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Who counts as a refugee?
Who counts as a refugee?

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2 Personal lives

We start our exploration of the interrelationship of personal lives and social policy with personal stories.

Activity 1

Read Extracts 1, 2 and 3 below, and make notes on areas of similarity and difference. What questions are raised about the relationship between personal lives and social policy?

Extract 1: Lotte and Wolja, 1938

On September 1st 1938, Lotte arrived at Harwich in England to join Wolja, the man she was going to marry. They had known each other for two years in Germany, and wanted to make their lives together, knowing that, as Jews, this would have to be outside Germany, the land of their birth and their identity. They both came from non-observant Jewish families, but since 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, they had gradually, but systematically, lost rights and opportunities to work.

In 1932, aged 19, Lotte had entered Berlin University to study medicine, but she was expelled in 1934. Wolja had completed his education, including in 1935 his PhD in Mathematics and Physics, but as a Jew he was unable to obtain work; he lived with his parents on their savings. Although born in Berlin, his father came from Romania and his mother from Poland. He grew up with Romanian citizenship, was naturalized as a German citizen in 1932, but lost this citizenship again in 1935, under new laws designed to preserve the ‘purity’ of the German ‘race’.

Lotte and Wolja knew that their lives could also be threatened in the future. Making a decision to leave was one thing; finding a way of doing it was another. At the time that they met, Lotte was living with her widowed mother in Berlin, planning to join her older sister and husband in Palestine. Meeting and falling in love with Wolja changed these plans. As a stateless person, with little money and poor eyesight, he had difficulty finding a place of refuge. For Switzerland he needed to fit a quota based on ‘nationality’; the USA refused him a visa because of his poor eyesight, despite his finding affluent relatives to ‘vouch’ for him. Eventually in May 1938 Wolja was granted permission to enter the UK ‘to seek work’, following the decision of the British government to grant visas to ‘desirable’ immigrants such as qualified scientists.

For four months Lotte made arrangements for her own departure to England, organizing her mother's journey to Palestine, and packing and shipping as much of their joint possessions as she could. As a woman, she could seek to enter the UK on a ‘domestic permit’, her only option as she lacked professional qualifications. So she had to wait for Wolja to find a family in England who would take her. The letters between them during this time reveal many of their feelings. He was extremely anxious and lonely in England. Although he had some friends (other German Jewish refugees), they tended to be in couples, already married. He relied on these friends and on Jewish refugee organizations for financial support. Despite his scientific qualifications, and his feeling of how much he could offer to the UK professionally, it was difficult to find work. He was registered in the UK as an ‘alien’, with temporary permission to stay. He did not know whether he would still be here when Lotte arrived, or more generally what would become of them both. Her letters express anxiety about having to do domestic work. She writes: ‘I have never enjoyed housework, it is not in my nature; please try to find me somewhere to work with children’. Both had learned English in school; they thought they would be safe in England, and could probably find work; if not they would try America again. They married in July 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II. He fought a 5 year battle with the Home Office to be recognized as stateless, rather than German, and was naturalized as a British citizen in 1947.

(E. Saraga, 2003, unpublished biography: reproduced with kind permission of the author)

Extract 2: Victor, 1987

The following [paragraphs] recount my seven-year battle with the British government to obtain political asylum, the destructive force this process has on human dignity and human rights, and the ultimate journey into exile …

… In September 1984, the Air New Zealand jumbo jet on which I was travelling landed at Gatwick Airport. Shortly afterwards, I stepped out of the business-class seat (courtesy of Reuters News Agency) into a cold and wintery England, leaving behind the warmth of my native Fiji. The cold of England was, however, warmed with English hospitality …

… As I got into the car for Oxford University, it finally dawned on me that I was now in England, a country which had not only existed in my history and geography school books but had dominated every aspect of my life in Fiji … Now, I felt as if the Empire's stepchild had come ‘home’, even though I had only arrived to study on a Reuter's fellowship at Oxford.

Although Fiji had shrugged off British colonial rule in 1970, … The Queen remained the constitutional head of Fiji … and Her Majesty continued to stare in our faces from the coins and notes in circulation in post-independent Fiji …

[But] … democracy died in Fiji on 14 May 1987 and with it, my hopes of returning home.

It was also the beginning of a long and seemingly endless struggle to secure refuge in my ‘imagined home’ in England, and to join a long line of political dissidents in exile …

But who would provide refuge to me? The most obvious and immediate host was Her Majesty's Government in Great Britain. From my childhood … I was taught to sing ‘God Save Our Gracious Queen’. Now I was singing to Her Majesty's British Government, ‘Save Me From the Dictators in Fiji’. Were they going to respond to my call? Was there protection under the Union Jack (also fluttering in the left-hand corner of the Fiji flag) from the winds of Fijian racism? Was I going to be reluctantly transformed from Reporter to Refugee?

The ordeal of waiting for a decision for asylum is a long, arduous, and painfully frustrating experience. Indeed, the British Home Office took three long years to relay its initial decision. On 8 August 1990, it notified me that the application for refugee status had been carefully considered but refused. No reasons were furnished. However, I was granted exceptional leave to remain (ELR) in the United Kingdom until 8 August 1991 … because of ‘the particular circumstances of the case’ …

… The advantages of full refugee status, as opposed to exceptional leave, are not very great, but I wished to appeal nonetheless …

Seven years after I made my original claim, I was finally granted Refugee Status under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees …

(Lal, 1997, pp. 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 49–50)

Extract 3: Françoise, 2001

Françoise, a 21-year-old from Cameroon, arrived in the UK in June 2001. She spent most of her pregnancy in detention. When we met, she and her baby had been locked up for five of his six months. Françoise was either sold or given away when she was four years old, and brought up in a Muslim farming family. When she was 17, she was told that she would become one of her foster father's wives. When she refused, she was locked up and beaten. She ran away.

On arrival in Britain, she was held at Oakington detention centre, where asylum seekers are fast-tracked through the process by in-house lawyers. Her asylum plea was rejected and she was dispersed to Leeds, pending an appeal. Soon after arriving, she discovered that she was pregnant. When Françoise got to the Leeds address given to her by the Home Office National Asylum Support Service (Nass), she was told that there was no room and so was sent on elsewhere. Her lawyer at the time told her that she didn't need to inform Nass because he had her details and would keep in touch.

Her baby was born prematurely, at 34 weeks. She spent three weeks in hospital in Leeds, then went back to the flat she'd been allocated. A week later, ‘They came for me at 7am. They said, “Your case is over, you are going into detention.” They started to put my things into bags. I could not even tell the health visitor that we were going.’

Unfortunately, her asylum paperwork had not kept up with her and notification of her appeal hearing had been sent to the wrong address. It was rejected without her having a chance to speak for herself. ‘She fell into the gap that many dispersed and bewildered asylum seekers experience,’ says her current lawyer, Eileen Bye.

In Françoise's absence, her case was turned down and she was detained pending removal. It doesn't seem to have mattered that she knew nothing of the hearing, let alone that she had a month-old premature baby. ‘How can they remove me when they have not heard my case?’ she asks. ‘What will happen to him if I go back? I have no money, no family.’

(McFadyean, 2002)


Although we have only had glimpses of Lotte's and Wolja's, Victor's and Françoise's stories, we can imagine the deep emotional pain of the series of losses they experienced in either being forced to leave, or being unable to return to, their home, family, friends and the familiarity of everyday life. Undoubtedly their pain was exacerbated by the uncertainty of their status in the UK.

We can pick out some similarities and differences in their stories:

  • Lotte, Wolja and Françoise were all young, in their twenties;

  • All four people fled, or in Victor's case did not return to, their country of origin because they feared for their lives.

  • For Lotte, Wolja and Victor it was not easy to find a place of refuge; they came to, or stayed in, the UK because it offered safety, rather than choosing it specifically as a destination. Even Victor, for whom the UK was already his ‘imagined home’, did not envisage staying permanently.

  • These four people fled at different historical times, came from very different parts of the world and experienced very different kinds of persecution. Lotte and Wolja, persecuted as ‘Jews’, came from Europe; Victor could not return home to Fiji because of his political activities; and Françoise fled from Cameroon because of persecution within her family.

  • Lotte, Wolja and Victor were all well educated. Wolja had a PhD, and Victor was a reporter who had gained a Reuter's fellowship to study at Oxford University; Lotte's education had been interrupted.

  • Gender played a key part in these stories. Whereas Wolja could come to the UK to ‘seek work’, Lotte could only come on a ‘domestic permit’, although this was not her choice of work. Françoise's experiences, the reasons for her flight and her time in detention were structured through her gender and the domestic practices of gender in her place of origin.

  • The language and terminology have changed. Lotte and Wolja were subject to controls as ‘aliens’. In the 1990s, policies referred to ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘refugees’, with a crucial distinction being made between these two categories of people.


He was carrying only

His papers,

His caution,

A friend's farewell,

A suitcase too small to be seen,

And his misgivings of what the road might conceal.

‘Flight’, a poem written in 1979 by Mahdi Muhammed Ali, an Iraqi poet living in exile in Damascus since the late 1970s; translated by Salaam Yousif (Source: Weissbort, 2003, p. 13)

These four personal stories come from very different sources. The story of Lotte and Wolja is constructed from their children's memories of stories they had told, together with information in letters and documents found after their deaths. Victor wrote his own story in order ‘to sketch in the human dimension of the ordeal (and the peril) in applying for political asylum in Great Britain’ (Lal, 1997, p. 62). Françoise's story is taken from an article in The Guardian newspaper in 2002. Although their lives were shaped by social policy, they did not simply accept its effects. They all experienced themselves as people with needs and rights that they would pursue. We return to these stories many times, both to explore further this relationship between personal lives and social policy, and to consider what kind of ‘knowledge’ or evidence such stories constitute.