Asylum in the UK

DSC_0674Asylum is a critical policy issue for many nation states as they negotiate a tension between seeking to offer protection to refugees and seeking to control and enforce the borders of their sovereign territory. Often conflated with issues of security, immigration and belonging, asylum in the UK has been a political issue since entry to the country began to be restricted with the 1905 Aliens Act. It was however, only in the late 1990s that asylum took a central role in political discussions and the public imaginary in the UK, fuelled by a combination of rising asylum applications across Europe, shifting policy measures and legislation, and a national media concerned with the apparently ‘soft touch’ nature of the British asylum system (Gibney 2004). Rising numbers of asylum applications in the late 1990s and early 2000s were thus taken as symptoms of wider failures to secure and control sovereign borders, feeding into a series of concerns over identity, sovereignty and citizenship. Here I want to briefly outline the contours of recent approaches to asylum in the UK that form the backdrop for the Producing Urban Asylum project.

Public and political pressure began to build around asylum in the late 1990s, following complaints from local authorities in the south-east of England that they were baring the burden of a rising asylum seeker population, leading to localised disturbances and tensions (Spencer 2009:342). These concerns, relayed through local and national media as reflective of an emergent asylum ‘crisis’, pushed the New Labour government into reviewing immigration and asylum policy and producing the 1998 White Paper Fairer, Faster and Firmer: A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum. The White Paper, which in large part became the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, marked a policy shift from managing the asylum process at a distance to attempting to more fully regulate and restrict the asylum process. This shift had two key intentions; firstly, to use restrictions on welfare support and increased visa controls to deter potential asylum seekers from arriving in the UK, and secondly, to use these restrictions, together with the increased use of deportation and detention measures, as a means to project a ‘tough’ image on asylum to both press and public alike.  Since the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the story of Britain’s relation to asylum has thus largely been one of increasing restrictions, controls and the experimentation with various means of detention, dispersal and, above all, deterrence. Such policies have centred upon the dispersal of asylum seekers away from London and the South East of England and to a wide range of towns and cities across the rest of the country. Alongside this, the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 separated the support available to asylum seekers in the UK from the mainstream welfare system, establishing ‘Section 95’ support at a lower level than mainstream welfare provision and offering dispersal accommodation on a ‘no choice’ basis. The distinctions established between asylum support and the welfare entitlements of UK citizens reflect a political will to appear ‘tough’ on asylum and to use welfare as a means of deterrence, whilst attempting to combat claims of benefit tourism.

With applications for asylum still rising in the early 2000s, to a peak of 84,130 applications in 2002, the Government published the White Paper Secure Borders, Safe Haven: Integration with Diversity in Modern Britain in an effort to both speed up and further tighten the asylum system. This again led to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, which included measures to streamline the asylum appeals process through allowing for only one right to appeal, efforts to increase removals of those whose applications fail, the introduction of asylum registration and identity cards and a system of managed removal centres to work alongside an expanding estate of detention centres. The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 also removed the right to work for asylum seekers in the UK, and controversially excluded failed asylum seekers from receiving healthcare and support twenty-one days after a negative asylum decision in an effort to encourage voluntary returns. This policy led to a rising population of destitute asylum seekers in dispersal cities as individuals were unable or unwilling to return to their countries of origin yet had been denied access to further support. The message of deterrence conveyed by such a mix of punitive measures was matched in the political rhetoric of both the 2001 and 2005 general elections as both major political parties sought to present their policy positions as attempting to ‘crackdown’ on ‘abuses’ of the asylum system whilst maintaining the right to asylum for those perceived as ‘worthy’ refugees (Sales 2002).

Following the 2005 general election, the Home Office introduced plans for a New Asylum Model to speed up the asylum process and place greater emphasis on rapid integration or removal. In the context of significant backlogs of asylum cases in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, The New Asylum Model was designed to encourage rapid decision-making on new asylum cases from 2007 onwards, thereby allowing resources to be focused on clearly backlog cases. The New Asylum Model continued the trend towards punitive asylum policy in developing tighter reporting arrangements for dispersed asylum seekers, leading many applicants to be required to report to police stations on a daily basis. Whilst the increased efficiency that the New Asylum Model promised was cautiously welcomed by some refugee groups, significant concerns were raised over the quality of decision-making associated with this emphasis on streamlined and rapid decision-making, not least as this model allowed a much shorter time for claimants to gather evidence in support of their claims. As a result,  the level of successful asylum appeals in the UK, which had ranged from 17% to 23% over much of the 2000s, rose to 28% in 2009 and 27% in 2010 as the decisions of the New Asylum Model took effect (Blinder 2011:5).

The impact of these policies has been twofold. Firstly, the UK has seen a dramatic fall in the number of asylum applications since 2001. Asylum applications peaked in 2002 with 84,130 applications and have fallen to 21,785 applications in 2012, and whilst this is a significant drop, it mirrors Europe-wide trends on asylum applications, which show a similar peak between 1999-2002 (Blinder 2011). As such, it is hard to determine the extent to which these punitive policies have directly led to this fall in applications, not least because a range of international factors beyond the authority of any single nation state shape forced migration patterns. In particular, evidence suggests that welfare does not act as a significant incentive in asylum seeker decision making processes (Crawley 2010; Robinson and Segrott 2002) and it is therefore questionable to what extent restrictions on welfare act as a deterrent. Indeed, the role of welfare restrictions may instead be interpreted more effectively as moves to assuage public opinion and tabloid pressure over the perceived benefit provided to asylum seekers in the UK.

(Source: Home Office 2013)

Alongside this fall in asylum applications, the number of asylum seekers supported under Section 95 has fallen from 80,123 at the end of 2003, to 20,182 at the end of 2012. Therefore, since the implementation of the asylum dispersal system in 2000, numbers of asylum seekers accommodated across the UK have fallen, as asylum seekers receive leave to remain, are detained or deported, or reach the end of their appeal process and face return or destitution. With the pressure of asylum applications receding, there should therefore be less pressure placed on accommodation and other resources by comparison to the politically charged discussions of dispersal tensions that marked the early 2000s (Spencer 2009). However, this does not fully take into account the second significant impact of these policy shifts, which is that through such measures an image of asylum was produced that associates asylum with criminality, illegitimacy, terrorism and a drain on welfare resources. A positive feedback loop might be seen to exist here between the negative portrayals of asylum in many parts of the mainstream media in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where asylum was presented as indicative of a border at breaking point, a crisis of ‘bogus’ claims and ‘illegal’ entry, and public policies which attempted to pacify and respond to such headlines.

(Source: Home Office 2013)

Whilst successive governments have thus had some success in reducing the numbers of asylum seekers applying within the UK and the numbers subsequently supported and dispersed, a key legacy of these policies has been in legitimising representations of asylum as a national ‘problem’ or ‘emergency’ in need of a rapid response. Throughout this time period of legislative change, there was a prevailing anti-asylum mood within much of the national press, centred upon the numbers of asylum seekers coming to the UK and being supported, the level of benefits such groups were able to access and the threats they were perceived to bring with them. Thus between 1999 and 2004 stories in the UK press linked asylum seekers to an array of threats to British society, including the spread of HIV infections and other contagious diseases, rising crime rates through an influx of foreign ‘criminal gangs’ using asylum as a ‘soft’ entry route to the country, a near constant drain on public resources and housing, and accusations of killing and eating the nations swans and donkeys (Darling 2008; Lynn and Lea 2003).

The shifting nature of asylum legislation across the 2000s was in part a response to such stories, as the New Labour government attempted to placate an anti-asylum press through restrictive policy measures. Yet, one effect of this changing legislation was that asylum retained a high public and political profile, as New Labour sought to keep asylum on the agenda as a means to ‘reassure the public that they were bringing migration under control’ (Spencer 2009:348). Continual policy shifts and punitive measures thus represented an attempt to control the public mood and press agenda over asylum, often with limited success. In particular, some measures proved counterproductive in fuelling the antipathy they sought to address. For example, the practice of removing the right to work from asylum seekers as a deterrent to potential migrants, served to reinforce tabloid narratives of asylum seekers as reliant on state welfare and resources. This, coupled with tabloid stories of how asylum seekers were ‘abusing’ the welfare system and the use of images to accompany such stories that focused on asylum seekers forming long queues for support, fuelled an image of asylum seekers as demanding benefits that UK citizens would not receive, thereby challenging perceived ideas of fairness, equality and the expectations of the citizen.

(Source: ‘Get Asylum Here’ The Sun, 19/05/03; ‘Asylum seekers to get ‘amnesty’’ The Daily Mail 18/12/07)

Similarly, moves to detain asylum seekers in prison facilities and removal centres behind barbed wire fences served to perpetuate an association between forced migration and criminality, implying that the UK should be fearful of such individuals. This policy, alongside the widespread use of images of asylum seekers ‘breaking into’ the country, through scaling fences and concealment in vehicles, in many media reports, presented an image of illegality and illegitimacy that served to construct asylum as an inherently suspicious, clandestine and threatening activity (Lynn and Lea 2003). With this form of invasive threat attached to the image of asylum, it was perhaps inevitable that asylum seekers would be conflated with illegal immigration and terrorism, as asylum came to be viewed in both press and political discourses as a potential avenue for terror attack (Home Office 2002). The Leveson Report on media ethics highlighted the connections drawn here between asylum and terrorism and asylum and welfare abuse as indicative of the press hostility and xenophobia that surrounds the reporting of asylum in many parts of the British press. What is significant here is that, partly in response to such representations of asylum, many of the restrictive measures that emerged throughout the 2000s did not simply reduce asylum application numbers, they also served to reinforce an image of the asylum seeker as a threat. The very need for such a deterrent and the political rhetoric that accompanied it, added legitimacy to those who sought to present asylum as a matter of criminality, deviancy and welfare dependency.

(Source: ‘Looking for a way in’ The Sunday Times 26/01/03; ‘Oh Grandmamma! What big teeth you have!’ The Daily Telegraph, 16/01/03)

This is not to suggest however that this is the only account of asylum present within the UK, rather various media outlets have actively campaigned against the increasing use of violence in detention and deportation actions. Most notably both The Guardian and The Independent have run extensive features on anti-deportation campaigns and have highlighted a number of cases of abuse within deportation practices. Similarly, while the national press is often hostile to asylum seekers, local press coverage has often been more positive as local newspapers have played key roles in many dispersal cities in organising anti-deportation campaigns for specific individuals and families. However, such positive accounts rarely hold a dominant relationship to the national mood, and certainly run counter to much of the political rhetoric that surrounds asylum.

Since the highpoint of asylum applications to the UK in 2002, asylum application and support numbers have steadily fallen as successive governments have sought to ‘toughen’ the asylum process, in part as a response to media pressure to deal with a perceived asylum ‘crisis’. The representation of asylum alongside concerns over immigration and the effectiveness of the UK Border Agency, has meant that asylum becomes one strand within an image of the perpetual emergency that faces the borders of the country. One impact of the legislative changes of the 2000s around immigration and asylum was to highlight the inefficiencies of state authority in this area as the Immigration and Nationality Directorate had to accommodate six Acts of Parliament in less than ten years, making strategic planning incredibly difficult (Spencer 2009). The dissolution of this Directorate in 2007 and its replacement with the Border and Immigration Agency, followed a year later by the replacement of this body with the UK Border Agency in 2008, served to perpetuate an image of reactive and inefficient government, always struggling to keep up with events. In this context, as recent controversies over UK border checks have shown, the Home Office are seen to lurch from one crisis to the next, whether that be accusations of bogus asylum claims, an asylum backlog and claims of a ‘secret’ amnesty, failures in high profile deportation cases or the wholesale closure of UKBA as ‘unfit for purpose’.

It is within this maelstrom of perceived crisis aversion and emergency response that asylum has been situated within the shifting policy landscape of the past decade, as new models, approaches and restrictions have been put in place. The Producing Urban Asylum project seeks to intervene within this context to explore how the discursive representation of asylum seekers through such media narratives and policy frameworks serves to create and condition experiences of asylum in four UK cities. Asking how the varied policies that surround asylum support and decision-making affect both asylum seekers and those service providers, activists and local authorities they engage with is thus critical to making sense of the urban geographies of asylum. Whilst this brief review has touched on some of the key trends and images of asylum across the last decade, this project aims to explore how such policies, images and representations shape relationships with the cities asylum seekers are dispersed to. The Producing Urban Asylum project takes the view that to understand asylum in the UK there is a need to understand how abstract discussions over dispersals, numbers, ‘bogus claimants’, welfare and application figures influence and are shaped by the histories, geographies and interactions of those cities that accommodate asylum seekers at any given moment. To do so is to both consider how the policies of the last decade produce relationships between cities and asylum seekers and to consider how such relationships might speak back to the process of forming asylum policy and informing public discussions over asylum. This means asking what the UK might learn from the experiences, negotiations and frictions of dispersal cities. It is to this task that Producing Urban Asylum is orientated.



Blinder, S. (2011) Migration to the UK: asylum Migration Observatory Briefing, COMPAS, University of Oxford

Crawley, H. (2010) Chance or choice? Understanding why asylum seekers come to the UK Refugee Council Report, Refugee Council, London

Darling, J. (2008) Cities of refuge: asylum and the politics of hospitality Unpublished PhD thesis, Durham University

Gibney, M.J. (2004) The politics and ethics of asylum Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Home Office (2002) Secure borders, safe haven: integration with diversity in modern Britain Home Office, London

Home Office (2013) Immigration statistics: October to December 2012 Home Office National Statistics, London

Lynn, N. and Lea, S. (2003) ‘A phantom menace and the new Apartheid’: the social construction of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom Discourse & Society 14(4) 425-452

Robinson, V. and Segrott, J. (2002) Understanding the decision-making of asylum seekers Home Office Study 243, Home Office research, Development and Statistics Directorate, London

Sales, R. (2002) The deserving and the undeserving? Refugees, asylum seekers and welfare in Britain Critical Social Policy 22(3) 456-478

Spencer, S. (2009) Immigration in Seldon, A. (ed) Blair’s Britian 1997-2007 Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 341-360


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