asylum decisions. It is also indicated that in 2008, many of the individuals granted asylum in the United Kingdom came from Eritrea (30 percent), Zimbabwe (14 percent and Somalia (13 percent). From this statistics, it can be mentioned that majority of the asylum applicants in the same year were denied asylum in the United Kingdom. Home office data (2009) indicate that 13,505 asylum applicants who make up 70 percent were refused (as cited in Lorna and Sweeney, 2010).
Additionally, there is also information available for children as asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. It is shown that 4,286 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASCs) aged 17 and below applied for asylum in 2008. This figure represents 15 percent more as compared to that of 2005 where 3,645 applicants have been received. It is indicated that in most of these applications, over 91 percent are made in the country of origin while less than 5 percent are made at port. Out of the 2,675 initial decisions made on UASCs, 285 children were granted asylum, 1,790 were granted discretionary leave and humanitarian protection while 585 of the initial decisions were refused (Lorna and Sweeney, 2010).
While the United Kingdom is widely known for providing sanctuary to large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, the social construction of these people by the media, social and political institutions reveals otherwise. With the increasing reaffirmation of national identity and the concept of common heritage, there is a revived media and political interest into the number of people moving into the United Kingdom (Priya, 2010). Across Britain, conservative electioneering has taken ‘asylum seeking’ to be a major issue during elections, particularly during the 2001 general election campaign. There have also been sensationalist media reports that continue to dominate this issue. Additionally, negative portrayal of asylum seekers has painted them a big challenge to the cultural distinctiveness and a potential threat to the stability of society (Burke and Shani, 2009). It is evident that by all means, the issue of asylum seekers remains to be a social problem in the United Kingdom. The ethnic origin of people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom remains to be one of the primary aspects leading to such social construction. It is revealed that, ‘the non-whiteness’ nature of asylum seekers is central to the ensuing prejudice and racism in the United Kingdom. Priya (2010) contends that this ideology is largely rooted in social mechanisms and practices hence forms the basis of public opinions on the issue. The ideology of national identity and the rise of Englishness can be said to play a critical role in the knowledge and understanding of asylum seeking as a social problem. McDonald (2007) noted that the state and media selectivity has contributed to the promotion of the idea of preferred immigrants. Therefore, the imposition of order based on the concept of common knowledge is critical in the discourses and interpretive constructions of asylum seekers in United Kingdom.
The media remains to be a powerful tool for the construction of knowledge and understanding on this issue. Nick and Susan (2003) portends that the media provides an inherently rhetorical picture that is based on promoting values and ideas that are meant to promote the status quo. The repositioning of asylum seekers based on dissenting voices and counter discourses in the media as well as social and political fronts has led to the construction of what may be referred to as the ‘new apartheid.’ It emerges that in the United Kingdom, the media seem to have reinforced the dominance of certain groups. Therefore, media discourses have assumed a critical role in the facilitation and maintenance of discrimination against asylum seekers and refugees. This is because the language used in defining and categorizing asylum seekers as the ‘other’ contributes to the production and construction of certain types of knowledge about asylum seekers. The rise of xenophobia and racist construction has been fostered by media discourses. Political institutions have also contributed to the social construction of asylum seekers. Burke and Shani (2009) contend that the immigration policy can never be static hence the legislators and politicians have the authority to alter or create many any changes to such policy. It is shown that after the 9/11 event, there has been numerous changes on the criteria for entry in the United Kingdom.
The social construction of asylum seekers and refugees has contributed to the emergence of terms such as ‘bogus asylum seeker’ and economic refugee. These terms have considerably been used to justify the enactment of strict, draconian immigration controls. Consequently, such concepts may not be only confined to policy-makers, immigration officials or politicians but also widely used by ordinary people (Giovanni and Gerald, 2006). On the other hand, there has been numerous inhuman tragedy facing asylum seekers and refugees. It is noted that many of these people has fallen victims to violence, trafficking, and other forms of human rights abuse.
Furthermore, in many cases the type of support given to such individuals does not include cash benefits or employment in the case of asylum seekers (Nick and Susan, 2003). There have also been cases where refugees have been categorized as a threat to the very foundation of the British society based on issues of terrorism, diseases, begging and crime. While the social, political and media institutions continue to paint asylum seekers and refugees in a bad light, change of policy, procedure and social norms are required to enhance inclusion, promotion of social care needs and improve the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees in the United Kingdom (Burke and Shani, 2009).
The asylum and immigration policy appears to be one of the most publicly and politically divisive issues in the United Kingdom. Over the years, asylum policy has been a central issue in elections and a source of conflict between the judiciary and politicians. In light of this, policy and legislative approaches toward asylum seekers has been highly mixed up over the years. Nevertheless, since mid-1990s, successive governments undertook numerous changes on the social welfare policies as a way of securing the integrity of the asylum process as well as setting into place immigration controls (Nick and Susan, 2003). For the last two decades, policy and legislative responses has highly targeted ways of reducing the flow of asylum seekers into the United Kingdom. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 established the national asylum support service (NASS). It also set up the framework to be employed in the dispersal of destitute asylum seekers to various parts of the country. Additionally, this act removed all the benefits that asylum seekers were entitled to, particularly employment benefits. It also stopped asylum seekers from working and introduced in a new voucher system that only allowed weekly payment of not more than £10. Under the act, the NASS was given the responsibility to allocate housing to dispersed individuals. There are also numerous changes for children under the act. For instance, it removed the obligation of local authorizes to ensure proper living standards for children as outlined under the Children Act 1989 (Priya, 2010). The voucher scheme made many children and their families to live on lower rates than income support and hence highly exposed to racism and exploitation. Children also have inadequate access to education. Therefore, there are involuntary dispersal of people that contributed to the poor living standards, exploitation, and racism toward asylum seekers and refugees in the United Kingdom. The removal of right to work can be viewed as a counterproductive and in fact continue to contribute to long term exclusion of refugees from the United Kingdom’s labor market (Nick and Susan, 2003).
The National Immigration and Asylum Act of 2002 is another major policy response. This act has high emphasis on the removal and control of unsuccessful asylum applicants. This act emphasizes the deportation of unsuccessful and undocumented immigrants. The act also requires all individuals who are seeking for asylum in the United Kingdom to have adequate knowledge of life and society in the United Kingdom based on language mastery. The act also led to the introduction of new policies that touched on education, employment and training of asylum seekers. The act also requires all successful applicants to show allegiance to the queen by attending the citizenship ceremonies and making a pledge of loyalty to the United Kingdom. Moreover, the law placed measures that abolished the conventional distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate children seeking asylum (Priya, 2010).
In conclusion, the reaction of the European government to the rising numbers of asylum seekers have led to introduction of new policies that are highly restrictive. The number of those seeking asylum in the United Kingdom continue to drop and there is no clear argument of whether restrictionalism is based on treating the issue as an economic or security issue. However, it is also equally a new apartheid or new racism depending on the circumstance. In brief, there is a need for legislative and policy reforms along with public education that will enable social and behavior change toward asylum seekers, ensuring that only legitimate ones are helped.
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