‘Anecdote, Assumption and Prejudice’ – A Call to Re-examine the Way we Speak About Asylum

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Last week Home Secretary, Priti Patel, spoke at the Conservative Party’s virtual conference. Addressing the Party on the issue of overhauling the asylum process, she accused ‘do-gooders’ and ‘lefty lawyers’ of exploiting the current asylum process to keep people in the UK who, she believed, had no right to be here. Her claims were refuted by many, including the Refugee Council, whose Head of Advocacy agreed with the Home Secretary that the asylum process was ‘broken’ but suggested that it was current policy, not lawyers and campaigners, that ‘leaves vulnerable people languishing for months on end, fearful for their future and unable to start rebuilding their lives’.

Just weeks before Patel’s address, on Friday 18th September, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published a report looking at the impact of UK immigration policies, particularly those around enforcement. The report concluded that, ‘Immigration has always been a cause of public and political debate. Despite years of discourse on the topic, we remain concerned by how little evidence the Home Office…has with which to inform that debate’ and went on to say, ‘We are concerned that if the Department does not make decisions based on evidence, it instead risks making them on anecdote, assumption and prejudice.’

With discussion of asylum firmly back on the political agenda, this report clearly reminds us of the care that we must take when discussing the asylum process.

Unfortunately, Priti Patel’s address is a stark reminder that narratives around asylum within the public sphere are often over-simplistic, narrow and may create unnecessary fear or stigma. She spoke, for instance, of being ‘firm and fair’, whilst giving noticeable precedence to being ‘firm’, repeatedly using ‘othering’ language and carefully choosing loaded terms to paint those trying to assist asylum seekers in real need as ‘do-gooders’.

This theme is not only prevalent in political discourse but is also found in the way the UK media reports on the issue. Earlier this month, the Daily Mail published an article in which they claimed to reveal the millions in British taxpayers money that has been given to a law firm who represent asylum seekers in the UK. The paper stated, ‘While there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing’ the law firm ‘has earned a fortune from the taxpayer by representing clients who include a HIV-positive rapist’. The report paints asylum seekers as criminals and a threat to the UK, a claim which is not based on evidence and which uses anecdote, without context, to play to the public’s worst fears. Further, it fails to adequately discuss that this money supports the vital work of over 800 employees and that the company provides much-needed legal aid for many areas of law, not just immigration.

Previous headlines within the UK press have proven even more shocking (and shockingly inaccurate), including, ‘Asylum seekers summer fun with your £1m’ or the Daily Express’ ‘Bombers are all sponging asylum seekers’.

Reporting such as this creates a worrying account of asylum. One which is othering, dehumanising and lacking in empathy. When we encounter such rhetoric, we are drawn away from considering the idea that very few people would make the decision to leave their home and make an often-perilous journey to a new country unless they were in real need.

However, this isn’t the only narrative that we see when immigration is discussed in the public sphere. At the end of August many media outlets ran with the story of Mercy Baguma, a Ugandan asylum seeker who had died in Scotland, after losing her right to work when her leave to remain expired. The focus of the news was the tragic loss of life and the young child who was now without a mother.

In 2015 similarly shocking news hit the headlines with the death of 3-year old Alan Kurdi whose family was attempting to reach Greece after fleeing the war in Syria. The Daily Mail this time calling for ‘politicians to end months of political wrangling and do more to help those caught in the crisis’.

When we look at these stories it becomes apparent that the common narratives around asylum often fall very neatly into one of two interpretations. Either representing asylum seekers as a group to be feared, who are entering the UK at alarming rates and posing some intangible threat to the country, or, as a group to be pitied, with the focus being on the devastating stories of individual asylum seekers.

The problem here is that the experiences and identity of asylum seekers is so broad and diverse that any narrative that attempts to ignore this breadth is not working with facts at all. With both models (both those that lack empathy but also those that reduce a person’s identity purely to the suffering they have endured) we forget to humanise the individuals involved. This means we are never able to enter into a meaningful discussion about how best to help those seeking asylum, nor do we ever find the space to discuss how asylum seekers may enrich the UK culturally and economically.

A new narrative is needed, one that is more nuanced. Only then can the UK engage with asylum seekers in a way that is constructive, allowing us all to work towards a future that is better for everyone.

To achieve this it is important that we call upon politicians and journalists to take more care when discussing asylum and that we consider the simple things we can all do to improve our own understanding of this complex issue; 

  • Rejecting over-simplistic narratives by looking at the evidence

Reporting that suggests that the UK is taking in too many asylum seekers rarely looks at the UK within a global context. Reports from the UNHCR detail that by the end of 2018 there were 126,720 refugees in the UK. In comparison, in that same year, Turkey was home to 3.7 million. Likewise, claims that asylum seekers are dangerous has repeatedly been shown to be untrue. The United Nations have shown that there is no link between immigration to Europe and terrorism and there is no evidence to show that countries that have more refugees have more crime.

  • Exploring the diversity of asylum seekers and their experiences

Secondly, we could actively work to learn more about the varied experiences and identities of those seeking asylum. For instance, many in the UK are not aware that people such as Prince Phillip or Rita Ora are in fact refugees. If we were more forthcoming in discussing this aspect of people’s identity, then perhaps we could paint a more truthful picture of asylum and the ways in which asylum seekers enrich British life.

  • Looking for the voices of asylum seekers and refugees

Finally, we should be willing to put the narrative in to the hands of asylum seekers and refugees themselves. Instead of trying to build a narrative about asylum seekers perhaps we should be rebuilding this narrative with asylum seekers. Rarely do we find reporting on this issue that actually includes the voices of those involved. When talking about her book “Dying to Live: Stories on the Road to Freedom” Danielle Vella quotes Abdel, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, ‘I feel we have to speak out. Otherwise people will continue to have the same idea about us, the idea they imagine, not the truth, and if you don’t change that idea, it will stay.’

EqualiTeach’s workshop ‘Home from Home’ explores migration and related issues with young people in KS2-4. Find out more here.

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