(2019-2020) How does the Hostile Environment prevent refugees and asylum seekers from creating a fully integrated social life in the UK, and how is this resisted?
By Georgia Ager-Perera, Sorcha Cullen, Maisie Gater, Rebecca Langella, Freya Lock-Pullan, Roberta Miglioranza, Tania Stein
In the UK, refugees and asylum seekers are currently prevented from fully integrating into British society due to the enforcement of Home Office policies. As a result, they occupy a liminal space between inclusion and exclusion, a ‘middle ground between mere biological life and full social existence’ (Rozakou, 2012:562). They have to comply with the rules set by the British state, yet are denied the rights given to fully realised citizens. However, refugees, asylum seekers, and the organisations that support them, are increasingly active in resisting this exclusion by creating new social ties in the UK.
A recent report by the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU) draws attention to the systemic failings of the Home Office when dealing with immigration issues (GMIAU, 2018). It states that the ‘Hostile Environment’ act of 2012, coupled with Theresa May’s harsh ‘zero tolerance’ policy has led to a severe restriction of legal aid for people with immigration issues and put vulnerable people at risk. Additionally, it criticizes a ‘default’ setting in the Home Office, characterised by a lack of proper training, a focus on meeting operational targets, and a forced impersonality where caseworkers almost forget that the applications they are reviewing are about real people. For the GMIAU, the Home Office must begin to ‘appreciate that they are dealing with human individuals and not criminals who must always be deported’ (GMIAU, 2018:6). This demonstrates a systematic failure to view refugees and asylum seekers as fully autonomous beings.
In fact, the UK Home Office denies asylum seekers the right to work unless their claim for asylum has been outstanding for at least 12 months. Even after 12 months, employment opportunities are limited to the shortage occupation list published by the Home Office. This means that asylum seekers are placed in situations of liminality and uncertainty, surviving off minimal state support for a year before they can even try to become independent. Asylum seekers are given £37.75 per week which is withdrawn 28 days after they are granted asylum. Therefore they have to act extremely quickly to find secure occupation and housing as they will be forced to evacuate their previous government given homes. These policies make it very hard for asylum seekers to develop essential skills (language, social and occupational) necessary for integrating into society, as their financial limitations mean that they can barely cover their necessities.
This sense of isolation is further intensified by their separation from their families and social support systems. Although being reunited with one’s family members is amongst the main priorities of newly recognised refugees (UNHCR, 2018), there are many barriers to family reunification in the UK. Refugees no longer have access to free legal aid and many cannot afford to pay for the legal representation needed for the application progress. The Home Office also relies on ethnocentric understandings of kinship, which prioritise the nuclear family structure. Moreover, it often demands for ‘proof’ of relationships, such as pictures of couples being outwardly affectionate, which is often not accessible or practiced in the communities refugees originate from. The separation that results from such hurdles has a negative impact on the refugee’s mental wellbeing and integration prospects: it exacerbates already traumatising experiences and prevents them from focusing on the activities essential to their integration in the UK, such as forming new social ties. Therefore, ‘family’ should be seen as an element necessary for leading a ‘full life’ in the UK.
The struggle to create a stable life in the UK is worsened by the constant threat of detention hanging over asylum seekers. They must report to the Home Office regularly, which can often be weekly. Failure to comply with this can result in a loss of support or damage to their asylum claim. Asylum seekers in Stoke-on-Trent, for example, have to make a five-hour round trip to the only reporting centre in Greater Manchester, which can cost as much as three-quarters of their weekly allowance (Bulman, 2018). These obligatory trips exacerbate mental health problems, as it is during these reports that detentions occur. The trauma caused by indefinite detention in the UK is well-documented, and causes extreme anxiety for those vulnerable to it (Steadman, 2019). Therefore, the requirement to report to the Home Office exemplifies how the system seeks to strip asylum seekers of their autonomy and dominate their lives in the UK, by denying them a sense of security.
These policies demonstrate the way in which the social and political lives of refugees and asylum seekers are reduced, by placing them in the margins of exclusion. However, they can assert their agency within this space, and with the help of third sector organisations, such as NGOs, charities and community groups, they are able to create social ties within the UK. As stated by Anheier and Seibel within Mayblin and James’ work, the third sector acts as a, ‘”buffer zone between the state and society and mitigates social tensions and political conflicts’” (Mayblin and James, 2019:376). These organisations, which rely on voluntary donations, provide legal and welfare advice, clothing and food banks as well as emergency cash, filling in where the Home Office has failed to provide for refugees and asylum seekers.
These organisations also help to create strong community networks, which are necessary for integration into British society. Cultural orientation and English lessons help to break down the divide between the local community and refugees, and reduce isolation. Manchester Refugee Support Network (MRSN) holds weekly English Conversation Clubs to assist with this process. Similarly, the football team organised by Curzon Ashton F.C. that includes refugees and asylum seekers, runs weekly football games and provides free refreshments, kit and season tickets for family members, ensuring anyone can take part regardless of their economic situation. As football is considered to be a globally appreciated sport, this can help to cut across divides and also helps form interpersonal relationships and a local support network.
To conclude, Home Office policies create an isolating, hostile environment which constitutes a barrier for refugees and asylum seekers attempting to integrate into British society. Despite these strategic policies, there are ways in which refugees and asylum seekers actively negotiate these conditions by finding ways to reclaim their dignity and identity through meaningful social ties. Third sector organizations such as the MRSN are essential to this process as they provide refugees and asylum seekers with the tools to reconfigure their existence as participant members of society, enabling them to resist their reduction within a bureaucratic system.
Bulman, M. (2018). Asylum seekers forced to make weekly five-hour journey to reporting sessions after Home Office policy change, The Independent, 13 November [Online]. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-seekers-uk-home-office-policy-change-reporting-sessions-immigration-a8625866.html (Accessed: 15 November 2019).
Curzon Ashton F.C News (2019). Refugee World Cup, 12 September [Online]. Available at: http://curzonashtoncommunityfoundation.co.uk/news/post/refugee-world-cup (Accessed: 13 November 2019).
Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (2018). Lessons Learned from the Windrush Scandal. Available at: https://gmiau.org/lessons-learned-from-windrush-scandal/ (Accessed: 12 November 2019).
Home Office (2019). Permission to work and volunteering for asylum seekers, Version 8.0. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/803596/permission-to-work-v8.0-ext.pdf (Accessed: 16 November 2019).
Mayblin, L. and James, P. (2018). Asylum and refugee support in the UK: civil society filling the gaps?. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45(3), pp.375-394.
Rozakou, K. (2012). The biopolitics of hospitality in Greece: Humanitarianism and the management of refugees. American Ethnologist, 39(3), pp. 562-577.
Steadman, T. (2019). The impact of indefinite detention: an introduction, Help Refugees, 10 January [Online]. Available at: https://helprefugees.org/news/the-impact-of-indefinite-detention-an-introduction/ (Accessed: 16 November 2019).
UNHCR (2018). A journey towards safety: A report on the experiences of Eritrean refugees in the UK. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/uk/protection/integration/5b8fe8694/a-journey-towards-safety-a-report-on-the-experiences-of-eritrean-refugees.html?fbclid=IwAR2VgdHy208FVtYzXP4IY-fdxoJcqu2XDaU462QSc4rHRnyC3MjTq2OeNIU (Accessed: 13 November 2019).